When 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.
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.”