BENGALURU, Karnataka—Last week, Uber announced a tie-up with Yulu to solve the problem of what they called “micro-mobility”, or as the rest of us call it, bicycle and scooter rides.
“These e-bikes can clock a speed of 25 km/hr (yes, faster than your average traffic speed), and users don’t even require a licence to ride one of these,” Uber said, in a cheery press release.
Cue complaints about reckless riding, even more reckless parking, and the fact that technology companies continue to see public infrastructure as resource to make private profits off.
Search for Yulu and Footpath on Twitter and you can see many, many people making similar points. People complain that it is inconvenient for pedestrians, and has captured footpaths. It’s not a problem restricted to Bengaluru either, as this tweet from Pune shows, and you’ll find similar tweets about Vogo and Bounce too.
Not known to park their own vehicles correctly, entitled young Indians have been using rental two-wheelers so misanthropically that companies have been forced to tweak their apps to ensure users don’t literally leave these rentals in the middle of the busy streets.
Yulu, and competitors Bounce and Vogo lead an increasingly crowded field of companies that allow users to walk to one of their kiosks, unlock a scooter or e-bike using an app, and ride off to your destination. Instead of dropping the scooters back to the spot where you rented them, these companies let you make one-way trips much like you would in an Ola or Uber.
If they work, they companies could fix what urban-planners call the “last-mile problem” — that is the distance between a commuter’s final destination and the closest bus or metro station. For now, they seem to be getting on the nerves of everyone who isn’t on one of them.
“My office cab drops me around 1Km from my house,” said Poonam Gupta, an IT worker in Bengaluru, who said she enjoyed her walk home from her drop-off point. “But ever since Yulu picked up, the footpath here has become unusable. These cycles are regularly blocking off two sections on my walk, and for both I have to walk on the road.”
How do the apps work?
E-bike companies are attracting serious money. While Yulu was launched by InMobi co-founder Amit Gupta, who raised funds from Blume Ventures and Flipkart co-founder Binny Bansal among others, Bounce has raised funding from major-label venture capitalists like Sequoia India and Accel India. Vogo is funded by Ola and Kalaari Capital.
In all three, you need to download an app which directs you to the nearest available bike. The app lets you unlock your ride, and also handles payments. Both Vogo and Bounce ask you to upload your drivers license for verification before you can use them, while Yulu needs some form of ID but not necessarily a driver’s license.
The main difference is in how the companies handle the end of each ride. Yulu and Vogo both ask you to bring the scooter to a designated parking zone to drop it off, while Bounce lets you stop the ride anywhere you like—just find a place you can park and you can leave.
“The app includes a map to the nearest Yulu zone, and there will also be signage there which a user can see,” said Amit Gupta, CEO of Yulu, in an interview with HuffPost India. “This is very convenient for the users, and it also reduces the costs for us, because the scooters are less scattered, less vulnerable to theft. When you rent the bike, you start the trip, like on Uber, and when you are done, you have to end the trip. We only let you end the trip in a Yulu zone.”
Bounce on the other hand is completely dockless—this means that you leave the scooter where you want.
“You have to end in a publicly accessible, legal parking. When you rent the bike, we ask you to say where you’re going, and we suggest the nearest parking for that,” said Varun Agni, one of the co-founders of Bounce. “You don’t have to go where you said you would, as long as you’re within Bangalore limits, but that’s just how people use the service.”
Low charges and convenience are big selling points
Bounce charges users Rs 5/km and 50 paise a minute, while Vogo is still cheaper at Rs 3/km.
“The average length of a ride tends to be 6kms,” said Bounce’s Agni, adding, “but there is also a lot of micro mobility, like going from Jayanagar to Kormangala [which can be around 2-3 kilometers, depending on which part of each locality your endpoints are].”
“Some people also take it for longer distances, like traveling 30kms to the airport, it costs around Rs 250 for the ride,” he added.
“It’s [Yulu] only Rs 10 to start a trip, plus Rs 10 for every ten minutes, so a 20 minute trip is Rs 30,” said Yulu’s Gupta. “Scooters are already profitable, because of the high ARPU [Average Revenue Per User]. And we are using charging stations with swappable batteries, which costs only around Rs 7—8, and we have an ops team that goes around redistributing the bikes in different Yulu zones based on the predicted demand, as well as charging the batteries.”
The on-ground team travels in Tata Ace trucks, which can be used to pick up Yulu’s small scooty which was designed for portability and long battery life. They replace the scooty battery, or pick it up and move it to a new location that has more demand, although Gupta said that 85% of the bikes don’t need to be moved, only 15% do.
For many people, it’s been a huge boon. “My office is close to my house, it’s about 5Km. I used to take a bus on most days, because autos say that they get stuck in a one-way, and so they need to charge Rs 150 each way,” said Neelam K., who works as a hairdresser in Bengaluru. “Vogo worked out to between Rs 30 and Rs 40 one way, which is perfect for me,” she added.
On Twitter, user Akshay Joshi posted that he hired a driver for his car via on-demand service DriveU, who arrived at Joshi’s location using a Bounce scooter.
“Yulu’s cycle was not very useful, because the road isn’t great and it’s not very safe,” said Priya Sen, an IT worker living in Sarjapura Road in Bengaluru. “The electric scooty is nice though, I’ve taken it to go watch movies sometimes because it beats driving a car in this city,” she said.
The future is electric
Yulu worked with a Chinese manufacturer to develop the Yulu Miracle electric scooter, and it’s seeing this segment really take off, although it intends to keep investing in bicycles too. Others, such as Bounce’s Agni also see electric as having a lot of potential.
“We’re also very bullish about it [electric vehicles] and are not going to ignore it. Right now, we handle refueling through our on-ground team, but apart from that, we have a system where users can refuel the scooter at a petrol pump and we incentivise this by paying the money back to their wallet, and giving them a small financial reward.”
“The unit economics and maintenance benefits of switching to electric are very encouraging, and we already have a trial with around 100 electric scooters,” Gupta said.
Bicycles on the other hand have not been as successful in the market—although Yulu still feels that increased vehicle density will make bicycles a hit. Electric assisted bicycles could bridge the gap between pedal powered bikes and scooters, but Amit Boni, formerly with Smartron which manufactures the TRONX ONE electric assisted bicycle, said that it’s not likely to see wide adoption of such products in India.
“There are a lot of regulatory issues, and a lot of people want to make trips of 12-15Kms, which is not something that you want to do on a thin frame bike,” said Boni. “Scootys are going to be the next growth engine.”
How are companies handling the issues like bikes parked on sidewalks?
Perhaps the most interesting challenge for companies has been trying to engineer a more civic-minded citizen.
Yulu told HuffPost India that to keep people from leaving bicycles and scooters in the middle of the road, it’s now asking people to park in designated spaces, and won’t allow them to end the trip elsewhere.
Bounce on the other hand will pay any fees that get run up if a vehicle gets towed for being improperly parked—but then this will be applied to that user’s fees, and they won’t be allowed to book another scooter until the fee is paid.
Small steps like these are welcome, but it’s going to take greater engagement with the city authorities to actually develop a working plan where these companies success also contributes to improved infrastructure, otherwise in the long term, they’re going to become a bigger problem than the one they’re out to solve.
“Bike-sharing platforms have tremendous potential to grow, the question is about creating parking spaces,” said Vivek Vaidyanathan, lead (urban transport) at the Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy in an interview. “There should also be a regulatory framework to ensure there is no oversupply of such vehicles in Bengaluru.”