The Belfast Bikes and trying to understand mindless vandalism…

The Irish Times reported recently that 210 or more than one-third of the 576 ‘Belfast Bikes’ had either been stolen or so damaged that they had been taken out of service. They contrasted this with the similar scheme in Dublin, where only twelve bikes were stolen or damaged in the first four years of the scheme.

Belfast City Council said the problem was due to ‘mindless vandalism’; the Irish Times noted that the bike locks in Dublin were more substantial than those in Belfast, so that improved locks, together with CCTV, in Belfast might ‘solve’ the problem.

That solution implies that the ultimate cause of the problem in Belfast is feeble locks; it ignores the possibility that such ‘mindless vandalism’ might not occur in Dublin (though it probably does), or the that the problem isn’t the ease with which bikes can be stolen, rather it is an easy opportunity for the release of discontent. It fails to attempt to understand the why of what ‘mindless vandalism’ is.

To say it is ‘mindless’, while entirely understandable, implies that there is no reason, no explanation for the vandalism, that it is simply a ‘given’, or even ‘just so’. Understanding why it happens isn’t easy or simple, yet is surely the way to overcome the problem, for otherwise we bury our heads in the sand.

Vandalism is generally defined the deliberate and wanton damage or destruction of other peoples’ property; mostly we think it is a ‘bad thing’. Yet the artist Bansky can be described as a vandal, as can also the Apostrophiser. Cohen attempted a typology of the causes of vandalism in 1973 (here); an analysis rather than a complete explanation.

The set of people who cause ‘mindless vandalism’ to these bikes is very probably adolescent youths and young men. These people are usually typified as being angry, frustrated, alienated and bored. To really understand their vandalism I suggest we need to understand these characteristics, and what cultural phenomena drive them.

This type of vandalism is typically seen in inner cities where the individual is anonymous. (Of course, such vandalism can occur elsewhere; I’m painting with a broad brush here.) Contrast this with our ancestors; they hunted and foraged in smallish groups, typically thought to be up to 150 individuals. Dunbar has studied this number, finding that in such groups social harmony is present until the group expands beyond this, when it splits into two. Such up to 150-memberships are also seen where cohesion, a group reliance, is necessary, such as in Roman and even present day armies. All members know one another, no one is excluded. Compare this with today’s conurbations; then think of ‘gangs’.

What of the anger, boredom and frustration? Perhaps this is related to the major changes in the adolescent brain; any parent of a teenager will have experienced this. This often collides with ‘authority’, and the frequent use of cannabis almost certainly only increases their feelings, their discontent. One way to counteract this is by ‘team building’. English public schools often emphasise team sports, and if the idea today is on teamwork, sports originated as a way of getting the kids fit for army service, and, more importantly, as a way to tire them out, a preventative against homosexuality.

And those kids who don’t go to public schools, what do they have to look forward to? Those who don’t go to university could expect, in the past, a straightforward entry to the shipyard or similar major employer. Or if that wasn’t available, they simply emigrated. And today? While we don’t have the appalling levels of youth unemployment such as in Greece or Spain, where it can be almost 50%, we do not have employers going crazy because of the lack of potential (skilled) employees. Further, it’s also clear that the ‘middle’ is being squeezed, that is skilled craftsmen and women are being replaced by automation, so that jobs are more and more concentrated in the extremes. At the top, the requirements are no longer A-levels, nor even a bachelors degree, but at least a masters or even a PhD. And at the bottom, the jobs are increasingly minimum-wage and zero hours; such insecure jobs aren’t really anyway to build a personal future. And where can the ‘average Joe’ emigrate to today? The usual places are largely closed. America has limits to immigration, perhaps even a ‘wall’.

The response to vandalism is so often to punish the offender by a prison sentence, or even a ‘short sharp shock’. This is a reflection of common law, where property is somehow more important than people. And those that call for such punishment can be said to exhibit ‘mindless authoritarianism’ without ever wondering why it all happened.

Our politicians, and not just locally, do give the appearance of relying on ‘mindless ideology’; evidence isn’t wanted or sought, nor is thought. They rely on soundbites such as ‘crocodiles’, or ‘ghaeilge’. I don’t dismiss these as trivial; rather they ought to be yesterday’s problems, things that should have been sorted long ago (along with many other issues). We can look to the past, but we cannot influence or change it; we are always in the present, but we can try to influence the future.

We should see the ‘mindless vandalism’ to bikes as a symptom of a disease, not as the disease itself. We ought to think about the disease, and its causes, rather than ‘treating’ the symptom. And by ‘we’ I don’t just mean our politicians, but our society as a whole; while we elect them to their roles to perform on our behalf, and for our and not their benefit, and we ought to expect that they will do just that.


