Transport

Mobike: Meet the man bringing China’s cycle club to Britain

By Kitty Knowles 12 July 2017
Summary

China's Mobike just hit Manchester. But what's next?

Dragons and phoenixes grace the traditional ‘paifang’ archway at the top of Manchester’s Faulkner Street. Through this lies a bustling Chinatown full of shops and restaurants – the second largest in Britain.

Today, however, a new Chinese business is spreading its wings in the industrial city – a cycle club called Mobike.

It’s not only taking on Manchester, it’s getting ready to take on the world.

Manchester Mobikes feature an eye-catching silver and orange design. Pic: Mobike.

Meet Mobike

Founded in 2015, Mobike is already leading a bike sharing revolution in China, alongside competitors like Ofo (soon to launch in Cambridge) and Bluegogo (about to hit San Francisco).

With bikes to rent on the streets of dozens of Chinese cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Chengdu, Mobike helps Chinese locals make 20 million journeys every day.

It has 5 million bikes in operation.

This month Steve Pyer, Mobike’s UK manager, oversaw the company’s launch in Manchester – its 100th city, and first outside of Asia.

“The excitement and the welcome has been phenomenal,” he told The Memo. “On the weekend of the launch, a random person just cycled up beside me and went ‘Mate! Mate! Look! I’ve got one too!”.

First Manchester, then…?

Britain’s first Mobike partnership is flooding the streets of Manchester with cheap and easily accessible bikes to rent, but comes at no cost to the taxpayer.

It builds on Manchester’s existing ties to China – which include a new Hainan Airways link to Beijing, and the Manchester-China business forum.

But with over a billion dollars of investment behind it, Mobike is not going to stop its journey there.

“Manchester is going to be our Shanghai,” says Pyer. “Shanghai in China is where we learnt everything, but that doesn’t mean we stopped and waited a year to expand.”

In fact, Mobike launches are already planned for “several” new locations in the year ahead, said Pyer.

“We’re learning how we can improve and all of those learning lessons will go into new cities in the UK and Europe,” he explained.

“If we can reinvent the bike in China where everyone seems to be riding a bike, then I’m sure we can replicate that elsewhere.”

You can leave your Mobike in any public bike parking area. Pic: Mobike.

So what’s the big deal?

There are more than a few reasons to get excited about riding a British Mobike in particular.

Slightly bigger than its Chinese cousin, these models are designed “to be outdoorsy” and “maintenance free”, Pyer says.

“One of the biggest failures of other schemes that I’ve worked on have been punctures, and spokes which are quite weak, so we got rid of them,” he explains.

They’re also embedded with tracking technology, which means you can park them anywhere.

Better for your pocket

The business also operates in a slightly different way to traditional bike shares, and could end up saving you money: you pay a one-off deposit (£29 in July, £49 after) and then a flat 50p per half hour journey.

To compare: Santander Cycles in the capital charge £90 for an annual membership, or a daily fee of £2 (journeys under half an hour are free).

“London’s Santander Cycles are good for very short shots, but it’s restrictive if you travel further – if you cycle for 31 minutes every day, it suddenly starts getting expensive,” notes Pyer.

Mobike's launch day in Manchester. Pic: Mobike.

Better for everyone

Chiefly, however, cycling schemes are inherently good for people who live in cities – improving our health by getting us on bikes, and reducing car emissions and congestion.

And Mobike’s founders Hu Weiwei (Chair), Wang Xiaofeng (CEO) and Xia Yiping (CTO) started the business in order to reduce pollution.

“People don’t need more buses, they don’t need to make bigger roads, if some people choose to take bikes instead of cars or buses and that just generates additional capacity in what you’ve got already,” says Pyer.

“We’re trying to give people a healthy and environmentally friendly alternative.”

Challenges ahead

It’s safe to say that building a global business has never been easy.

In each new city, Mobike will have to learn peoples’ cycle habits to overcome challenges around distribution.

“We need to work with the cities and the governments to manage the flow of bikes, to make sure there is always a bike there, but not too many,” Pyer observes.

“If we only put 100 bikes in a city, there’s not going to be enough – people will sign up, find out they can’t find a bike, and cancel their membership.”

Mobikes lined up in front of the Imperial War Museum North. Pic: Mobike.

Safer cycling

Equally challenging are perceptions around safety – as fear is the “biggest barrier” to people getting on their bikes, says Pyer.

But the company itself will help shape safer roads by sharing its data with city planners.

“All of our bikes are trackable, and we share that tracking data with city authorities so they can see where they need to focus on better cycle infrastructure,” says Pyer. “Manchester created a completely segregated cycle lane which is amazing.”

“Having a lick of paint on the road that goes into 6 lane carriageway is not acceptable. We are starting to move forward.”

Will Mobike be for you?

We’re calling it: the cycle revolution is coming. You will soon see a Mobike in your city – or perhaps an Ofo, or Bluegogo.

Smart cycle sharing schemes will become the norm.

“I personally love the feeling of getting out, getting some exercise; it wakes me up before I get to the office and sharpens my mind,” says Pyer.

Will you come along for the ride?