Friday 18 July 2014

How cyclists can protect themselves from assault and robbery

Summary: Depending on the city you live in, where and when you ride and your vulnerability, you may be exposed to some risk of assault or robbery while cycling. The risk is often low but the impact on many people of an assault, robbery or other attack is massive. It can significantly reduce how much you use your bike and the stress-free enjoyment of riding when you do. Consequently, it is worth trying to minimise the risk of assault before it ever happens to you. This post provides advice on minimising the risks and measures you can take to better protect yourself. 2/2012 - Nights
CC by 2.0 - centralniak

1. What does a typical assault on a cyclist look like?
- A typical assault on a cyclist is: (a) at night time; (b) when you are isolated and few other people are in the immediate area (it may be very busy just around the corner or 100m away); (c) in a spot that provides limited escape options; (d) by multiple, young males on foot; (e) involves physically blocking your way, stopping your bike or pushing you off it; (f) involves sufficient threats and pushes/punches/kicks to acquire one or more of your money, wallet, phone, bike or other valuables; (g) does not usually involve serious harm if robbery is the motivation and the assault is not physically resisted; (h) usually ends within a few minutes when enough “swag” has been obtained to satisfy the criminals.

- A rare video of a typical urban assault on a cyclist exhibits all of these characteristics and is instructive to watch. Note that this video is from Baltimore, which has high urban assault rates, and exhibits more unnecessary violence than would be common in most other cities, including Melbourne.
> WBALTV: Bicyclist attacked on Guilford Avenue in Baltimore

YouTube: Attacked on Guilford Bike Route

- The single time I have been a victim of assault in Melbourne was at midnight in a dark area with no-one else within 100m in a spot that provided few escape options by three young males who pushed me off my bike and made escalating threats of violence until they got $20 off me – which in their case and the circumstances sufficed for them to leave. It lasted 2-3min in total and I rode off with the rest of my possessions to report it to a nearby police officer a few minutes later. The police officer did nothing to catch the criminals and claimed my story wasn’t credible. I filed an official report later at the main station and asked repeatedly to view CCTV footage from the adjacent Federation Square (where three young males were asked to move on around the same time) but Victoria Police never arranged that and took no further action. Presumably this is just one of thousands of assaults and robberies and there are many more serious crimes to prioritise.

Location of my assault: Bottom of ramp next to Federation Square

2. Assault and robbery risks to cyclists are similar to pedestrians
- In many ways, the risks and minimisation or protective measures for cycling are very similar to walking. Cycling, particularly at speed, can feel less exposed but unfortunately it is very easy for criminals to push you off your bike or grab you as to try to ride past or away. If you treat cycling as “fast walking with much less agility” you will have the correct mindset as to the inherent risks – it is certainly nothing like being in a car. Hence, I won’t cover all the obvious tips that would apply to walking such as preferring well-lit routes with people around.

- Unlike with walking, the threat is almost always ahead of you or as you pass. That’s because cyclists are most vulnerable in not being able to stop and turn instantly and take off in the other direction.

3. Minimise the increased risk factors over pedestrians
- The major increased risk factor over pedestrians is that your bike (and any attached equipment) are additional goods a criminal may find attractive to steal. In most places, stealing bikes is not heavily punished and the chances of being caught are low – unlike with car theft. There is no such thing as "Grand Theft Bicycle" even if the bicycle is worth more than a car. If the criminals are after your bike then it’s visible value, desirability and ease of disposal are likely differentiating features they may use in determining who or whether to attack.

4. Understand the high risk circumstances and take extra precautions
- In most cities where urban cycling is popular the risk of assault while riding is negligible most of the time. In Melbourne, it is very rare to be assaulted or robbed in daylight or when other people are nearby. Assaults with the aim of robbery are also most common at the times and places the typical criminals (young, unemployed males) are out or hanging out together – on particular streets or wandering around. I’ll refer to such situations as “high risk circumstances” – as the specifics may vary based on where you live, your trips and personal vulnerability. There are also common patterns to robberies and assaults:
Modus operadi in robbery incidents
A number of offender techniques (modus operandi) were identified for robberies. These included demanding money with menaces, approaching under the pretext of asking for something and bag snatching. Robbery victims were often alone and carrying something of value, and were generally robbed at places with low levels of guardianship. Of the robbery victims surveyed, 25 per cent indicated that they had consumed some alcohol prior to the incident. A smaller proportion of victims were injured in robberies involving weapons (19%) than in unarmed robberies (50%). More than one-third of robbery victims were not injured at all. Robbery offenders were just as likely to act alone as in pairs or groups and were often described by the victims as ‘drug addicts’, ‘homeless’ or ‘alcoholic.
See: Crime and Place: An analysis of assaults and robberies in inner Sydney
- The main seasonal aspect to street robberies and assaults is the weather as criminal groups spend much more time on the street when the weather is warm enough. In high risk areas you may wish to exploit the warmer weather to take safer routes even if longer.

