Cycle-sharing, the next 'disruption'

Ever since Mysuru and Bhopal launched India's first true bicycle sharing systems in June, the buzz around cycling has been growing. In the last one month alone, there have been more than a dozen cycle-sharing launches, mostly through private sector companies, including start-ups and established companies. Additionally, cities like Bengaluru, Indore, Bhubaneshwar, Vishakhapatnam, Pune and Delhi are following the government model of procurement to launch their own cycle-sharing systems.

2017 is an important year for cycling as this year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of cycling. It was in June 1817 that German Baron Karl von Drais, a civil servant from Germany, completed a 13-km ride on a bicycle made mostly out of wood that weighed a decent 22 kilograms. So, does this mean that after 200 years, cycling has finally found its place in India and is going to play a significant role in mobility?

Trends indicate that there are three main reasons why cycling might disrupt the urban transportation in India, just as ride-sharing companies like Uber and Ola did a couple of years back.

Bicycles can now be rented, leased and shared, too. This flexibility of usage has had a great impact on their popularity. In fact, the earliest bicycle sharing system started in Amsterdam in the mid-1960, known as 'White Bicycles', wherein the cycles were used for a single trip and left unlocked so that the next person could use it. This helped increase cycle-sharing, as people who didn't own bicycles started using it.

Cycle-sharing saw exponential growth in the 2000s as the use of technology transformed the sharing mechanism. The likes of Velib, CitiBike and Barclays created strong bicycle sharing brands and saw a huge growth. It is estimated that over 800 cities from 50-odd countries have these systems under operation currently.

It is estimated that till 2015, there were around 1.2 million publicly shared bicycles in the world. This number went to over 16 million in China alone between 2015 and 2017 and most of the growth has happened due to rise of fourth generation or dock-less bicycles that are not tied to a station but can be picked up and dropped anywhere.

Rethinking Priorities

Contrary to the perception around cycling, or the lack of it, in our cities, cycling is still a substantive mode of transport. As per the 2011 census, 45% or nearly 11 crore households owned a bicycle in India. Data also shows that 13% Indians use bicycles as their primary mode of transport for work, while people using cars to go to work was only 3%. In addition, about 1.2 crore bicycles were sold in India during 2012-13 and the sales have witnessed a moderate growth rate of about 6% over the last five years. Yet, it has been the most neglected transport mode in our cities with virtually no provision for them.

However, this is beginning to change, and it is not the big cities like Delhi or Mumbai but smaller ones like Bhopal and Mysuru that are in the lead. Mysuru's 'Trin Trin' has seen great feedback from residents and Bhopal's PBS saw 25,000 people registering on the system in less than six months. Cities are starting to rethink their approach towards cycling.

What is happening to cycling now is exactly what happened to the taxi industry about 7-8 years ago. Start-ups in the cycle-sharing space are attracting big monies to push the cycling revolution in urban areas.

Ofo, which started as a student project at Peking University, is now valued upwards of $3 billion and has reportedly just raised over a billion dollars from Alibaba, the Chinese eCommerce giant and other investors. Ofo is reported to be backed by big investors, including Didi, the Chinese ride-hailing giant.

Similarly, MoBike, which also started operations in 2015, is now valued over $3 billion and has raised about a billion dollars to fund its expansion and operations. MoBike is reportedly backed by Tencent, a messaging, gaming and payments giant, Qualcomm, the chipmaker and Line, Japan's most popular messaging app. Other start-ups that are joining the bike sharing wave include Spin, LimeBike, Bluegogo, etc.

Indian start-ups are also joining the dock-less bandwagon. Mobycy, a Gurgaon-based bicycle-sharing start-up has raised close to $500,000 from angel investors. Similarly, co-founders of Yulu, another bike-sharing start-up, also started InMobi, a billion-dollar start-up. With the likes of Ola, Zoom Car joining the bike-sharing market and the arrival of Mobike and Ofo, the bike-sharing market is only going to grow in India.

Indian cities will see many more bike-sharing launches in 2018, mostly driven by the private sector. This gives them a great opportunity to leverage this private sector boom and create safe infrastructure, as safety is the biggest deterrent to cycling. With a little bit of effort and the right approach to infrastructure, cities can finally 'recycle' themselves.

(The writer is Director-Integrated Transport, WRI India)

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