Discover more from The Mill
Are vandals and thieves sinking another cycle hire scheme in Manchester?
Plus: 'This has got to be one of my favourite Mill articles of all time'
Dear Millers — welcome to this week’s briefing, which has amazing recommended reads from the New York Times and FT, a lovely Home of the Week in Ramsbottom, a few big stories you should know about as you start your week, and plenty else besides.
But first, our big story today: if you’ve tried to use the city’s cycle hire scheme recently, you’ve almost certainly been struck by just how few bikes seem to be available. The situation has deteriorated so badly that many now describe the network as unusable. Transport for Greater Manchester are promising to get things sorted soon — but are they being outsmarted by the criminal masterminds hacking into the bikes? That’s our big story, below.
Over the weekend, we published an amazing long read by three students at the University of Manchester about what it was like studying during the pandemic. The piece has had lots of tweets and reactions, with one Miller commenting: “This has got to be one of my favourite Mill articles of all time. These students are so thoughtful and articulate about how they experienced such a confusing and often scary time.” Click below to read the piece if you haven’t yet.
Andy Burnham debates the future of renewables
From today’s sponsor: Many of us want to live more sustainable lives, but the question is always: how to go about it? Fear not, Millers. That question will be answered a thousand times over when The Sustainability Show comes to Manchester Central for an amazing planet-friendly event next weekend (the 8th and 9th of July). Pick up tips and tricks from eco experts and authors, and hear Andy Burnham take part in a live debate about the role of renewables in the future of our region. There will also be a “charity supermarket” full of secondhand fashion and lots of locally sourced food, drink and music. Get your free ticket now.
Big story: The mystery of the missing bikes
Top line: In recent weeks, many people have noticed that the Bee Network bike racks have been looking pretty empty. What’s going on with our cycle hire scheme?
Rack and ruin: We did a recce of the city centre on Friday and only saw one or two bikes available. We also looked at the website of Beryl, the bike company providing the scheme, and created a map of the situation on Friday afternoon, showing the number of spaces in each rack, and the number of bikes actually in them. Of the 240 available spaces in the area we surveyed, only 16 bikes were available. Almost two-thirds of the racks had no bikes at all in them — raising serious questions as to whether the network is even usable at this point in time.
Calls for an inquiry: Walk Ride GM, a lobby group for improving “active travel” in the city, responded last week by calling for the mayor to commission an inquiry into what’s going wrong. Harry Gray from Walk Ride GM said: “It’s almost become impossible to hire a bike, and this is really affecting the launch of the Bee Network as a whole scheme.”
What’s going on? A statement from Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) Active Travel Programme Director Richard Nickson pointed to three main reasons for the fall in the number of bikes:
Vandalism: “A recent spate of vandalism has meant that fewer bikes are available than normal.”
A repair backlog: “The increase in vandalism has resulted in a backlog of bikes in need of repair in the Trafford depot, as well as those in need of routine maintenance.”
High demand: “We have been experiencing increasingly high demand for our bikes, with usage around three times higher than expected, and following the opening of 30 new stations in the last month in Trafford and Manchester city centre we are also seeing a change in how they are being used.”
Bike hacks: It seems that vandalism is most likely focused on the bikes’ GPS systems and locks. If the GPS can be removed, the bike can then be used without paying. Footage that emerged last Autumn appeared to show this tactic in action. In Westminster, one of the city’s hire schemes (Lime bikes) has been struggling after social media videos showed users how to override the software and use the bikes for free, though it isn’t clear whether something similar has been happening in Manchester.
Here we mo again: The situation has caused many to compare it to the demise of the Mobike scheme back in 2018. Before the operator pulled out, levels of vandalism and theft were so high that roughly 10% of bikes were being removed from the network each month. This time was meant to be different, with better security to lock the bikes to the racks, but it seems that hasn’t been enough to stem the losses.
One bike user, John Townsend, told us that “the lock is insufficient to solve the issue because it is not necessary to use the lock to finish the ride (so people don't use it)”.