5. Reduce your potential losses in high risk circumstances
- In low risk circumstances, it’s fine to ride your expensive bike and take your wallet (with lots of cash/cards) and other valuable possessions; nothing is going to happen in most places, most of the time. But when the risk is elevated then the value of your possessions does matter a lot. If you have little to lose by handing over your cash, wallet or even bike or running away on foot and leaving some or all of these possessions behind then you are far more likely to escape the assaults which could result in serious harm. The size of your potential losses does impact your willingness to hand over possessions, run away or put up physical resistance. If you’re riding a beater bike and have just $20 (no wallet or expensive phone) it’s no big deal giving these up readily if there is any risk of personal injury.

6. In high risk circumstances instantly avoid strangers trying to stop you or engage you
- When I got assaulted the three young men were initially (for a few seconds) smiling, unaggressive and trying to get my attention to stop. If I knew then what I know now I would have immediately recognised this as a threatening situation I had limited time to escape and immediately turned around and ridden away at speed. I made the mistake of thinking their unaggressive initial engagement meant if I tried to ignore them and proceed past that they wouldn’t physically assault me on the spot. This cost me the opportunity to escape and when I did run out of room and time and was trying to turn around they violently shoved me off the bike and surrounded me.

- If a young man or men (who could be a criminal) tries to engage you or get you to stop in a high risk circumstance, you should immediately ride away and deny them the chance of getting within range so they can knock you off.

7. Avoid groups of people loitering on the street or spreading out in front of you; If you have to pass ride far away from them at speed
- In high risk circumstances, a group of people loitering near the street is a danger sign even before you get close enough for them to engage you or confront you. An even bigger danger sign is if the group spreads out in front of you as you approach. The Baltimore video indicates that a very cautious cyclist looking out for these danger signs might have turned around before the group got close enough to stop them. Obviously it would be inconvenient and stressful to avoid all people on the street who might end up close enough to knock you off your bike but it’s smart to draw the line somewhere.

- If you do need to pass people loitering near the street or in your path then ride as far away as is feasible. For example, nearer the middle of the road rather than near the pavement – within reach of being struck or pushed.

8. Park your bike in a place that will be safe when you pick your bike up
- The major, innocent mistake I made when I got assaulted was not thinking about how isolated, dark and crime-friendly the place I parked my bike would become much later at night. When I parked it was 5pm and extremely safe and crowded. At midnight it was deserted and very poorly lit. Less than 100m in a straight line was Federation Square which was still very busy, safe and had police officers present, yet I was very surprised to find out this was no deterrent at all to the opportunistic criminals.

- Consequently, if moving on from one place to another it’s often better to take your bike with you and park it somewhere safe at that time (which I could have done at 8pm). Also, don’t forget to factor in that apart from nightfall and a lack of lighting, people may evaporate after a certain time due to a destination (e.g. venue or bar) closing.

9. Ride near other cyclists including strangers
- There is always safety in numbers and you are far less likely to get attacked by someone on a bike unless they are obviously sketchy. So in high risk situations or when concerned ride in pace with others, though make sure it’s not too close and try to choose someone less vulnerable than you or explain what you’re doing to them. If there is no-one immediately nearby or travelling at a close enough speed then you can pause at a place it is safer (e.g. a well-lit intersection) until someone suitable rides along.

10. Find out robbery and assault hotspots on your routes and avoid them
- In all urban areas there are always “hotspots” for crimes like robbery and assault. For example, in Sydney analysis indicated that the prevalence for robbery was in specific night-time areas near busy locations (entertainment, transport) in outdoor, public spaces:
Spatial distribution of assaults and robberies
Street level crime maps show that the distribution of assault and robbery incidents in Sydney was not random. Five major Hot Spot Zones featuring clusters of offences were identified. Offence clusters tended to be associated with main streets - particularly busy commercial streets accommodating entertainment premises, licensed premises or transport facilities. In Sydney District 48.1 per cent of assaults occurred outdoors, mainly on the street or on the pavement. In some areas, licensed premises accounted for up to 33.2 per cent of the assaults in the area. Three-quarters of robbery incidents occurred outdoors in a public place.
See: Crime and Place: An analysis of assaults and robberies in inner Sydney
- In urban areas with high prevalence of such crimes there may be specific information about danger hotspots for cyclists. In Baltimore, the section of the street where the assault in the video occurred is known for these attacks on cyclists and many cyclists avoid this area and take an alternate road that is busier with cars instead. In the absence of useful maps of hotspots for specific crimes (like robbery of passing cyclists or pedestrians) it may be useful to keep an eye on media reports and cycling blogs or forums. See: Safety tips for Baltimore cyclists, after a rash of attacks on bike riders