  • Conchúr Ó Conghaile

    Some people are just jerks

  • George

    Mindless vandalism certainly does happen in Dublin and no one was more surprised than Dubliners themselves that the Dublin Bikes worked so seamlessly. It didn’t go so well for the artistic cows…

  • Gopher

    Belfast Bikes is a great scheme and I hope it is expanded further along the main routes. Shame the scheme has to contend with such levels of vandalism.

    Things to make the scheme better would be

    1/ Manditory for every car park over a certain amount of spaces to provide space for a bike station

    2/ More stations further along the main roads like Newtownards, Ormeau and Lisburn Roads. Presently the radius is too small.

    3/ Desiganated hub stations with more bikes to rent, some stations are hopelessly over subscribed.

    4/ Signage pointing you to nearest hub

    5/ Adjacent coucils to adopt the scheme to bring both Loughshores and Lagan Valley into play.

  • Dan

    There’s little respect for the law in NI.

    Would anyone expect a deterrent sentence be passed down on anyone convicted of vandalising the scheme?
    …if the cops could be bothered investigating in the first place.

  • Zorin001

    Well it was inevitable really wasn’t it, some of the locations the bikes are located in aren’t exactly salubrious (would you walk through the square at the back of Fibbers after dark?)

  • SDLP supporter

    I think that some of the sociological interpretation is just psycho-babble. I am Belfast born and bred, but I’ve knocked around the world a bit. I’m not one bit proud of Belfast and I suspect there are more dirt-bags per square mile here than most places I have been to.

    Let’s put it this way. There has been compulsory education to at least a basic level in the UK since 1870. There are unparalleled educational opportunities here, many of them free. If parents and their children can’t see after nearly 150 years that education is necessary, then I despair, and I’m talking about GCSE maths, English and maybe a science.

    I don’t have a hell of a lot of sympathy for kids whose brain chemistry has been altered by alcohol or cannabis, and I suspect that a lot of kids have inherited foetal alcohol syndrome, which is not their fault. At the end of the day, though, when it comes to drug-taking etc people need to know that they’re making choices and be aware of the consequences.

    Finally, in the Assembly last year it was revealed that 30,000 EU nationals were employed in the NI agri-food industry. Good luck to these people, they are welcome in our society, they respect themselves and others, they are punctual and hard-working. But it does beg the question as to why at least some of these jobs can’t be done by locals?

  • Dan

    …because any attempt to tighten the benefits culture is resisted tooth and nail by the sdlp as an attack on the vulnerable?

  • john millar

    Its society which is at fault.

    People who are too stupid lazy or disinterested to take advantage of the free education (of their choice) provided have to be given an appropriate environment and support system to prevent them damaging property.

  • Zorin001

    “Finally, in the Assembly last year it was revealed that 30,000 EU nationals were employed in the NI agri-food industry. Good luck to these people, they are welcome in our society, they respect themselves and others, they are punctual and hard-working. But it does beg the question as to why at least some of these jobs can’t be done by locals?”

    Anecdotally I have heard that one of the major agri-food businesses here did make an attempt to recruit locally on fairly decent t&c’s but there was little interest shown by locals for what were seen as “poor quality” jobs. When they then turned to EU nationals those jobs were snapped up by Portuguese and Eastern Europeans who were more than happy for the work.

  • Nevin
  • Roger

    I remember reading a few years ago about The International Cow Parade street art show. It went all over europe but the vandalism in Dublin was so bad, the cows had to be moved inside buildings.

  • Korhomme

    If I may take the sociological psycho-babble a bit further; we live in cities because of settled agriculture, a recent development in terms of overall human existence. The individual in a city can be and often is anonymous in a way that is impossible in the country where everyone knows you and your business.

    It’s an ‘us’ and ‘them’ problem, where ‘them’ is the state, a remote organ governing our lives and over which we don’t seem to have much control. The ‘us’ don’t recognise that we are actually the state, that it is our taxes which go to fund Belfast Bikes and playgrounds. Thus, vandalism towards the bikes is actually an act of self-harm.

    Do you have any suggestions to improve this mind set?

  • Roger

    Add on … hard to believe that was 13 years ago already. Time marching mercilessly on. Too quick.

  • ted hagan

    i lived in France for ten years and don’t want to idealise it, but I saw little evidence of serous vandalism in towns and cities, or litter for that matter. People, young and old, seemed to have a greater respect and pride in their country. Of course there is also the fact that their is tougher law enforcement. and many more police officers.
    It is disheartening to see in this country wanton acts of vandalism like the destruction of the free bikes in Belfast, and just recently, the destruction at the People’s Park, in Ballymena. Perhaps it’s a hangover from the Troubles when all those ‘right-thinking’ politicians from all sides actively encouraged disruption, violence and mayhem whenever it suited them. Perhaps it’s just a reflection on our troubled, torn country.
    Or perhaps there’s just no excuses at all.

