Social media was set alight with debate on the rights and wrongs of the withdrawal and who to lay the blame on. As the first city in the world to lose the Mobike bike share scheme, Manchester takes a very ominous place in the hall of shame next to the city of Sheffield, who lost their own bike share scheme, Ofo, back in July.
Mobike launched its dockless bicycle service 13 months earlier. I came across my first one almost by accident, walking back to Manchester’s Piccadilly train station. Sat there, lonely, some 100 yards from my company’s offices. Unlike the “Boris Bikes” of London, park anywhere technology allowed Mobike to keep costs down while offering unparalleled convenience at a fraction of the cost of their London counterpart. A service which attempted to achieve the Holy Grail of cost cuts and improved services. Something many companies, including ours, continually attempt to prove is possible. Sometimes to our detriment. It is possible to be a responsible company, even at scale. It is possible to create collective benefit, especially at scale. It is possible to be a global participant and locally focused at the same time.
Manchester is a city which saw disproportionate cuts to City Council funds since the financial crisis. Most recently, the reduction in PAYE provided by central government eroded services around the city yet again. Leaving the Council Executive no option but to raise council tax with a series of intra-budgetary rises. The act of Parliament that became legal in April 2017, has seen council’s across Britain attempt to stave off financial ruin as monies cut, redirect to Philip Hammond’s Brexit readiness commitments. The lack of funds meant cities like Manchester were unlikely to build a bike share scheme on their own. The City Council simply had to concentrate on delivering essentials like bin collection, infrastructure, policing, fire-fighting and social services in the context of austere central government policies. Each struggling on their own. As such, Manchester’s own “Boris Bike” scheme remained a pipe-dream. It was simply too expensive.
As the Apple iPhone did to mobile phone sector, Mobike ushered a change in its own. Without charging councils a penny, Mobike launched their service as an independent company. Other Council’s in other regions were quick to understand the benefits and scrambled to secure their own bike share schemes, such as Ofo in Sheffield. It disrupted everything. On paper, Mobike and the secure as a whole, should have cleaned up!
Yet, the city of Manchester and its residents struggled to take to the bikes, despite these seemingly laudable aims and what for us as analysts, is an obviously elegant socio-economic achievement. Many seemingly confused and even offended by Mobike’s presence.
‘They’re vermin’ said one local on social media
‘Is that not littering?” said another “They just dump bikes everywhere!’
Our community was so perplexed by these strange matt silver and orange “bi-cyclical-ish gadgetation” devices, that Good Samaritans of the city phoned the police to report bikes they had found, assuming they were missing or stolen and dumped. Manchester, once the car crime capital of Europe, a city traditionally on guard for fear of burglary, was culturally shocked by the idea they could access semi-unlocked, semi-unsecured bikes..!?
And of course, one can only speculate on criminal intention in weighing up a violently robbery of a bike from a person in a public place against simply walking up to and then stealing a bike from a faceless company.
Yet, this is the reality. Vandalism, including criminal damage was costly to fix. An engineer, trailer in hand, travelled the length and breadth of Mobike’s map to fix or retrieve damaged or “sunk” Mobikes outside the permitted region. Mobike worked with a level of wastage which would account for the repair and replacement of a very small number of damaged bikes in the salary of the individaul. The costs of staffing distributed across the entire fleet, across the world. That net economic effect means that Manchester was part of a global collective, in a connected estate and had a responsibility to care for that community as it would for its own.
They hadn’t accounted for Manchester doing things differently. A socially proud city, garnished with anti-establishment contrarianism and a rare , but significant undertone of hostility to big business. The contradiction proved too much for residents to collectively keep Mobikes safe. One of the main tests for Mobike and any business models like theirs, is as much an examination of a target society’s attitude to innovative, collective, community and socio-economic good, as that society’s readiness for a commercial enterprise. In Manchester, the idea of social good and commercial enterprises are diametrically opposed. An anathema to many, but by no means most. As Manchester’s social enterprises scene is thriving amongst millennials.
On a personal note, as a resident of 29 years, I can attest that Manchester struggles with such a double-bind. Yet, it is possible to have an enterprise which carries a shareholding and does a social good. The necessity being that any shareholders share the same values and are incentivised in the same direction the enterprise is. This is demonstrated no more keenly than the repeated success of John Lewis and its employee shareholding base.
Cycling’s benefits are undeniable. As well as accessible transportation, cycling is incredibly good for public health, as repeated relentlessly by the city’s cycling advocate and Olympic Pursuit Gold medallist Chris Boardman. A man who knows. These have ongoing benefits to the city’s public health, but also NHS demand. With the NHS on its knees, and in what was one of Europe’s most obese cities, paying your taxes isn’t sufficient to sustain your health any more. The incentive to take care of your own well-being is also the same solution to NHS overcrowding. Battered on all sides, healthcare and NICE, also based in Manchester, must mandate the prevention of the preventable, as that is always less costly than a cure. Yet, Manchester and most of the UK repeatedly demonstrate a stubborn unwillingness to claim that responsibility, despite the fact that it benefits everyone. Not just the cyclist, but anyone waiting for a heart transplant or waiting in A&E. The dominant view is that citizens pay their taxes, they will continue smoking as the NHS can cure their lung cancer.
The question to be answered is the same. Is this a culture that is ready and able to accept a solution to a problem which, for years, has been exploited by the ‘greedy capitalists’ they criticise, to undermine the strength of a city like Manchester? To those watching, Mobike has demonstrated the answer is an unequivocal no. Despite the meteoric rise of individual commercial registrations, and its place in the digital startup ecosystem, Manchester’s residents belittle any brand efforts, regardless of size or intent. Dismissing it as gentrification and with it, any social benefit. It’s a purpose many in the city are sceptical of. Yet, this is the same reaction to the toxic mix of poverty and gentrification highlighted in the 2014 Google Glass incident. Albeit that I agree it was irresponsible, Sarah Slocum was assaulted in a San Francisco bar for wearing the device. Yet, we are just more reserved. We are British after all, don’t you know.
In amongst the dust, there is certainty in Mobike’s withdrawal. Many companies operating shared schemes were watched the Mobike and Ofo sagas closely. Some have made decisions not to invest significantly in cites or even Britain. Instead, choosing to launch their own pilots in the European Union regions or beyond. With Brexit on the horizon, this is a wise commercial move into a geography that is not only economically larger, but culturally demonstrates a much greater affinity in countries like Sweden and the Netherlands. This experience is incredibly valuable to other organisations watching from the sidelines but is also a disaster for the city. As companies who would have set up here, make the conscious decision not to. Meaning Manchester misses out on opportunities that other cities will now routinely receive.
Will Manchester survive Mobike? Certainly. Will Manchester lose out to other cities. With all the other threats, certainly. Mobike will certainly survive Manchester and a lot has been learned about the city. By all accounts, docked shared cycle schemes are poised to take Mobike’s place. They are more expensive to install and take longer to test, let alone the factual reality of being much less convenient and a more limited range. I am sceptical of some of their plans and costs and wait to see if they must themselves raise a higher deposit when the plans makes contact with the real world.
Despite my scepticism, I wish them the very best of luck. I hope the city has learned from the Mobike withdrawal but in reality, they new participants and Manchester, are going to need it.
Ethar Alali is Founder, Chief Technologist, Analyst & Exec of Market.Be. A shared street-market support platform using the circular economy for socio-economic good.
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