11. At night time avoid riskier off-road routes and routes with dead zones and "border vacuums"
- Off-road bike paths which are very safe during the day can be very dark, isolated and have few cyclists at night. Melbourne has many of these such as the Capital City Trail under the CityLink freeway. In Melbourne, most of these off-road routes are quite safe (even though they don't feel safe) from robbery and general assault because they are so far from any activity centres, entertainment or shops that groups of young men rarely hang out along them.

Capital City Trail bike path under CityLink near Flemington

- However, there may be some off-road paths where young men do hang out and if you notice such areas and feel vulnerable you may be best off avoiding them at night. The St Georges Rd bike path is dark and right next to a major tram line as well as some local areas young men may walk to. There have been several robbery-motivated assaults of cyclists on this bike path. See: Bicycle Network Forum: St Georges Road ambush. Yes, ambush!. A more recent incident occurred in June 2014:
On the 07-06-14 at around 12.30 am a twenty-three-year-old man was riding his bike along the St Georges Road bike path in Thornbury when two males pushed him off his bike. The two offenders demanded the victim’s wallet and mobile phone and when he had neither on him they stole his bike.
Victims of Crime: Robbery - Thornbury
- Isolated, off-road bike paths can also be higher risk areas for sexual assaults by sole males, though usually they target females who are walking. See: > Police arrest a 31-year-old man after sex attacks, > Man in Merri Creek bike path assaults wanted

- Places where young men do commonly hang out or walk through at night have more risk, especially where the infrastructure (like major roads, train stations) causes "dead zones" or "border vacuums" - areas where most normal activity is absent. Good examples are underpasses and overpasses at railway stations and major roads.
Transportation corridors like railroads, highways, and arterial roads tend to form “Chinese walls” because there are limited opportunities for crossing them to get from one district to another. Even if there are passages underneath elevated sections or bridges over sunken sections, the crossings are often so unpleasant (or perceived to be dangerous) that they discourage casual crossing. Many corridors thus tend to disrupt the continuity of the urban fabric, and the resulting fragmented/isolated neighborhoods can lose their economic and social connections with the rest of the city.
Envision Baltimore: Baltimore's Border Vacuums
12. Carry a personal safety alarm that you can quickly activate
- Those most vulnerable to assault, whether when biking or walking, should consider carrying a personal safety alarm. These devices can be quickly triggered in an emergency and will let out a very loud alarm noise that is a safe way to discourage or break off an attack.

13. Carry a personal safety weapon
- Ideally carrying a weapon should be a last resort not first but if one is genuinely needed it is better to actually have one that is made for self defence rather than have to resort to using a U lock or other makeshift weapon. Using a U lock or an offensive weapon is very risky as the weapon can easily be used against you if you are outnumbered or don't come out on top.

- Pepper spray, mace or similar defensive safety devices are preferable, if legal, as they do not do major damage and will generally not result in major escalation where a lethal weapon is used against you.

14. Practice evasive riding and quick, sharp turns
- Cyclists are most vulnerable when unable to very quickly turn around and go the other way, evade people trying to stop you or make emergency manoeuvres like hopping onto kerbs. At minimum, it is worth practising quickly turning around and accelerating away as this is a critical skill that makes the most difference in whether you can escape situations where people are trying to stop you or knock you off the bike.

