Riding the e-scooter wave

Thanks to the initial lack of enthusiasm towards bicycles, mobility startups—like Mobycy—are now increasingly turning to e-scooters.

But Bengaluru-based two-wheeler rental platform Bounce hasn’t given up on bicycles yet. It has reportedly bought out Ofo India’s bicycle assets. Now, why is a two-wheeler rental company interested in cycles? Possibly to have a fleet of a range of two-wheelers. Multiple requests for an interview were turned down by Bounce CEO Vivek Hallekere.

Bounce’s rival ONNBikes has a similar story. The company’s Chief Marketing Officer Akashdeep Singal told The Ken that ONNBikes started off as a weekend leisure product. People used to rent out bikes—mostly the Royal Enfield Bullet—to go on weekend joy-rides. But this is changing, says Singal.

“So, in the last one year, all the startups in vehicle rental space started to understand the potential of solving the problem of a daily commute, rather than the aspirational weekend commute market,” he says.

An excellent opportunity to evolve

Ola, too, seems to have smelled this opportunity.

In December 2018, Ola announced a $100-million investment in VOGO and its e-scooters. But why would an “on-demand” player suddenly shift focus to the self-drive market? Is there a last-mile in Ola’s services it’s trying to connect?

Industry experts that The Ken spoke to say that the typical users on public bicycle/scooter rental services come primarily from three usage sets:

Ola and Uber users, especially the Uber POOL and Ola Share user base.
Regular metro and bus users who would try out cycles/scooters instead of walking to these stations.
People looking to get a quick morning/evening ride to work and back.

Self-drive has now also evolved into the sub-division of “dockless” (pick and drop and anywhere) and “docked” (pick up and drop at designation stations). Because of this, the likes of Ola would also be able to access areas where their cars and autos couldn’t go.

Mobility sharing startups that The Ken spoke to—including VOGO, Mobycy, ONNBikes, Ofo, Yulu and others—pointed out that their early pilots revealed three kinds of usage networks: the office-goers who use public transport, students within educational institutions, IT parks, and residential areas. By segmenting the market this way, the placement of scooters/bicycles is established. But before that, they assess if the bikes should be docked or dockless.

Dockless or abandoned?

Both models come with their own advantages and financial risks. The docked variety comes with the obvious benefit of making cycles traceable. It is also easier to maintain as the pickups and drops happen in designated parking stations. However, it falls short on last-mile as the user has to make their way to the bike, making it self-defeating. Dockless, on the other hand, helps the customers pick the bicycles up and drop them off anywhere. But it comes with the demerits of higher expense, vandalism, theft; it’s also a lot harder to locate if lost.

Whether docked or dockless, the underlying tech interface for enabling a bicycle or a scooter-sharing product is a bigger priority. Thanks to exploding smartphone growth (especially in cities) and mobile data, startups have their first problem solved: locking and unlocking of vehicles. Today, startups like Bounce and VOGO depend on OTP-based authentication to this effect.

Reports by the Uber

The tech, however, isn’t new and, scooter-sharing is taking off in a big way in, say, the US. In fact, Uber claims that the number of riders registered by its new electric vehicle JUMP has seen an actual jump during peak hours in cities like San Francisco (and a drop in Uber cab requests), saving time and fuel. Can this happen for India?

Maybe, but India will first need to address the lack of safety on roads, the negligence and corruption at the municipal level before one can even imagine it.

Shrinath V, a tech consultant, who first tried out Yulu bicycles for fun is now dependent on them for his last-mile commute to the gym (from his house) which is under 2 km. But he doesn’t use it for long commutes as it’s “too risky to go out cycling in Bengaluru roads without a helmet”. Of course, not being handed a helmet is a deterrent among Indians which these startups must consider.