And the locks don’t always work. Theo Thom told us about a recent ride that “ended in disaster as it [the bike] wouldn't lock at the end docking station, leaving me worried someone would take it”.
Official figures: Data from August 2022 shows that just over a quarter of bikes had been removed from the network after its launch. But it would seem that now we’re looking at a much higher number. We asked both TfGM and Beryl bikes to tell us how many bikes have been lost, and how many are being repaired, but they didn’t seem keen to answer that question.
TfGM told us: “We’re not able to provide the figures you requested right now”.
But Beryl, the operator, which presumably holds all of this data, told us: “We run the scheme on behalf of TfGM so, as they own it, any requests for data need to be fielded by them initially.”
We’ll update you if we hear more, and will be putting in a Freedom of Information request if needs be.
Operation bring bikes back: TfGM apologised to users and stressed that they understand the importance of the issue and are working to increase the number of bikes. They told us: “Beryl has increased depot resources to speed up bike repairs and get them back out on the network for people to use.” Reports this morning are a bit more positive, with Walk Ride GM tweeting: “Promising signs as more @BerylBikes roll out across the city centre”.
Not all bad news: Arguably more important than the hire scheme is the infrastructure available for those using the bikes. Persuading those who currently don’t cycle to take it up means making it feel safe for them to do so. Greater Manchester has big ambitions for the future of the cycle network with new cycle paths fanning out across the city region.
Progress report: There’s some way to go until we get there, but the wheels are in motion. CYCLOPS (Cycle Optimised Protected Signals) junctions that give more priority and protection to cyclists and pedestrians have been opened in Bolton and Manchester, with another to follow in Salford. And last month, Active Travel England confirmed £23.7m of funding to GM — its largest award in the country. Together with £17 million from the Mayor’s Challenge Fund, that delivers over £40m of funding to improve the city region’s walking and cycling infrastructure.
Bottom line: To get to net zero and reduce the number of road traffic accidents in Greater Manchester, we need everyone — not just the lycra legion — to walk and cycle more. While the infrastructure in Greater Manchester is improving, the bike hire scheme is a central part of getting people out of their cars. If Beryl and TfGM can’t turn the situation around quickly, there’s a serious risk that people will lose confidence in the scheme altogether.
This week’s weather
Our forecast comes from local weatherman Martin Miles, who says: “The heat has subsided for now and this week will bring a traditional Manchester mix of breezy conditions, rain and occasional sunshine.”
Tuesday 🌧️ Cloudy with spells of light to moderate rain. Turning muggy as humid air moves in. Max 20C.
Wednesday 🌦️ Wet at first with outbreaks of rain. Gradually drier & brighter during the afternoon. Max 20C.
Thursday 🌤️ Mostly dry with sunny intervals. Breezy. Max 19C.
Friday 🌦️ Breezy with showery rain during the afternoon. Max 19C.
Weekend 🌦️ Remaining changeable with temperatures close to average.
You can find the latest forecast at Manchester Weather on Facebook — daily forecasts are published at 6.15am.
Your Mill briefing
The £2 bus fare cap, introduced last year for all routes in Greater Manchester, has been extended to next September. It was meant to expire this October, but Andy Burnham said new government funding will allow the cap to remain in place. Burnham also announced a new combined bus and tram ticket, which is expected to cut travel costs in the region by 20% from this September as part of plans to bring public transport in Greater Manchester under the publicly-controlled “Bee Network”.
Sacha Lord, Andy Burnham’s nighttime economy adviser and founder of the Warehouse Project, has joined MPs and artists in a letter asking the Home Office to reconsider the requirement for a special licence to host on-site drugs testing at festivals. It’s been a rolling issue since confiscated drugs couldn’t be tested at Parklife, in Heaton Park, earlier this month. Confiscated drugs have previously been tested for strength and contaminants so that warnings can be issued if a dangerous batch is detected.
A 42-year-old woman has died and a 15-year-old girl is in a critical condition after a house fire in Oldham on Saturday. Neighbouring houses were evacuated as the fire spread and residents have since been rehoused by Oldham Council. GMP have said the 42-year-old died at the scene, and they are appealing for CCTV or dashcam footage to assist their investigation into what caused the fire.
