It is almost impossible to go on an Amsterdam city break without coming across thousands of bikes. But few visitors know of the tens of thousands of lost machines that lie in the outer suburbs are heading for the scrap yard unless owners can claim them.
Lost and stolen bikes in Amsterdam are housed in the Amsterdam Bicycle Pound (known as AFAC), and nearly 125,000 have ended up there since it opened five years ago.
The Netherlands, and Amsterdam in particular, is thought to have nearly as many bicycles as people but bike theft is a major headache for the police and bicycle owners.
Those sent to AFAC have been seized by the police or municipal workers after being found abandoned, stolen or illegally parked – more than 100 bikes arrive on trucks every single day. Many have obviously been dumped – they are rusty, without saddles or with buckled or lost wheels.
The obvious wrecks are kept for two weeks then melted down for the steel. But those in better condition – and some are expensive racing cycles that anyone would be proud to own – are kept for three months for owners to reclaim them.
If no one turns up to stake a claim the cycles are put up for auction and most are snapped up by dealers. Others are passed to workshops for the disabled where they are restored.
Incredibly, only about 40 per cent of bicycles are ever reclaimed and the market in second hand bikes is a lucrative one. One of the reasons for the low reclamation rate is the problem in finding a missing machine. For one thing the cycle pound is several kilometres outside Amsterdam city centre and is not well served by buses or trains.
Another is recalling exactly what the bike looks like and proving that you are the owner. Many people simply fall down on the detail, some even can’t remember the colour – and many cycles look remarkably similar.
Yet another is providing the key is the bicycle is locked – a surefire way of proving ownership as many illegally parked cycles still have the security lock attached.
Then there is the ten euros administration fee – but that is only if you can find your bike among the rows and rows of them that lie in the compound. It’s like a needle in a haystack. With tens of thousands of bikes it can take all day to hunt down yours.
Authorities to try to help. Bicycles are indexed by manufacturer colour and various other features. and they are listed on the internet for searching. But finding a missing bike is still no easy task and many simply give up in frustration.
Known as the bicycle capital of Europe, Amsterdam reckons it has around 780,000 inhabitants and an estimated 550,000 bikes. It is thought that nearly 50,000 of them are stolen every year. Bicycle theft is certainly the most common type of crime in Amsterdam.
But Amsterdam authorities are determined to tackle the problem. In 2002, bike thefts stood at about 16 per cent but this year is has been halved and they are on target for a six per cent theft rate by 2010.
Owners are now being urged to have identity number codes engraved onto the the bicycle frames and to register their machines. Amsterdam authorities hope this move and others will help cut the crime rate and keep Amsterdam a happy bicycle city.