Bee Network Cycling Infrastructure

Micromobility and the city region

Evaluating ways to promote active travel for ‘last mile’ journeys across Greater Manchester

Guest blog by Thomas van Laake, Postgraduate Researcher at the University of Manchester


The terms ‘micromobility’ and ‘bike sharing’ are generally used to refer to the provision of bikes and scooters for hire in public space. As fleets of e-scooters and high-tech bike sharing systems have become a part of many cities’ transportation landscape, transport researchers and policymakers have emphasised their potential as effective solutions for short trips – especially those ‘first- and last-mile’ trips connecting to longer journeys by public transport.

Drawing on my postgraduate research into Greater Manchester’s cycling policies, I recently participated in a panel hosted by pro-Manchester to discuss the trajectory of these emerging transportation systems in the city region. At this event, I was joined by Alice Pleasant, Public Affairs Manager at scooter operator Lime, and Leigh Bramall, director of consultancy Counter Context; unfortunately, Phillip Ellis of Beryl, the operator of the new Bee Network cycle hire, was unable to attend.

In this short blog, I condense the lively discussion that took place during this event in order to provide an overview of the dilemmas faced by Greater Manchester’s policymakers and outline what proponents of sustainable transportation in the city region might expect and advocate from these systems.

Key Takeaways

  • Greater Manchester’s trial-and-error approach to micromobility has been shaped by uncertain national policy frameworks, recurrent vandalism, and the search for workable technologies and business models. Micromobility provision is part of a broader set of policies including the improvement of cycling infrastructure.
  • The degree of public investment and control over micromobility systems determines their operations. While privately run systems can provide a solution for underfunded local authorities, they are subject to market pressures and limit the city-region’s scope to pursue policy objectives.
  • Micromobility systems operate more efficiently in central areas with higher volumes of short trips throughout the day, and this is where private systems will tend to concentrate. Publicly funded systems can decide to subsidise loss-making provision in lower-density environments, but this investment could be spent in other ways. Rather than pursue an equal level of provision of micromobility across the city-region, policymakers might more effectively adopt a spatially differentiated approach that responds to local conditions and needs.

The business of ‘disrupting’ urban transport

Though the operational characteristics of micromobility services can vary depending on the type of vehicle (i.e. scooter or bike) and mode of access (i.e. docked or dockless), the critical differentiating factor from a policy perspective is their business model.

Private, for-profit operators can provide access to hire vehicles with little to no need for public investment, and in many cities even pay into public coffers or provide in-kind contributions such as bicycle parking equipment in return for their use of public space. However, these systems are liable to collapse if markets prove unfavourable. Manchester learned this first-hand when the dockless bicycle system Mobike pulled out of the city after only a year of operations, blaming vandalism and theft. While antisocial behaviour certainly was a factor in their decision, the Chinese operator was also facing much broader financial difficulties that led to its later withdrawal from all of its European markets.

Though Mobike set micromobility provision in Manchester back significantly, the Lime e-scooter ‘trial’ operating in Salford – now into its fourth year of largely problem-free operations – is gradually overcoming residual distrust of private micromobility operators. According to Alice Pleasant of Lime, “e-scooters have been firmly integrated into local life in Salford, and Lime has become an important transport option for residents. We hope through increasing our fleet size and expanding into Eccles, Lime can continue to provide affordable transport alternatives to even more people.” However, under the restrictive conditions of the national government’s extended probationary period, the scooters have thus far not crossed the Irwell into Manchester.

Lime’s system would be well used in the metropolitan centre, and along key corridors such as Oxford Road. In seeking the best returns on investment, private operators will tend to concentrate in dense areas with higher volumes of short trips and higher ridership per vehicle. For-profit operators can therefore not be relied on to ensure broader and more equitable access to micromobility systems across the city-region. Here, the low ridership per vehicle reported in the wake of Lime’s withdrawal from Rochdale in 2022 after a 12-month trial is telling – although news headlines once again emphasised vandalism as the main factor.

Public policy and value for money

Public authorities aiming for policy-driven (rather than profit-seeking) transportation provision may desire a degree of public control. Seeking to pursue active travel targets and integrate hire bikes with the broader public transportation system overhaul, Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) has contracted Beryl, a UK micromobility operator, to provide and operate the ‘Bee Network Cycle Hire’ system, with yellow bikes hitting central Manchester and Salford streets in 2021 and surviving teething issues in the following years (once more, related to vandalism). However, public authorities around the world face difficult trade-offs between such systems’ distributional equity and operational efficiency.

Mapping showing the evaluation zones for Greater Manchester city-region wide bike sharing expansion
Figure 1. Evaluation zones for city-region wide bike sharing expansion (TfGM)

While TfGM may not be averse to subsidising provision in areas of lower demand, ambitions for a city-region wide bicycle sharing system seem unlikely to be realised in the near future (see Figure 1). Already, many bike stations within the operational area of Beryl are closed – especially in the more deprived areas east of the city centre. Considering the sheer scale and heterogeneity of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA), future expansion would most sensibly focus on consolidating the existing service area. Rather than fund the non-contiguous extension of Bee Bikes into outlying district centres such as Bolton or Stockport, TfGM and local councils could invite private micromobility systems to demonstrate their operational viability. Here, Greater London has demonstrated the need for consistent regulation and coordination across councils.

A spatially differentiated strategy

More broadly, strategies to increase access to cycling and promote intermodal travel might be more effectively tailored to local conditions. In outlying residential areas, improved secure cycle parking at public transport stops and on high streets may do more to stimulate active ‘last-mile’ travel than hire bikes could. Promoting the use of cycling for everyday travel will also require thinking beyond ‘disruptive’ technology and ‘best practice’ infrastructure. The city-region wide bike library system may prove excellent value-for-money, though such benefits are difficult to directly compare to the marginal return on a rental scooter. Cycle programming can be adapted to local social and spatial conditions – from facilitating residents of hillier boroughs to test out e-bikes, to bicycle lessons aimed at ethnic minorities or even youth outreach programs in those areas where cycle hire systems have faced vandalism.

Balancing tight budgets and ambitious policy targets, GMCA and its constituent councils have difficult choices to make on micromobility and ‘last mile’ travel. However, neither public or private micromobility systems represent a comprehensive solution to the city-region’s transportation challenges, and their geographically limited operations will often end up increasing, rather than overcoming, existing inequalities in accessibility. Nonetheless, a strategic, context-sensitive approach that combines public investment and regulation of for-profit systems can contribute to sustainable transportation objectives. Achieving these broader goals hinges on the reconfiguration of street design, the reallocation of road space, and the transformation of the social norms and expectations associated with getting around Greater Manchester. While more hire bikes and scooters might move us in the right direction, there’s still many miles to cover.

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