The wheels are coming off this British city’s bikesharing scheme

By number of bicycles, Mobike is the largest app-based bikesharing company in the world and in the space of just three years has launched its service in hundreds of cities globally.

While it hasn’t necessarily been smooth sailing in every city that it operates, Manchester, England is proving to be its most challenging location to date. Why? Because a small number of people are vandalizng, hiding, and stealing its bikes, as well as throwing them in rivers and canals, and even hanging them from lampposts.

The situation has become so serious that the Chinese company is threatening to abandon Manchester, a move that would mark its very first city departure.

China-based Mobike launched its dockless bikesharing scheme in the English city in June 2017 — its very first entry into the European market. And while the bikes have proved popular with many people — they have so far provided 250,000 rides covering more than 180,000 miles — problems soon began to surface.

Steve Milton, responsible for Mobike’s global communications and marketing, told the Guardian that the losses are not sustainable. “We are going to have to draw a line under this at some point,” he said. “Everyone is unhappy with the current situation. Users are unhappy because they can’t find bikes when they want them, the police are unhappy because they’re having to waste time dealing with petty vandalism, and we are unhappy because we aren’t delivering the service we want.”

Milton said that in July alone, 10 percent of Mobike’s two-wheelers were trashed or disappeared, though he declined to give a specific number. Recovering missing bikes has been pretty much impossible as their locks, which contain a GPS tracker, are usually broken off when they’re taken.

In other comments, Jan Van der Ven, Mobike’s U.K. general manager, said the current situation meant that the company was being pushed to the limit.

It’s not just Manchester

But Manchester’s first-ever cycling commissioner, Olympic cycling gold medalist Chris Boardman, was keen to point out that the city isn’t the only one facing difficulties with its bikesharing scheme. Indeed, rival service Gobee earlier this year quit France — it operated in three cities there — after a whopping 60 percent of its bikes were either destroyed, stolen, or modified for private use. In neighboring Belgium, the problem was even worse, with up to 90 percent of Gobee’s bikes stolen or damaged before it decided to leave that country, too.

Gobee said at the time that vandalizing the bikes had apparently become “the new hobby of individuals, mostly minors, encouraged by content widely distributed and shared on social networks.”

In the U.S., too, Baltimore Bike Share had to temporarily halt its service because some of its bikes were being wrecked or stolen, while a scheme in Philadelphia saw 50 bikes disappear in two years.

With Mobike’s presence in Manchester now hanging by a thread, the local police department is promising to thoroughly investigate reports of suspected theft and vandalism, and to “hold those we find breaking the law to account.” Whether that will be enough to save the scheme there remains to be seen.

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