In June 2017 Chinese bike-sharing company Mobike selected Manchester and Salford as the first location in Europe to trial its app-driven dockless-bike scheme. Much fanfare surrounded the launch, both in the UK and the Far East, and it was of course also blogged about on this site.
At the time there was much excitement about Mobike in the cycling community and beyond: it was like new-bike day, but for a whole city. Suddenly everyone appeared to be talking about bikes, and with Chris Boardman appointed walking and cyling commissioner just a month later, it looked like everything was heading in the right direction for cycling in the Greater Manchester city-region. Indeed, Mobike’s apparent firm commitment to the region even saw me musing in an article for Now Then Manchester magazine whether the presence and early popularity of the Mobikes might re-kindle the interest of Manchester City Council in building decent cycling infrastructure, which had been resting on its Dutch-style laurels since the completion of the Oxford Road scheme a year or so earlier.
However, the initial exuberance around Mobike soon started to sour:
- The allegedly unstealable Mobikes were being stolen and vandalised in numbers previously unheard of.
- Many were taken on to private property and not recovered.
- Some ended up in canals.
- Far from being unstealable, Mobikes in fact featured their own self-contained theft kit. The stand could be prised off and used to club off the lock/GPS unit, freeing the bike from its physical and electronic shackles.
- When bikes were stolen, the app would continue to list them at the location where their lock-based GPS tracker last emitted a signal before being pilfered, often leading potential users on a wild goose chase after bikes that simply weren’t there.
- Mobike was slow to react, struggling with enforcement, recovery and repair.
- There were periods when barely a single Mobike was to be had on the streets, with so many in the workshop awaiting spares to arrive from China, but with little or no communication of the situation by Mobike.
- The geofence was tightened, ruling out trips from central Manchester to even the closest suburbs and thus diminishing the utility of the service.
- There were issues with pricing: the deposit was reduced from £49 to £29 and then to £2 to reduce the barrier to entry to the scheme, yet a 30-minute ride was hiked from 50p to 69p, again with little communication.
- Many people complained about the bikes themselves: with their small frames and single spinny gear they were uncomfortable for journeys of more than half a mile or anyone with an inside leg of more than about 22 inches.
- Despite assurances that a larger, three-speed Mobike Mark II was on its way, these never arrived.
- To name just a few.
Personally I’d fallen out of love with Mobike by around the beginning of this year, choosing to walk around the city rather than a) deal with the faff of finding a working Mobike and b) deal with Manchester’s shoddy roads and shoddier drivers on a bike that won’t go above 8mph.
So I was neither surprised nor particularly upset when they recently mooted and then, in the first week of September, ultimately announced their withdrawal from Manchester, citing “increased bike losses dues to theft and vandalism in the city”.
Now, I don’t doubt that Mobike were suffering losses here. However, to attribute their withdrawal solely to the behaviour of the Mancunian scally I find disingenuous. Mobike prides itself on being able to churn out 50,000 of its bespoke bikes a day in its dedicated factory, for a few dollars per machine. Images of “dockless-bike” graveyards have abounded since the advent of these bike-share schemes, all of which suggests a certain disposability of the bikes themselves. In other words, when Mobike say too many bikes are being stolen or damaged, what they’re actually saying is that the bikes they have on the ground aren’t being used enough to cover the costs and turn a profit.
And think this is where another boast comes unstuck: Mobike pride themselves on not taking any public money and operating solely as a private business. At the outset that seemed like a great idea: Manchester could welcome in a bike-share scheme, and thus fulfil a manifesto commitment of Andy Burnham, without putting its hand in its pocket. But what we’ve actually seen is a repeat of the experience we’ve had across the public transport sector: private companies running transport operations for a profit are often at odds with the public good. And that’s what we’ve seen with Mobike, too. Their bottom line is struggling, so they’ve taken their bikes back and buggered off. So sod ’em.
However, that’s not the end of the story: for poised to step in is NextBike, a German-based outfit that operates across Europe and, crucially, other UK cities such as Glasgow, Cardiff and Birmingham. So I’m quietly hopeful that this would be a better match, for a number of reasons:
- NextBike already have a track record in the UK and experience in rolling out schemes in areas with social issues, such as we have in parts of Greater Manchester.
- Their bikes are docked, which increases certainty of supply and I would imagine also adds a little extra security.
- They provide both acoustic and electric bikes, the latter holding the potential to greatly open up cycling to wider demographics across the city-region.
- They operate on a subsidy/sponsorship basis, which enables them to focus more on promoting the act of cycling for the public good rather than merely the bottom line for shareholders.
- They actively engage with the communities they operate in, fostering a greater sense of ownership of the scheme among a broader mix of stakeholders.
- They’ve watched what happened to Mobike and are still keen to get involved, which I find greatly encouraging.
So in a nutshell, the Mobike era was a great learning curve for us all. Rather than heaping all blame on the Manchester ruffian, Mobike do need to accept quite a lot of the responsibility themselves for their inability and unwillingness to deal with the issues they came up against. As a community we need to realise that if something’s worth having, it’s worth paying for. And whatever comes next needs to be bigger, brighter and, I truly hope, more comfortable and with gears.