Ever since the unfortunate demise of Mobike in 2018 after just a year of operation, Greater Manchester has been devoid of a workable bike-hire scheme, with much speculation around what would replace the briefly iconic brushed-steel and orange cycles from China.
Earlier this year, it was announced that Beryl Bikes had won the tender to supply the official “Bee Network” bike-hire scheme which in the first instance would deliver 1,500 bikes & e-bikes at over 200 new docking stations across Manchester, Salford and Trafford. We’ll come back to the docking thing a little later.
For those of us still traumatised by the knee-wrecking geometry of the Mobike, you’ll be pleased to hear that these bikes cater for a much greater range of rider dimensions than their ill-fated predecessors: the adjustable seatpost claims to accommodate riders from 4’11 to 6’5, which will easily cover the overwhelming majority of the adult population.
As mentioned, two types of cycle are available: conventional and electric. Both feature straightforward three-speed hub gears operated by a grip-shifter, are chain-driven and run on pneumatic Schwalbe tyres, as opposed to Mobike’s solid rubber ones, and thus afford a more familiar and comfortable ride than was the case last time around. Both have a handy basket with bungees on the front, with an additional smaller receptacle on the rear of the electric variant. The e-assist on that model gives a smooth, gentle yet discernible push for those seeking a ride requiring less exertion.
The rental process
As the scheme is not yet officially live (my test ride was facilitated by a friendly insider), I was unable to go through the full unlocking process, but it seems fairly straightforward: set up an account in the app, unlock the bike, ride it, return it to an official bike parking area and that’s it. All helpfully described on the downtube.
The unlocking process itself is done by touching your phone to the pad on the handlebars, which, as with Mobike, then releases the nurse’s lock through the rear wheel. To end a session, you simply close the lock again. To enable those without phones to access the bikes, I was told there will ultimately also be an option to hire one using the planned integrated GM travel card (Oyster-style thing we still haven’t got up here).
The “mechanical” bikes (i.e. not e-bikes) will be priced at an unlocking charge of 50p plus 5p per minute ride time. A 15-minute ride on a mechanical cycle would therefore cost 50p + (5×15 = 75) = £1.25. This seems to be disappointingly less generous than, say, London’s Santander scheme, which is priced at £2 for unlimited journeys up to 30 minutes within a 24 hour period. So in London you can travel by bike for a whole day for two quid as long as you don’t ride for more than 30 minutes at a time. For the same price, the Manchester scheme would buy just the one 30 minutes of pedalling. The price doubles for an e-bike: £1.00 to unlock and 10p per minute. So the same 30-minute ride with e-assist would cost £4.00, twice the London daily rate.
This is doubtless a question of funding/subsidy and would hopefully be reviewed as we move towards a more integrated and financially well-supported expanded Bee Network.
What essentially sank Mobike in Manchester was the unprecedented scale of the theft & vandalism of their allegedly vandal-proof cycles. We have therefore been constantly assured since that time that any replacement bike-hire scheme would be fully secure and operate on a docked basis. Indeed, at first glance, the Beryl bikes do appear to satisfy this brief. However, a closer look shows that what superficially look like docks are indeed little more than glorified stands from which the bikes can be removed whilst still in the locked state. And already the first signs of mistreatment are emerging: I witnessed two bike docks where the bikes had been removed and knocked over as well as a couple of bikes randomly abandoned at the roadside some distance from the hire station, as if whoever was making off with them gave up carrying what are in fact father heavy frames.
As with Mobike, the ultimate test of these – frustratingly also dockless – cycles will be the resilience of the nurse’s lock that secures the rear wheel. To the untrained, uncriminal eye, the robust metal grille protecting the lock looks sturdy enough, but as the Mobike trial showed, the ingenuity of the Mancunian scally is not to be underestimated.
Bike share schemes are in essence a brilliant idea. They can make cycling accessible and enjoyable to a much broader constituency than the small number of us who currently ride regularly. They increase the visibility of cycling as a viable form of transport and thus normalise it. They make sense of demands for reduced traffic and safer streets as more folk recognise the benefits of a focus on the human scale in our urban spaces. Also by branding the scheme within the broader Greater Manchester public transport vision, cycling becomes integral as opposed to peripheral to core transport policy. Just the two questions niggle: is the pricing pitched right to enable mass take-up? And most of all: are those locks good enough?!
Those reservations aside, the official launch is on 18 November – so when you get to have a go, let us know what you think!
For further details on the Bee Network cycle hire scheme, see: https://activetravel.tfgm.com/bee-network-cycle-hire/
Bike specs & other details can be found at: https://beryl.cc/bikeshare/riders