  • Korhomme

    In my locality, the council used to put up real trees for Christmas. And as soon as they were put up, the lads got out the chain saws and cut them down. Now, the council erects some hideous metal structures which seem to be vandal-proof. So far.

  • babyface finlayson

    All good ideas though they won’t really address the vandalism.
    Maybe some of the bikes could be located inside public buildings such as libraries or train stations where idiots could not have such easy access to them.
    It would restrict their usage to opening hours but that is probably when they are mainly used anyway.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    France is an interesting comparison. There are identifiable and sometimes measurable differences in French child development such as earlier potty training and earlier development of mathematical understanding through how French speakers count etc. even though the latter has also to apply to other French speaking countries and regions.
    One of the many criticisms of France by often the native French is that the country is very conformist and also very conservative. Anyone who has experienced a Parigot’s disapproving frown will wither.
    In addition, social alienation and delinquency is also pushed out to the suburbs – the banlieues towards which there is an expressed snobbery – les banlieusards – who will have behaviours projected onto them whether true or not. Lyons is something of an exception with a very deprived neighbourhood situated close to the city’s centre.
    Having said all this central Paris had an alarming crime rate from the late 19thc through to the late 80’s. Chirac as Mayor of Paris did a lot ‘to clean this up’. André Malraux did a great deal to gentrify French cities’ historical hearts from the 1960’s onwards.
    In short the problem persists but it is localised and contained.

  • Korhomme

    It’s a long time ago, but I lived in Switzerland for a couple of years. It really is a squeaky-clean country, though I thought that the German-speaking areas were just that bit cleaner than the French-speaking ones. There really wasn’t much vandalism of the ‘mindless’ variety. There was and is a mania for building in concrete; many railway cuttings are walled with concrete, and I’d guess that most of these are now covered in ‘graffiti’. Except that it’s really like street art, and some of it is impressive.

    Politics in Switzerland is very local, and I suggest that it’s this closeness to the people which means they understand that the ‘them’ of politics are really the ‘us’, and that to damage a public good is to inflict a wound on yourself. Some at least of this is reinforced in schools, not directly through lessons in ‘civic responsibility’ rather the kids learn that they as individuals are the ‘sovereign’ of their country. (It might be called a form of brainwashing if it were in North Korea, there it’s seen as a normal way to build a responsible citizen.)

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    An example of how lazy, incoherent and ad hoc town planning can produce unexpected consequences: demolish a building and declare it as a square. Our relationship with open spaces has to be different than that found in more agreeable climes because it rains more.
    Nonetheless I don’t feel threatened in the space you mention; I get my pizzas on Brunswick Street. Perception of danger is often different from the measurable risk.

  • doopa

    I imagine you weren’t hanging out in the right places then. Paris has lost hundreds of bikes to vandals.

  • Zorin001

    Perhaps, though I have seen enough instances of anti-social behaviour there over the years, I work round the corner and the women in my work don’t like walking through it in the darker Winter nights.

    I think the cheap off-licence round the corner doesn’t help, saying that the increased footfall with Sweet Afton and the Perch plus the building work seems to have made it a bit less intimidating.

  • Gopher

    As ever you can break the vandalism in two, the problem and the solution. To find a solution you need to know what the problem is and that you will only learn through statistics. Where, When and how are the bikes vandalised. Until the statistics of the specifics of the vandalism are known the solution is not.

  • In Belfast

    My thoughts as well, most problems I’ve had with the bikes (empty racks, locks not disengaging when I rightfully try to take one, bikes in a tatty state) have been at the more isolated stations, near the art college is another poor spot.

  • Zorin001

    Don’t talk, I was discussing the recent cold snap with a friend and reminiscing about that time a few years ago we had a week in July hotter than Spain. My friend had to remind me it was during the 2006 World Cup!

  • Max Wigg

    Cannabis increases vandalism, seriously? Why aren’t the canals of Amsterdam full of bikes?

  • Gavin Smithson

    It’s a peculiarly Irish British phenomenon. There are bigger cities with bigger problems all over the world but here, there r a hatred of all new nice things because deep down, we don’t think we deserve them. Vandalism is a form of societal self harm.

  • Gavin Smithson

    I 100% agree. Well said

  • Gavin Smithson

    Ive seen a lot of mindless violence and vandalism in Jordanstown committed by educated young men from well off rural backgrounds too.

  • AntrimGael

    The culture of trying to understand mindless violence and wanton destruction should be binned. Young people should know when something is right and wrong and giving them another excuse and shoulder to cry on just encourages some of them.
    There is a real scummy underclass in Belfast whose entire raison d’être is to make other peoples lives miserable and uncomfortable as possible. If they want something they rob and steal, if they see someone else enjoying something they wreck and destroy. If they see the public enjoying a bit of sunshine they will go and get a load of drink and drugs and ruin it for everyone. I do NOT want to understand or empathise with these knuckledraggers. I believe in giving people a second chance but after that throw the key away.

