As cyclists are all too aware, take your eyes off your bike for a couple of minutes in British cities and there's a chance it will vanish by the time you come back, even if it was locked up.
Yet despite a resurgence in bike thefts that coincides with the soaring popularity of two-wheeled peregrination, the thousands of public-hire bicycles recently added to London's streets have proved immune to larcenous attention.
Just five of the so-called "Boris Bikes" have been stolen since the hire scheme was launched two months ago. By comparison, the "Vélib" bike hire scheme in Paris has suffered the theft of 8,000 of its bicycles – 3,000 of them in the first six months after the launch in 2007. Even the residents of Montreal pilfered 50 in the first month.
When the London mayor, Boris Johnson, launched the scheme in July, he feared that the bikes would become targets for thieves who would steal them for profit or amusement. He predicted: "For the larrikins and yobs, these are going to be a badge of honour to transport to improbable places, like the Taj Mahal or Tiananmen Square." Yesterday, Mr Johnson said that he was "thrilled and rather pleasantly surprised" by the low theft rate of the hire bikes. "In darker moments, I had my fears. These bikes could have been dragged as trophies on stag do's to Bratislava, heaved up Everest or worse. But no. The good people of London hand them back when they've used them.
"Londoners' enthusiasm and inherent honesty is in encouraging contrast to light-fingered Parisians. Long may it continue." The 6,000 bicycles each cost about £900 but the security measures put in place have, so far, been successful at deterring the plunderous-minded. Bike thefts in the UK have risen recently with 23,178 being stolen in London in 2009, up from 17,609 in 2007. In Glasgow, 30 per cent of bike owners have had one stolen in the last five years and the British Crime Survey calculated that 439,000 were stolen nationwide in 2005-6. Stolen bike hotspots include Bristol, Oxford, Gloucester and Cambridge and figures from the Halifax suggest a bicycle is stolen every minute.
Ironically, one of the main lessons of the Paris scheme is thought to have informed security measures in London – paradoxically, that the bikes should not be leased with locks provided.
The locks in Paris gave a false sense of security and riders would happily leave the Vélibs chained to lamp posts and other street furniture while they wandered off to admire the sights. The locks were too easily cut or worked open.
In the London scheme, without locks, the bikes can only be secured at the 200 official docking stations, which are much tougher than most bike locks.
Other measures include making riders register their home addresses and providing credit card details so that £300 can be debited from their accounts should a bike go missing.
The low scrap value of the bikes is believed to be another factor in their unattractiveness to thieves. The aluminium in them, for instance, is only worth £35, a low return for the effort of stealing, transporting, dismembering and melting down a bike.
A spokesperson for Transport for London TfL said: "One of the keys to the success of the Mayor's flagship cycle hire scheme is the well-designed security systems. While we are not complacent about the low rate, we do believe it reflects the honesty of Londoners."