Sunday 16 July 2017 17.30 BST
I really wanted to believe that Mancunians could be trusted with nice things. Just over a fortnight ago, a Chinese company called Mobike brought 1,000 shiny new silver and orange bikes to my city. Unlockable with a smartphone and available to rent for just 50p for half an hour, they could be ridden wherever you liked within Manchester and Salford and, crucially, could be left anywhere public once you were done.
I was an immediate convert, boasting about the superiority of our new bike-sharing system over London’s, pitying sadsacks in the capital who had to trundle around looking for a docking station. One sunny evening shortly after the launch, I rode a Mobike to Salford Quays, where I swam a mile in the filtered water of the glistening Lowry, reflecting as I did my backstroke that Manchester was starting to feel rather European. I had always fancied living in Copenhagen, where the cyclist is king and the harbour has been turned into a lido. Was I now living that continental dream?
Two weeks on and I fear that a dream is all it was. There are Mobikes in the canal, Mobikes in bins and I am fed up with following the app to a residential street where there is clearly a Mobike stashed in someone’s garden. On launch day, the Chinese designer told me the bikes were basically indestructible and should last four years without maintenance. It took a matter of hours before local scallies worked out how to disable the GPS trackers and smash off the back wheel locks.
On Thursday, none of the eight bikes showing on the app as being near my house were actually there. I was so incensed when I reached the location of the ninth and could see it locked away in a backyard that I lost control of my senses and knocked on the door. A young man opened it and I asked nicely if I could rent the bike. He looked surprised and said, no, it was his, and anyway, he needed it later. I explained that was not how the system worked, that the bikes were public, and that if everyone was as selfish as him the whole thing would collapse. He rolled his eyes and told me I would be trespassing if I dared try to fetch it.
I decided to dob him in instead, hoping that Mobike would ban him from renting another, as is supposed to happen to anyone with the brass neck to take the bike out of circulation for their own personal use.
Steve Pyer, Mobike UK’s general manager, is determined to look on the bright side. Mancunians love the bikes, he says, and are now taking 4,000 trips every day, “even when it’s raining”.
Fifty bikes have been trashed, he says, although only a few are beyond repair. Many more have indeed ended up on private property, and the bike redistribution team will be knocking on doors themselves to clear up “misunderstandings”. He finds comfort in the Mancs recovering Mobikes missing in action: a boat owner fished one out of the canal and it will be ready to ride again soon after a bit of TLC.
He does admit that the scale of vandalism took him by surprise. It has been far worse than in any of the Asian countries where Mobike operates 5m bikes. “In Singapore we launched our scheme in March with 5,000 bikes and there have been just two reports of broken locks,” he says.