Meet the weak link in the shared bike chain
First off, I’m a bit of a conservative when it comes to bicycles — back in the days when I rode one, all I required were a comfortable saddle, a sturdy frame, good tires and a decent set of gears.
So the arrival of China’s Mobike, which provides bike-hiring service, in Manchester recently came as a bit of a shock. Skeletal unisex frames, fluorescent wheels, solid rubber tires and no chain — instead there’s a cunning shaft-driven single-gear transmission, and handlebars packed with digital stuff.
Here in London, we have become used to what everyone calls “Boris Bikes”, named after former London mayor Boris Johnson on whose watch they were introduced. The bikes, initially sponsored by Barclays Bank but now by Santander, the Spanish bank, are solid, rugged and reliable, with gears and lights. You use your credit or debit card to release one from the docking mechanism, and it’s yours for a basic charge of £2 ($2.59) for 24 hours, although longer journeys outside central London cost more. You have to return the bike to a docking station after use. Few get stolen. They are, after all, rather distinctive in their silver and red livery.
Mobike’s shared bikes, on the other hand, operate on a completely different and more high-tech basis. Speaking as someone who is challenged when tuning the radio in his car, the Mobike system is, to me, a bit miraculous.
First of all, there’s no dock to either retrieve or park the bike. You load the app onto your smartphone, pay a £49 deposit, and top up your credit — a 30-minute ride costs 50 pence. Using the app, you locate the nearest free bike and you have 15 minutes to scan in the code on the bike, which in turn unlocks the wheels and sends a signal to Mobike headquarters that you are in command. When you’ve finished, you simply manually lock it, which tells big brother you’re done. And you can leave it where you like.
Which worries me. Despite all the high-tech wizardry, knowing my fellow Britons as I do, a fair number are going to end up dumped in the Manchester Ship Canal or buried in someone’s garage.
But Mobike, it seems, has the answers. According to Richard Huang, product manager at Mobike, the bikes themselves are virtually indestructible, and someone trying to dismantle them can’t do so without special tools.
If anyone does try to pry open the wheel lock, an alarm sounds. If the machine ends up in the river, or someone’s yard, then it can be tracked and a system of fines and bans comes into play. Scary.
Five million of the silver and fluorescent machines are already in use worldwide, and the factory in China can churn out 1,000 of them a day. So the words “world domination” spring to mind. With shared bikes already being used in 99 cities across Asia, and making their first foray into the UK, Chinese bikes may yet rule the world.
Only old Luddites like me recall a “free” white bicycle scheme in Paris in the heady days of the 1960s. Within months they had all been stolen.
The author is managing editor for China Daily in Europe.