hen China’s biggest public bike-hire operator chose Manchester as the location for their first smart scheme outside Asia, they were cautioned that the weather on the banks of the Irwell differed a little from the Yangtze.
“Everyone warned us about the rain,” said Richard Huang, head of international product at Mobike. He was sheltering under an alcove outside Marks & Spencer on Thursday morning as 1,000 of his silver and orange babies were released into the pot-holed streets of the sodden Cottonopolis for 50p a go.
“We wanted a city that would be the most open-minded to work with, and everyone said Manchester”. Chris Martin, Mobike
To simulate a Mancunian puddle, his team took the bikes to a river in China. They turned the pedals in the water to spin the back wheel, checking the minimalist mudguards would block the spray and spare users a soggy bottom. They do, according to early adopters braving weather described by Manchester councillor Pat Karney as “double-minging – not just rainy but cold, too”.
The bikes are built to last four years with no maintenance, with shaft-driven single-speed transmission hidden inside the bike to turn the wheels instead of a mucky old chain; airless tyres that never get punctures; and wheels made out of aluminium magnesium alloy, which are indestructible even with a hammer, according to Steve Pyer, Mobike’s UK general manager.
Described as the world’s first cashless and station-free bike-sharing platform, Mobike launched in Shanghai in April 2016 and has expanded to 99 cities across Asia. Five million Mobikes are in circulation, and the company claims to be able to manufacture 100,000 more every day.
An “Uber for bikes”, the company does not rely on fixed docking stations like more established schemes in London and Paris, instead trusting users to park them wherever they like within the city boundaries of Manchester and Salford.
Huang is optimistic that the Mobikes won’t all get stolen, pointing out the parts are all custom designed and can only be dismantled with custom tools. He hopes they won’t end up at the bottom of the Irwell or the Ship Canal either: the app riders use to unlock and pay for the bikes tracks where they end up, and there are fines and bans for those who dump them somewhere stupid. They are also fitted with alarms that sound if someone tries to break the wheel lock.
The firm chose Manchester for its first non-Asian launch because of the city’s reputation for innovation, said Chris Martin, Mobike’s head of international expansion. “We wanted to find a city that would be the fastest and most open-minded to work with, and everyone said Manchester.”
The company had its first meetings with Manchester city council in March, successfully persuading officials that inviting Mobike in was a win-win situation. Unlike the London scheme, which has cost taxpayers over £60m since its launch in 2010 and is still subsidised by £3.6m each year, Mobike costs nothing to the public purse.
That’s partly why Manchester, along with its neighbouring city of Salford, thought it would give it a go, said Karney. Plus there was a chance to beat London. “This is the start of Manchester becoming the UK’s cycling capital. We are never modest in our ambitions here,” said the councillor.
The bikes received a warm welcome despite the June gloom. “Getting more people on bikes who don’t normally ride bikes is a brilliant idea,” said Stuart Round, 38. But he admitted he doesn’t dare ride around town. “I’ve never rode my bike in the city centre, because I think it’s probably a death trap if I’m being honest with you. I think the infrastructure is the key thing. And I can’t see why the two [bikes and roads] can’t go hand-in-hand.”
Rob Raikes, 72, from the Greater Manchester Cycling Campaign, said he thought the idea was “wonderful” and hoped it would encourage the council to invest in making cycling safer. “If you suddenly have a thousand inexperienced cyclists in the middle of Manchester there’s going to be one hulluva duty to make the city streets safer. People will be terrified. Hopefully this scheme will be a pump primer for making cycling infrastructure in the city much better.”
John Brown, 58, said he would like more segregated bike lanes, but loved the idea of the hire bikes. They’re good value for money, he said: “50p for 30 mins – for a pound you can be at work and fit, so happy days. Your wife might fancy you more.”
How it works
- Download the free Mobike app, which works in 99 cities across Asia, as well as Manchester and Salford.
- Pay a £49 deposit (£29 in July) and top up your credit. A 30-minute journey costs 50p. You can gain credit for good behaviour, such as returning a bike parked a particularly long way away from the city centre. If you are naughty and keep the bike in your garage where no one else can use it, or park it somewhere antisocial, Mobike will charge you more next time.
- Open the app and look for your nearest bike. You can reserve it for up to 15 minutes. Unlock it by scanning the barcode using your smart phone.
- Return it by manually closing the wheel lock. Mobike are working with a local company who will redistribute the bikes using a specially adapted trailer on a cargo bikes, as well as a logistics firm using two vans.
By Helen Pidd and Daniel Lavelle