A new wave of green Chinese technology has landed on British shores, bringing with it a rethink about bike sharing and digital data that could help reshape the outlook of the northern city of Manchester.
The Chinese firm Mobike has rolled onto the streets of Manchester what is described as the world's first cashless and dockless bike-sharing scheme, followed by its launch in other European cities including Florence and Milan, and upcoming foray into London in September.
Using an app, users can search their location for the distinctive orange and silver rental bikes, which are constantly in touch with Mobike through an embedded chip.
Once they've found a bike, the user scans the unique Quick Response (QR) code on each bike and a digital signal is sent via the phone to unlock the bike. Their account is debited for hire, at the rate of 50p (about 0.65 U.S. dollars) per half an hour in Manchester.
This digital connectivity between Mobike and its bicycles on the streets delivers valuable digital data, which regional transport planners say can be used to create better journeys and a better city.
INNOVATIVE CITY'S TRANSPORT STRATEGY
Manchester has been at the forefront of innovation since the dawn of the industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries.
At that time it was the world's first industrial city -- a template for every industrial city that followed, and the venue for the first railway station, the first splitting of the atom and the first working computer.
So it seems appropriate that Mobike come to the home of the industrial revolution, where Manchester has maintained its innovative outlook, and committed to it a transport strategy that looks more than 20 years in advance.
Rafael Cuesta, head of innovation at Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM), told Xinhua that Manchester's needs and Mobike's bike sharing innovation were a good fit, with the firm being new and adaptable.
Schemes like those running in London and Paris, which use on-street docking stations, are often expensive and time-consuming for installment and maintenance. The London scheme has reportedly cost taxpayers more than 60 million GBP (78 million U.S. dollars) since its launch in 2010 and is subsidized by 3.6 million GBP (4.7 million dollars) each year.
Cuesta said Europe was unaware of better solutions like the one that Mobike has.
"So I think the advantage is that they (Mobike) are very customer-focused and are bringing solutions that at a European level did not exist before," Cuesta said.
Manchester had searched for four years for a solution to its bike hiring requirement.
"I do a lot of work around intelligent mobility; we are looking at intelligent vehicles and looking at Internet of Things (IOT) solutions for transport and for the community," said Cuesta.
"We do a lot of open innovation working with the tech community to develop niche solutions, and also we are looking at new mobility solutions such as the Mobike solution," he added.
One of the innovations about Mobike which excites Cuesta and attracted Manchester to the Mobike proposal was the depth and quality of data which it collects from its bikes and is sharing with TfGM. It fits well with his interest in intelligent mobility.
This anonymized data includes the details of all journeys made, and from the time they started the route they took.
This is a valuable asset for Cuesta.
"The data is essential for us. We have one of the biggest Internet of Things (IOT) demonstrators and Smart City demonstrators in Manchester," he said.
The Smart City plan is to create accessible technological solutions for a city which will make it easier to live, environmentally friendly, and allow sustainable growth in the coming years.
The IOT plays a central part in that, with digital connectivity predicted to be responsible for connecting 120 billion items by 2020.
TfGM's Strategy 2040 highlights the role technology and innovation will play, with the aim of improving transport performance and quality of life, reducing costs and resource consumption, providing tailored information and pricing to transport users, and providing a much better customer experience.
"What we are trying to do is to create a data hub to manage and collect data so we can manage demand across the transport network much better," said Cuesta.
"So the data we can get from Mobike adds to our analytics and gives us the right pitch to be able to provide mobility as a service, to be able to create seamless mobility -- people can find their way and use whatever mode is best for their trip. That is why bikes are connected to the tram network, and connected to our car clubs form a really strong whole-mobility solution."
Cuesta said this mixes data with analytics and allows TfGM to be "very dynamic" in the way it manages its transport system.
With the help of Mobike data, there is "the real prospect of changing how people move about the city, how the city operates and also perhaps the face of the city." he said.
(Xinhua reporter Duan Kai in London also contributed to the story.)