A 28-year-old from Didsbury has been given a 12 month community order for posting a TikTok in which he threatened to bomb King Charles III’s Coronation. Richard Jackson said he was going to take a van to the Coronation and blow himself up. He later told police he was trying to provoke a reaction and did not in fact own a van.
And finally, 36-year-old Singaporean Kahchun Wong, who next year takes over as Principal Conductor at the Hallé, got a rapturous reception at Saturday night’s performance of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The Mill watched on as the orchestra’s fans gave Wong a warm welcome to Manchester on his birthday. He has always been welcomed to the city by Andy Burnham.
Home of the week
This “immaculate” two bedroom terrace in Ramsbottom is on the market for £190,000. It’s a ten minute walk from Ramsbottom town centre.
Our favourite reads
A New British Arts Venue Tracks Its City’s Changes — The New York Times
Former Mill contributor Hugh Morris wrote this very interesting piece on Factory International — new name: Aviva Studios — for the New York Times. He writes: “it marks how the city’s cultural scene has transformed in recent decades, from a site for D.I.Y art-making to a desirable home for large-scale investment and corporate sponsorship.” The Mill also gets a mention, with Joshi quoted on why creating a single arts space to cater for all of Manchester’s different populations is no easy feat.
Actor Mei Mac: ‘We are pointing at stereotypes and going: isn’t this ridiculous?’ — The Financial Times
Mei Mac is the new lead in F*** Miss Saigon Play, a new production opening at the Royal Exchange this week that criticises the depiction of Southeast Asian people in the Broadway show Miss Saigon. In an interview with the Financial Times, she recalls one of her early encounters with the sort of theatreland thinking that F*** Miss Saigon Play seeks to combat: “A casting director asked me if I could use an Asian accent,” says Mac. “I was so taken aback — Asia is such a huge continent. I said, ‘Do you mean a Cantonese accent or a Bengali accent?’ And they said, ‘What’s your native accent?’ I said, ‘Birmingham.’”
“Wednesday 14 June in Wath-upon-Dearne began like any other,” begins this gripping long read published over the weekend by our sister publication in Sheffield, The Tribune. “No coats were needed: it was going to be a hot one, with temperatures forecast to hit 26 degrees by midday. The relaxed summer term was winding down and the six-week holidays were on the horizon. But the peace of the day wasn’t to last.” Within hours, there were reports of locked-down schools and a man with a knife making threats outside. From there, what happened became less and less clear. Our reporter Dan Hayes tries to figure it out.
Our to do list
🖼 See an exhibition by local painter and visual artist Michelle Taube at the Didsbury Parsonage Trust. Taube is known for producing images of Didsbury and other locations around the city via both paint and photography. Tickets are free and you can book here.
🎨 We’ve all been there: you’re midway through a life drawing, trying to get the right shading on a wrinkle or capture the cleft of a chin, and all of a sudden you find yourself thinking: “golly, I could murder some tapas right now”. Well, look no further than this Life Drawing and Tapas night at Studio Bee. Book here.
🎷 Counterpoint, a female jazz duo, will be performing at FOLK in Didsbury. With piano, vocals and saxophone, they perform a wide range of contemporary styles, including their own original material. Starts 7pm. Book here.
🥰 For those looking for a summer of love, you might want to get ahead of the game at this speed dating event at Lola Lo’s, just off Deansgate. Book here. If you’d rather just live vicariously through our reporter Jack, who we sent speed-dating ahead of this year’s Valentine’s Day, read his report from the frontline here.
🐝 Manchester International Festival starts this Thursday with Each Tiny Drop — a collection of water-driven kinetic sculptures by Risham Syed — which will be at Mayfield Park from 6-10pm.
🧀 It’s cheese night at Tahi on Circle Square. There’ll be a collection of five French cheeses, matched with sourdough and crackers, with a wine flight available too. Tickets here.