  • Katyusha

    They are.

    (I highly doubt the habit of chucking bikes into the canals has anything to do with cannabis, though).

  • Zig70

    They should have a sign on them, ‘Not for use on pavement, unless the pavement is confusingly a combined cycle pedestrian pavement’ should be space for that under the Coke sign. Actually the Coke sponsorship may be a factor in the lack of respect shown.

  • Gavin Smithson

    Wow and there’s me thinking you were a republican and a true friend of the dispossessed.

    Who created the underclass and what forces maintain their existence and before we start blaming Tories and England may I point out there’s an underclass in Naples, Stockholm, Paris, Ottawa and many other cities that were never under a Tory yoke

    To solve a problem the problem must be understood. Only by knowing what sustains a problem will we know what measures to take

  • aquifer

    Kids take risks and do silly stuff, but with resources this can be diverted into sports etc, Vocational training can be dire here. “a lot of kids have inherited foetal alcohol syndrome” If we cannot give women choice, at least provide young people with some competent sex education.

  • Surveyor

    Do they even bother to sign on any-more Dan? JSA for under 25’s is a paltry 58 quid per week or so, with all the hassle which goes with it.
    They could make that easily in one night selling various “substances”.

  • AntrimGael

    Difference between those who are genuinely dispossessed and lowlifes who are just full of badness. I know you are trying to shift blame for their existence on to Republicans but some people are just born evil without the influence of others… Lenny Murphy.

  • jporter

    I think in a wider western world context we’ve had a couple of generations of being flattered and infantilised by individualism while being supported by the state.
    Public space, public ownership and public institutions (contrary to decades of neoliberal dogma) can and do work extremely well, but only in an atmosphere of collective appreciation and responsibility. Indeed democracy can only work in such an atmosphere as well – everyone voting only for what benefits them personally doesn’t work for the country as a whole and has distorted electoral campaigning and policy making.
    In Northern Ireland in particular this mix is toxic – the state looms large, our self-importance as a region was fanned by the high media profile of our squabbles, most people have no concept of how dependent our lifestyle is on the funding of others.
    On an individual level you have the cliche of people feeling they are owed everything and must take responsibility for nothing.

  • Gavin Crowley

    The state can’t do much more than patiently replace the bikes (with engineering and architectural adjustments), and ask that those closest to the vandals help.
    Behind the 210 bikes are 1000 or more very individual stories and generalised and anonymous responses will be shallow and have no credibility.
    e.g. If you are sixteen and nobody, literally nobody, has ever admired you, praised you, expressed love for you then someone credible needs to look hard for the good in you, and express that, repeatedly. With patience that might remove one layer of the onion-skin. That’s the beginning of ‘us’ for 1 of the 1000.
    I know it’s psycho-babble.
    For a portion of them religion might provide that sense of worth if no-one else will.
    Over the course of 3 or 4 generations we might get somewhere. Great patience is needed.
    To those who say these kids are bad, because they also suffered the same and didn’t become vandals – I say, well done, I admire your strength. Not everyone is so strong, you are exactly the sort of person that should be trying to see the good in them, and finding a way to express is, because you have the credibility to do that.

  • Gavin Crowley

    I subsequently came across a Guardian article on the Pope’s TED talk []
    the full version being here []
    If you watch it, with the picture of the bike in the mud in your mind, it speaks to the Them and Us issue.

  • New Yorker

    Individuals of the age of reason principally govern their lives and are responsible for their actions. Unless you accept that fundamental premise, there can be no functioning society. Those who vandalize need to be held accountable and hopefully learn a lesson or remove them from society.

    History teaches us that some people are just bad and have to be dealt with accordingly.

  • Gopher

    I have suffered the not disengaging or terminals not capable of input, though it stiill does not distract from a great scheme.

    The website has a list of rental statistics and I would suggest that South and East Belfast is the way to extend the scheme whilst West and North Belfast seems to be failing. I would reinforce success. If vandalism has a spike in West and North Belfast stations I would suggest consolidation of those sites in a more secure location. I have not seen a bike in Winetavern street for rent in ages and Im guessing perhaps that location has been abandoned already.

  • Gopher

    I think that area is safe enough and I would be surprised if it tops the Bike vandalism chart.

  • Gopher

    Probably people from Belfast on stag weekends

  • In Belfast

    To be sure I love the scheme too, the odd wonky terminal hasn’t put me off.

    Perhaps a retreat from the N and W where the black cab reigns would be good, I can think of other better places to expand like the two ends of the Ormeau Park for example.

  • babyface finlayson

    More likely to be the drug pedal-ers.