Bicycle Salvage – A Moral Question

I nearly got arrested today. Nothing serious but a nerve wracking experience all the same and one that has left me questioning if what I did was right or wrong?

In the last three weeks I have been cycling to Richmond park for a few laps to try and work of a little Christmas excess and on each journey I have been saddened to see an old Raleigh bicycle left neglected, locked to a railing near Putney Station.
A vintage model it may well have been there for more than three weeks and judging by the rust it has. Other than the corrosion it has also apparently become the plaything of alchopop fueled youth on Friday nights and its frame, forks and wheels have been kicked to a tangled mess of metal. A right off, its owner has no doubt left it for the council to remove, but stopping to have a look on Saturday, the bike had some savable parts.
Pedal, tyre, dynamo, breaks, handle bars, and kick stand were all in good/rusty nick but useful to a man who likes to fix up old bikes. With this in mind I set of this morning with some tools to rescue what I could. After half an hour of dirty screwing and unscrewing I had a few bits that might come in useful and while leaving a note with my phone number in case the owner wanted any bits back a police van screeched to a halt and two severe, flack jacket wearing officers asked what I was doing.
“Is the bike your sir?”
“Your under arrest for stealing and vandalizing a bicycle.”
“You what?”
Fortunately one officer was playing the good cop in the situation and after explaining what I was doing to these two men of law, it was agreed that if I put everything back I would be left of with a caution. Being of a rebellious nature I held onto a few bits that were already safe in my pockets, but cycling back home I felt guilty and for every siren I heard my heart raced as I readied for hot pursuit. For the rest of the day I mulled over whever what I did was right or wrong. Asking friends and family I seem to have opened up a moral can or worms.
Surely by making use of abandoned bike parts makes sense, but the last thing we want is for people to come home after a night out to find the good bits of their bike have been pilfered.  The question I am asking is, if a bike has been left abandoned at what point does it become salvage? If the council cant be bothered to help, should the public be allowed to make the most of useful bike parts before the elements make them redundant to all.
I would love to hear your thoughts.

This entry was posted on Sunday, February 22nd, 2009 at 22:13 and is filed under Cycling in London. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed or trackback from your own site. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


  1. Rich in Toronto

    Not a question of morality, but of the law. The law didn’t always make sense.
    Don’t let it bother you. My neighbour wants to relieve a bike that’s been out in front of a retail location here in Toronto. It’s been there for a year apparently.

  2. I suppose the answer has to be that if it’s not yours you have no right to ‘liberate’ it, or bits of it. Full stop. (Unless, of course, you’re the law or a local authority with the power to reclassify it as ‘a nuisance’ or something like that.)

  3. not sure i agree with the justified liberation argument. what about france?
    no just kidding about the french. but on a serious note surely there has to be a point where public opinion and action forces the law to change.
    suffragette, rosa parks – not that i’m suggesting my “illegal” actions are on a par with these heroines of the 20th century…

  4. harrie

    hehe yeah, you’re the next martin luther king ;)
    seriously i think i agree that leaving a bike chained up and clearly not going back for it is leaving it open to being salvaged.
    but of course the law isn’t always sensible – i think what might’ve been the best way to approach it would be to go to the police station or council and ask if anyone’s claiming the bike that’s been there ages.
    i don’t know if it’s still true that if you hand something into a police station and it goes unclaimed after a certain time you get to keep it (remember that watch i found in saffron walden years ago?) but i would imagine that a similar ethic would apply, you’d have to declare the bike as abandoned/lost to the authorities and say if no one claims it you will.
    i think a point would come where any council would realise a bike had sat in a spot for a long time and would be about to take it to the tip by force and i think *that* would be the time to intervene – maybe you could mention your project to the council and say if htey happen to have any abandoned bikes maybe they could contact you?

  5. Hey! Lynn has just linked me to your blog cause I also wrote about abandoned bikes. It really hurts to see such bikes. There’s one at the bike rack in front of my office building that I really like (old Puch Clubman). Have to see it every day and watch how it gets destroyed by the weather. Still can’t have it. Maybe I should leave a note that I want to have it. But I’m sure, the owner forgot about it already. And I don’t want to buy if it gets stolen by somebody else.. There should be a legal way of removing bikes that are abandoned. Otherwise they only block bike racks and scrapyards anyway.

  6. Hi Anna
    I could bot agree more! Breaks my heart to see such waste. Especially as these long forgotten bikes would be greatly received by so many. I’m sure there’s a solution to all this… I have visions of a charity that salvages forgotten bikes, salvages bits and sells them on giving money to causes that need it.
    Thinking on it….
    Tom Kevill-Davies
    The Hungry Cyclist – Pedalling The World For The Perfect Meal

  7. Yikes, that’s a scary situation! Glad it turned out okay. I wouldn’t feel bad about the original owner, as he or she clearly abandoned the poor bicycle.

  8. richard

    Hey Tom, Harboiled2006 off Twitter here. I think its fair game. If its been there while, take it. As an example. a friend of ours was attending college and work placements whilst doing her teaching degree. She doesn’t drive. So, my cycling bud and me, went around York and salvaged from skips(skipratting) a number of bikes. we stripped them down and rebuilt one perfectly servicable bike for her. With a basket,mudguards and lights. She loves it and still uses it. I think there should be room for a carbon neutral company salvaging old bikes and building up good bikes for chartiable organisations or for profit.

  9. Matt Berens

    Interesting dilemma. I have personally rescued 5 bicycles I’ve found abandoned – 1 out of a swamp – and felt no remorse or ethical challenge for refurbishing them and then donating them to a bicycle charity. My feeling is that the bicycle you removed the parts from may have been stolen and left by the thief. Or, the original owner became sidetracked and his circumstances didn’t allow him to recover the bike. In that case, I not have any problems rescuing that bike. You should have just brought a pair of bolt cutters and cut the chain so you could much more quickly remove the whole bike to work on at your convenience. Any bike that is left for weeks or months becomes public property and a hazard and eyesore. In my mind, you were being a helpful public citizen. Keep up the good work. Keep recycling bikes whenever possible.

  10. ian holding

    Difficult one.. At my workplace there was a bike that had been locked in the bicycle parking for nearly 6 months, blocking the space for other people. An e mail went out asking who it belonged to. No reply. A new member of staff arrived in need of a bike so I liberated it for her. 2 weeks later she arrived on it to work to be confronted by the original owner! Embarrassing to say the least. However I did not feel guilty at all. Quite frankly if she was prepared to leave it that long blocking space for other users I think it was fair game.

  11. Colleen

    I can imagine how you felt seeing the good of that bike rusting to waste. Still, if the owner was detained unexpectedly through sickness or an emergency, upon his return he would have been crushed to find his bike vandalized. Whether or not the council was doing it’s job, the bicycle still has an owner. All the parts belong to him, rusting or not. Or they are the responsibility of the council.

    I cannot just help myself to the fruit of my neighbor’s tree without first asking, even if each year it’s left to rot on the ground.

    If you were away, would you want passersby to help themselves to things in your yard because they were not being used? If your flowers were wilting for lack of water, should your neighbors be free to dig them up for their own garden?

    You did steal, no matter how you justify it to yourself. I encourage you to return the parts you still have back to the bike. Leave a note with your name and number in a ziplock firmly tied to the bike asking the owner to call if he would like to dispose of it. It really comes down to “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” I believe that then your conscience will be at rest and you will know you have arrived at the correct answer to your moral inquiry.

    We all make the wrong judgement call from time to time. The winning is in making it right once you see the truth of the situation. And then your peace will return to you. = )

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