The apocalypse in China, the guerrilla war in the United States, the invisible revolution in Germany and Russia – this is how one can describe the world of bicycles and scooters today. From children’s toys, this two-wheeled technology has become one of the main engines of progress and is preparing to change our world.
The idea of micromobility
Fantasts forced humanity to believe that the future belongs to flying machines, but while the dreamers were looking at the sky, it turned out that the true transport of the XXI century is much more mundane. The beginning of the new millennium was the time of the transport revolution, based on the idea of micro-mobility, which drives the widespread distribution of bicycles and scooters.
Free from slow-moving automotive companies, “two-wheeler startups” were the first to absorb the main trends of the modern world — global electrification, struggle for ecology and the demand for sharing. And these startups have then launched an offensive on all fronts.
Megapolises were flooded with bicycle rental services. The logic was simple: if an available for rent via an app bike is readily waiting at each corner of the city, this will make it much easier for a person to move around the megapolis.
Of course, this type of mobility is not about traveling to the airport or shopping center on the outskirts of the city. This is more about so-called last kilometer travel – fulfilling the need to get from one’s house to the subway station or from the office to the restaurant.
Then, bikes present salvation from traffic jams, loss of time and environmental pollution. And it sounded logical, especially since cities built long before the invention of cars, clearly did not cope with the ever-growing car traffic.
Micromobility, the Chinese way
The real boom began in 2014, when Mobike and Ofo startups appeared in China. They were the first to offer an opportunity to start and end bicycle rentals not at special stations, but anywhere in the city. Within three years, billions of dollars were spinning in this industry, and thoughts of world domination were spinning in the heads of suddenly very rich startup founders.
By 2017, Ofo – originally a project of Peking University students – attracted more than $ 2.2 billion and increased its bike park to 10 million. “I feel tremendous energy in your quest to make traffic in cities more green, efficient and fun,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook after the Ofo bicycle ride. Experts started to wonder whether Apple would launch its own bike-sharing service. But the energy alone did not last for very long.
Today, Ofo has millions of disappointed subscribers and closed offices around the world. More recently, the once-thriving biking business has proven to be a financial pyramid of the MMM scale.
According to various estimates, Sergey Mavrodi’s empire had from 5 to 20 million depositors. In the virtual queue of Ofo riders, there are currently 13 million people, each of whom the company must return a deposit of $ 14. The operator doesn’t have that amount. The company also does not have another $ 10 million that are demanded by bicycle manufacturers.
“Now it is absolutely clear that bicycle rental is the silliest business that China’s smartest brains have tried to enter.”
Said in an interview with Reuters, the owner of the bankrupt bike-sharing company 3Vbike Wu Shenhua. Many others are ready to agree with him.
Cycle empires worked on the hype. While the number of subscribers grew exponentially, the government gave environment-friendly bicycle transport benefits, and investors regularly brought their money, the system functioned well. (Are e-bikes good for the environment? Read in this post.)
But then there was a collapse. Competition and the war of tariffs led to the rental price falling below profitability. The streets were literally littered with bicycles of various services. At the peak of the transport revolution in China, 77 companies simultaneously operated in the country.
In order not to drown in multi-colored bikes, like a greedy rajah in gold, megalopolises were forced to impose strict restrictions. They had to send thousands of bicycles to special dumps, where the transport of the future is still rotting.
“The assumption was that the operators would first cover the cities with one million or more inhabitants. Then go to the second-tier cities. But those who saw that even Shanghai could not cope with bike-sharing services, simply did not let them in. The pyramid kept growing and, when the growth stopped, the whole business collapsed, ” concludes the co-founder of BearBike and brand manager of Forward, Igor Gubarev.
Scooter sharing services are next?
So the bicycle fairy tale ended, but a new one is already approaching. In the USA, rental of electric scooters is developing at a frantic pace. Two market leaders – Bird and Lime – in just one year have gone from Silicon Valley startups to companies worth more than $ 2 billion. Their rise in detail repeats the history of the bicycle hype. There are also the first signs of an impending problem.
E-scooter sharing services have so overloaded the streets of San Francisco that some locals declared war on them. They break, throw out or otherwise make electric scooters unusable. While investors still believe in success.
Bird and Lime easily attracted $ 300 and $ 400 million, respectively, to a new ambitious project – access to European markets. However, it will not be easy to gain a foothold there. If in the United States local citizens confront scooters, the struggle in the Old World will go on at the federal level.
Experts divide the modern transport revolution into three stages: uberization, bike-sharing and, finally, rental of electric scooters. European capitals, already faced with the first two stages of the process. They are very wary of the third. If previously pirated methods of entering the market sometimes worked, now there is little chance.
Several years ago, Mobike and Ofo tried to introduce their service to London. They simply put 10,000 e-bikes on the streets, but met with a tough response from the city authorities and were forced to wind down their business. Paris recently survived a similar invasion, only from scooter-sharing services.
As soon as the city center began to littered with abandoned scooters, the French capital immediately introduced protective measures.
Today, operators must pay € 60 per year for each scooter registered in their system. The goal is to leave only large players on the market. Who are ready not only to put new e-bikes and e-scooters in service, but also to maintain them.
Maintenance is key
“Of course, micro-mobility is changing the infrastructure of cities, and the Chinese example shows that it happens when they are not ready for these changes. It will not be possible to repeat the bicycle pyramid neither in Europe nor Russia because there are not so many people here,” concludes Igor Gubarev.