15. Familiarise yourself with the circumstances of crimes directed at cyclists in your city
- The best way to learn what actual risks exist and in what locations and situations is to review the details of local crimes against cyclists. I've provided some examples below:
On the 12-06-14 at around 3.40 pm a nine-year-old girl was riding her bike in parkland near Painted Hills Road in Doreen when a male approached her. The male then attempted to grab the young girl from the side and then stood in front of her bike and again attempted to grab her. The young girl screamed and managed to ride off while being chased by the offender for some ten to fifteen meters. The male offender is described as being around thirty-years of age with a thin build, olive skin and sporting a moustache and wearing a black hooded top. Epping Sexual Offences and Child Abuse Investigation Team police are investigating the incident.
Victims of Crime: Attempted Abduction – Doreen
On the 06-05-13 at around 7.30 am seventeen-year-old female from Aspendale was riding her bike near Mordialloc Creek in Mordialloc when a male stepped out in front of her and threatened her with a knife. The male assailant demanded money and searched her school bag but fled the scene when an elderly man walking his dog approached them. Police are appealing for witnesses.
Victims of Crime: Armed Robbery – Mordialloc
On the evening of Thursday the 07-03-13 there were two armed robberies in Lynb
rook which police believe are linked. At around 11.35 pm when a twenty-four-year-old Frankston man and his female friend were walking along Paterson Drive when they noticed a group of young men, of Aboriginal or Islander appearance, standing at the intersection. The group followed the victims and then threatened them with knives and they handed over some cash and a mobile phone and the assailants then left. A short time later, just before midnight, an eighteen-year-old Langwarrin man was walking his bike through the pedestrian tunnel at Lynbrook Railway Station when he was confronted by a male of Islander appearance. The offender threatened the teenager with a wooden stake demanding money. The victim fled and ran towards the railway station only to be struck to the head from behind and then forced to walk back to where he was confronted where he was physically assaulted by the offender together with two other male assailants and sustained serious arm and head injuries and was treated at the Frankston Hospital.
Victims of Crime: Armed Robberies – Lynbrook
On the 31-12-12 just before 1.00 am a thirty-four-year-old male was riding his bike along Canterbury Road in Middle Park when he was approached by two men and robbed of his iPhone at knife point. South Melbourne police promptly used the “find my phone” app to track down and arrest the thirty and thirty-eight year old assailants in nearby parkland
Victims of Crime: Armed Robbery – Middle Park
On Sunday the 25-11-12 at around 8.50 am a fifty-two-year-old woman from Geelong was riding her bike in Torquay when a teenage male travelling in a four-wheel-drive motor vehicle leaned out the front passenger window and slapped her on the backside. The victim subsequently lost control and fell of her bike and sustained a broken collarbone and was treated at the Geelong Hospital.
Victims of Crime: Assault – Torquay
On the 19-02-12 at around 11.40pm a twenty-three-year-old woman was sexually assaulted in Thornbury. The assailant with a bicycle passed her and then put his bike on the ground and turned back and proceeded to assault the woman.
Victims of Crime: Sexual Assault in Thornbury
On the 15th March 2013 at around 3.30 pm a forty-eight-year-old male cyclist was physically assaulted with a tree branch in Rowville after photographing three men vandalising buildings with graffiti. The three assailants verbally abused the victim before following him in their motor vehicle and striking him with the tree branch.
Victims of Crime: Assault – Rowville
On the 19-02-13 at around 11.30 pm two teenage boys, aged fourteen and seventeen years from St Albans, attempted to rob a cyclist in Sunshine. The incident was witnessed by patrolling police who quickly arrested the offenders.
Victims of Crime: Robbery – Sunshine
On the 18-02-13 at around 7.20 am a thirty-year-old cyclist was almost involved in a collision with a motorist on St Kilda Road in St. Kilda. The motorist then stopped his vehicle and approached the cyclist and after a verbal exchange punched him to the face before driving off. The assailant was aged in his forties and driving a white sedan.
Victims of Crime: Physical Assault – St Kilda
On the 12-10-12 at around 10.00 pm a security guard was slashed to his face by a patron at a Caulfield South adult night club. The assailant fled before the police arrived. On the 12-10-12 at around 6.45 pm a cyclist was slashed with a knife while riding near the Mentone Railway Station. The cyclist sustained only minor injuries.
Victims of Crime: Stabbings – Mentone & Caulfield South
A 25-YEAR-OLD cyclist was struck on the back of his head in North Melbourne. Police said the victim was riding on Howard St at about 1am on March 19 when he was assaulted by a tall, solidly built man aged in his 30s.The victim suffered a broken nose and eye socket, as well as cuts and bruising to his left leg.
2 May 2011, Moonee Valley Leader
Birrarung Marr near Federation Square at 11:45pm
Last night as I was riding into the city - I was jumped and attacked by a group of young males. they punched me off my bike, bottled my head - luckily i was wearing a helmet, and continued to kick and punch me on the ground for a few minutes. they have taken off with my ride.
Fixed Forums: Assaulted and robbed!

Further Info:
Safety tips for Baltimore cyclists, after a rash of attacks on bike riders

Car Free Baltimore: Assaulted While Riding My Bike on Guilford Ave

Baltimore Brew: Rash of assaults raises concern among city bike riders

Envision Baltimore: Baltimore's Border Vacuums

Victims of Crime: Compensation and Counselling Services Victoria

A View From The Cycle Path: Three types of safety
> Lighting on bike paths
> "Social Safety" blog posts