All articles>

The bike is back!

Business

The bike is back!

BY   Alexandre Gauquelin   

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a massive boom in electric bikes (e-bikes). Throughout Europe or in the US, e-bike sales exploded to unprecedented levels.

The shift has been massively supported by local authorities that were happy to find a straightforward commuting alternative for their citizens that respects social distancing. Through the large-scale adoption of financing schemes, or the massive development of cycling infrastructure (with pop-up or permanent bike lanes), European cities were definitely ready for a massive shake-up of their vehicle fleets in favour of electrified bicycles.

Since 2018, it is scooters that have been the undisputable hit in shared mobility, with companies deploying thousands of vehicles. But confirming the e-bike trend, the second half of 2021 saw multiple shared scooter operators expanding into shared e-bikes, in a race to widen their customer base and become the definitive multimodal urban mobility app.

The comeback of a fallen star

Speaking of 2018, it is worth recounting the story of scooter madness… that actually started in 2017. Watching the crazy development of Mobike and ofo, Western companies tried to replicate the model and crack the still largely untouched market. Initially named LimeBike, a Californian company launched free-floating bikes in multiple US cities in mid-2017, followed by others such as Spin. A year later, both companies totally stopped developing their bike-share services to fully focus on scootersLimeBike even rebranded itself as Lime.

By early 2020, all eyes were firmly fixed on shared scooters until Lime came back into the news with a big funding round led by Uber. As part of the deal, Lime took ownership of Jump’s e-bikes (and scooters). It was an important move, as Jump (formerly Social Bicycles, acquired by Uber in 2018) was renowned for the quality of its hardware since it launched the first free-floating e-bike service in San Francisco back in 2018. The development of Jump’s services and the progressive relaunch under the Lime brand shone a light on e-bikes as a complement to scooters for shared mobility operators.

No alt text provided for this image

In the meantime, other operators such as Bolt, Dott or Voi were also revealing their ambitions to expand to a multimodal offer including e-bikes. In May 2019, Voi unveiled an e-bike and an e-cargo bike that were ultimately never launched. In summer 2020, Bolt launched a few services with the very same hardware showcased by Voi, only to withdraw a few months later due to the low quality of the bikes. The path to mass adoption of shared e-bikes still had a long way to go. Everything changed in 2021 when the main scooter suppliers, Okai and Segway, launched their own e-bike models specifically designed for sharing businesses.

Go Hardware or Go Home!

The failure of different services that launched with cheap bikes (e.g. Bolt or Human Forest’s initial Hongji model) highlighted the need for high-quality hardware, but also the complexity of self-designing e-bikes and the lack of supply options.

Just ask Dott, who started designing its own e-bike (to be produced in Europe) as early as 2019. Maxim Romain, Dott’s COO, confirmed that a lack of experience in vehicle development led to difficulties in passing end-of-assembly-line quality controls. Dott ultimately chose to drop its own vehicle production and instead jumped on the e-bike bandwagon by launching Okai and Segway models in late 2021. “We are actually capitalising both on our first development process and on the operation of Okai and Segway’s models to develop our future home-designed e-bike” explains Nicolas Gorse, Dott’s GM for France, Belgium and Germany.

It’s worth remembering that until 2020, the offer of e-bike models designed for sharing was very limited. While Lime may have benefitted from Jump’s R&D excellence, other operators were still waiting for 2-wheelers to meet their technical specifications and quality requirements. It was also a time when “legacy” bike-share providers were just starting to introduce electric bicycles into their fleets and develop free-floating alternatives. Hybrid solutions (such as mechanical/electric bike fleets, using docked/virtual stations) are now common and some have been adopted by major scooter operators, such as Voi with VAIMOO.

In the meantime, the leading scooter suppliers Segway and Okai were spending time and money to develop their own e-bike models. Building upon their development knowledge and feedback from their popular shared scooters (especially in terms of electronics and IoT), they managed to develop robust and thoroughly designed models. Both companies also had an ace up their sleeve, as they generalised the use of swappable batteries with their scooters: the Segway Max and Okai ES400. For riders, it’s an invisible feature but it’s a crucial one for operators, allowing higher battery management efficiency whether dealing with scooters or e-bikes.

No alt text provided for this image

The argument is even more relevant for TIER, as its Energy Network solution (which allows riders themselves to swap batteries and gain credits) is vehicle agnostic by design. Lime is also coming to the party. After investing $50M on improving the Jump model and expanding its e-bike fleets, the company recently launched its Gen4 e-bike on the streets of Washington DC, featuring… a swappable battery that can be used on its latest scooter model.

A mature market

The multiple launches of e-bike services reveal that the shared micromobility market is maturing. It is understandable that all the major companies were willing to start with scooters, a simpler and cheaper vehicle compared to electric bikes. Focusing on scooters for years allowed for a deep optimisation of their operational tools and processes, eventually leading to breakeven for many scooter companies. “Most of our operational tools — from software to warehouse organisation — are common to scooters and bikes. Operating e-bikes just adds a bit of complexity in maintenance”, confirms Nicolas Gorse. Operators are therefore ready to offer e-bikes provided the “Operations machine” is working at full capacity; a must for remaining profitable despite more expensive vehicles.

Market maturation also means intense competition. To remain in the game, all operators are going multimodal, a strong trend resulting from a simple need: widening the user range to address more mobility needs. With big wheels and the bike seat as an additional point of contact for riders, e-bikes bring safety and comfort for those unconvinced by scooters, including women or older customers (statistically speaking).

Looking at the recent launches of services in Europe, a common strategy emerges for most of the major scooter operators: the conquest of new territories with scooter services (mainly in Eastern Europe), while simultaneously launching e-bikes to consolidate their presence in Western Europe (France, Italy, Germany). Dott, TIER, Lime and others can of course more easily introduce e-bikes in cities where they already offer scooters and their experience with scooter licensing is also an advantage in the face of increasingly common e-bike rules. E-bikes are also a good way for multimodal companies to gain a foothold in the Netherlands, where shared scooters are still prohibited. Bird and TIER are investing heavily in offering shared e-bikes in multiple Dutch cities and are preparing the ground for a possible expansion with scooters.

The acquisition of Nextbike by TIER in November 2021 was an important move highlighting the potential that micromobility operators see in shared bikes. TIER is adding 115,000 (Next)bikes to its portfolio (mainly docked schemes) and will also benefit from Nextbike’s ties with local stakeholders to win more markets.

No alt text provided for this image

It’s a different strategy for Bird, but with the same expansion goal: while launching its own e-bike services in the US and Europe (using Okai models), the company has also been working on integrating public bike-share services into the Bird app, offering cities a complementary service for their own fleets. Bird users can now access public bike-share in 4 US cities, Oslo and Bordeaux. But perhaps the real proof that Bird is betting on e-bikes is that the company has already launched its own retail model in the US.

The impressive development of shared e-bikes in Q4 2021 is therefore the result of a combination of factors. First, the pandemic created a favorable environment for the mass adoption of e-bikes and bikes in general, with the superfast improvement of cycling infrastructure. Next, vehicle manufacturers have learnt from the failures of their earlier prototypes and now offer e-bikes that are better adapted to sharing. Meanwhile, operators are leveraging their scooter experience in order to build robust, reliable and profitable e-bike services. And lastly, as the shared micromobility market enters a major consolidation phase, e-bikes offer a wider range of customers, with trip patterns that complement scooters. Despite all the uncertainties for 2022, one thing is for sure: the bike is back!

Written by Alexandre Gauquelin and Julien Chamussy, with the help of Cameron Rimington.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.