When navigating an Indian city street, especially as a pedestrian, there’s a simple order one must follow. Avoid that bus. Then that car. Jump past that auto and the motorbike whizzing past it. You’re almost there. Now, look out for that bicycle!
Bicycles may be seeing a revolution.
Around a dozen bicycle-sharing startups have established themselves across urban India in recent months. Their survival will depend on an ability to navigate issues both hyperlocal and international. They’ll need to convince city governments to improve the sometimes dire condition of roads on which they hope customers will soon ride while holding off billion-dollar Chinese rivals that already know much about the business and see India as another country to dominate.
On the road
Amit Gupta is best known as the co-founder of the mobile advertising firm InMobi, destined to be forever known as India’s first unicorn. When I asked for him in the lobby of the company’s Bengaluru tech park office on a recent July afternoon, the man behind the desk looked at me as though I’d demanded all his cash.
Gupta still works ensconced in the familiarity of his most successful startup, but toward the end of 2017, he turned his attention to Yulu, a cycle-sharing company with roots in Bengaluru and Pune, of which he is also a co-founder. He quickly found himself outside the confines of the tech park and on the streets of Bengaluru, trying to track down company cycles that hadn’t been returned. These search-and-rescue missions are just one part of the business that, when it launched, he says he hadn’t considered. Now, Yulu has a team of “bike screeners” whose job is a combination of retrieving, cleaning, and maintaining the rides.
Mobike, the giant Chinese cycle-sharing company that recently launched its first India branch in Pune, has a similar team that retrieves and re-allocates their cycles, using smart locks to trace rides that have wound up in a side street or a tree. Neither company would comment on the size of its retrieval teams nor what they pay those employees, though Gupta said it’s been hard to find people who fit this multifaceted bill. Yulu also has a contract with a security firm they call upon when getting a cycle back is “difficult,” and the company files police complaints hoping to “deter repeat behaviour.”
Cycle-sharing executives talk more about trial and error than they do about rushing the market. They’re placing relatively small numbers of cycles on the streets of just a few cities and seeing how people respond. They’re figuring out how to ensure cycles end up in designated parking zones instead of ditches or inside someone’s home, and they’re learning how to talk to governments about the infrastructure and policies they’d like to see. They say they know large investments can lead to intense pressure to expand, and while it’s still possible that one company tries to raise enough money to bully out its competitors, executives are talking about measured growth and trying to bury the idea that their survival depends on locking down loads of cash right now.