Meet the weak link in the shared bike chain

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - COMMENT -

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.

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