When there are no billions of Chinese who bring in a few cents each, this scheme simply does not work. There is a reasonable initiative to sell the bike-sharing services to the cities themselves. This offers them a new type of public transport. The whole system costs like two trolleybuses. Now, the only remaining problem is the maintenance of the equipment. Even Moscow bike-sharing service with constantly growing coverage area, high-quality bicycles and reasonable tariffs still operates in the red numbers. “
Another problem is the safety of micro-mobility vehicles. It was the number of accidents involving electric scooters that forced the Madrid authorities to cancel more than a thousand licenses for this service within three days. Same for Barcelona and London, which banned the operation of such vehicles. Each city tries to develop its own rules, but there is no consensus, because there is confusion even in the terminology.
Electric bicycles are not motorcycles
“Some people think that the e-bike is when you sit down, press a button and go. But, in fact, the electric motor is installed for another reason. It does not carry you by itself, but simply helps pedal. Allowing you not to get tired on the hills and not to sweat on the way to a business meeting, (here are a few rules of not sweating on an e-bike in my post) ” explains the creator of the Triton Bikes bicycle company Dmitry Nechaev.
This is where the fundamental difference is between an electric bike and an electric motorcycle, which is another rapidly developing mode of transport.
In Japan, Suzuki, Honda, Kawasaki, and Yamaha created a consortium to develop common battery and charging station standards for common infrastructure. Motorcycle giants from Europe and America – KTM and Harley-Davidson showed their “electric trains”. And even Russian “Kalashnikov” charges not only automatic machines, but also its own electric motor called UM-1, which is still undergoing tests.
The main differences between a bicycle and a motorcycle have always been in the speed, weight and, of course, the presence on one of them of an internal combustion engine. Electric motor blurred this boundary. Today it is not difficult to accelerate a bicycle to 100 km / h or make an ultra-lightweight motorcycle, so the distinction is introduced by law.
In 2017 there were 500 thousand e-bikes sold in Germany. In 2018, already 900 thousand (every third new bicycle sold had a motor). The division is simple: any vehicle that drives at a speed of up to 30 km / h can be operated as a regular bike. If the maximum speed is higher, the bike should be registered, have a number plate and not be allowed to transport a child even in a special chair and a protective helmet. And even in this case, the e-bike should not go faster than 45 km / h.
The higher the speed, the more powerful must be not only the engine, but all the other components: brakes, transmission, wheels, suspension, and frame. “Some e-bikes are already putting ABS on,” says Nechaev.
Such “non-bicycle” technologies attract new manufacturers to the pedaling world. Motors now make not only cycling giants like Shimano, Specialized and Rocky Mountain, but also Bosch, Yamaha, and Panasonic. Automotive companies are also working on micro-mobility solutions, as they will have to compensate for a possible decline in their sales of urban vehicles.
This year, at the Geneva Motor Show, Škoda presented its electric bike called Klement, named after one of the founders of the brand. Who, ironically, began his story at the end of the 19th century with pedaling technology.
E-tourism is also coming
The electric motor changes not only the bicycle itself, but also the areas of its application. In addition to solving the problems of urban traffic, e-stories set new trends in tourism. (Read about an e-biking trip in Morocco in this post.)
“We are following with interest the development of electric bicycles,” says the head of the French travel company Club Med in Russia Olivier Monceau. We have 19 ski resorts in the Alps, where in summer such transport can open up many new opportunities.
If previously only trained sportsmen could withstand bike rides in the mountains, now it can be done even by children. Mountain biking instructors work for us at six resorts. And at the most modern one – Les Arcs Panorama – we now have training and cycling trips on electric bikes since this summer. ”
Athletes have also changed their views on electric bikes. “Five years ago, when I arrived at European bike parks, I was surprised to see rare e-bikes that appeared there from time to time,” says Ivan Kunaev, the champion of Russia in bike cross. “But how quickly everything changed!”
If the first electric bikes weighed about 30 kg and were not suitable for racing, today they “lost weight” by a third and got the geometry of their racing brothers. This allows not to limit their use any longer.
Due to the presence of an electric motor, there is no need to choose tracks, which are located next to the lifts. You can easily go to the trails, which previously had to climb to for a few hours on foot. Today there are even competitions for electrical bikes – a separate category was added to the EWS (Enduro World Series). ”
Traditional bikes are changing too
Traditional bicycles also change. Diameter and width of the wheels are increasing, the suspension is becoming electronically controlled, speed gears are becoming wireless, cables disappear, the chain is replaced with a belt.
“It is indicative to see bikes with 3D printed titanium frames on the World Downhill Bicycle Championship,” says cycle designer Alexander Nikolaev. “New technologies make it easier for interesting startups, including Russian ones, to enter the market. Triton company specializing in titanium bicycles is already well known in the world. Carbon manufacturers are actively developing, such as Pushka Bikes and Bjorn bicycle components.”
From once children’s toys, bicycles, and scooters are becoming modern transportation methods in front of our eyes. This is not only a change in the market structure, but also a cultural shift. “The main inhibitory factor in Russia is not the climate and not the shortage of bicycle paths, but the fact that there is simply no place to store bicycles,” said Igor Gubarev. “As soon as there are enough parking lots, the number of cyclists on the streets will immediately grow.”
In this regard, one can pay attention to Tokyo, where there are 74 bicycles per 100 inhabitants, and they are personal, not rental. There are very strict parking rules that impede the development of sharing. At the same time, there is an excellent robotized parking infrastructure. After all, no matter how comfortable the bike is on the street, not everyone is ready to keep it at home.
This post was translated from Russian and adapted. The original version was published on GQ. Photo credit – public domain.