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From borrowers to buyers: How bike rentals open the door to new consumers

Consumers have more options than ever for borrowing and renting bikes –  Alex Ballinger explores the impact of bike sharing on the industry

Bike rental is nothing new. I’m sure most of us have some experience with borrowing a rickety old mountain bike to explore forest paths, or darting around European capital cities on loaned hybrids during weekend breaks, but this corner of the cycling market is in the midst of its own revolution.

With bike rental apps popping up in cities across the UK, it’s now easier than ever to unlock a shared bike and cruise to your destination, as most of the traditional barriers to cycling wash away thanks to cheap, reliable, and most importantly temporary, bike usage.

But how does the surge in the popularity of shared and rented bike schemes impact retailers? With potential riders now able to conveniently test the waters of cycling, without the need for cycle storage, without fear of theft, and without the initial upfront cost, could we see a change in the nature of bike ownership as we understand it?

Stepping stones to ownership
The first step in the bike rental journey comes from the influx of app-based shared transport schemes currently being trialled across the UK, like those run by Berlin-based company Tier, currently operating in 17 countries, including an e-bike and e-scooter scheme in London.

“We do not envision rental e-bikes replacing private bicycle ownership,” Tier’s vice president and regional general manager Fred Jones told BikeBiz, “but rather attracting new riders who would have otherwise used a car for all or part of a journey. Shared mobility is often spontaneous mobility. For people who regularly use their own bike, shared schemes offer the preferred mobility solution for unplanned trips and when their own bike is not available, and e-bikes can therefore play an important role in the urban mobility mix.”

I recently had first hand experience of this spontaneous appeal Jones mentions, when travelling home from central London after seeing friends. While public transport back to my home in South London, a five-mile journey, would have taken an hour, I instead opted for a shared e-bike ride home, which took less than thirty minutes and cost £5, just £1 more expensive than the same journey on the London Underground.

But while a shared bike is an easy alternative for someone like me who already refers to themselves as a cyclist, what appeal is there for ‘non-cyclists’?

“E-bikes are also very accessible for people with varying levels of fitness. They can be a great gateway into traditional cycling for people who are less confident about using a bicycle, supporting them to switch to greener modes of transport. We strongly believe we are entering the golden age of cycling in cities, with places like Paris and Barcelona leading the way,” added Jones.

There are still limitations to these app-based e-bike rentals however, as schemes are still limited to larger towns and cities and often don’t cover entire areas – in London for example, rented e-bikes are not available across all boroughs, leaving some residents out in the wilderness when it comes to easy-to-access shared transport.

An unexpected trend
Fortunately, major brands in the cycling industry have been quick to adapt to the changing nature of bike ownership, foremost amongst them Brompton. “I can understand from a retailer’s perspective that it could be quite scary,” said Julian Scriven, the managing director of Brompton Bike Hire, “but we see no cannibalisation at our end – it’s quite the reverse.”

Brompton has recently launched a long-term bike rental scheme, getting more people on bikes through a monthly subscription service. The monthly rentals, which are an extension of Brompton’s existing short-term hire programme, let riders pay a £60 monthly fee for a folding bike delivered to their door, with free servicing and repairs, along with accidental damage and theft insurance included in the price.

Explaining the development of the long-term subscriptions, Scriven said: “Last year especially we were seeing very extended rental periods, far above the normal rental periods of four to five days. We realised people were holding onto bikes for an average of 30 or 40 days. And of course while our day rental is incredibly cheap, if you start doing it for 30 or 40 days consecutively it ceases to be so viable.”

The success of Brompton’s subscription service may on the surface offer a shift away from traditional bike ownership, but the numbers are in fact revealing another story, according to Scriven.

Around one third of Brompton Bike Hire members in the last two years have actually gone on to buy a bike, Scriven said, suggesting there is a clear pathway from wanting to use a bike purely as low-commitment transport, to becoming a bike owner. Brompton is also putting in work to make that pathway more enticing to renters, offering a discount to bike hire members who eventually decide to buy their own Brompton machine, with the discount increasing for every month  spent renting.

The London-based bike builder also limits options for its rental schemes, so any consumers wanting a choice of colour or gearing have to consider making the jump to buying their very own Brompton. Scriven added: “If one in three bike hire members are going on to buy a bike via the retail trade, our hire scheme is already stimulating thousands of sales a year through the retailers.”

Back to basics
The trend seen by Brompton is also reflected at grassroots level thanks to work by Cycling UK, a registered charity for cycling advocacy, through its Community Cycle Clubs programmes across the country. Through the Community Cycle Clubs projects, Cycling UK lets riders from underrepresented backgrounds borrow bikes, removing that major barrier of bike ownership.

Andrew Cremin, director of policy change with the charity, said: “It’s not specifically around a different model of cycle ownership, but it’s primarily about cycling activity in underrepresented communities. One of the key barriers to cycling is bike ownership – what we have in a lot of these groups is demographics where they don’t have bikes, and what we do is help provide those people with bikes.”

Cycling UK often relies on donated bikes to help run its 146 active groups and is always on the hunt for more donations and volunteers to help its activities. Recent research from the shared transport charity CoMoUK found that 12% of people who had used a shared bike scheme went on to buy their own bike, which reveals the potential the cycling industry can tap if the rental revolution continues.

Julian Scriven from Brompton summed up that potential: “If we want to get as many people cycling as possible, we have to have the maximum amount of choice.”

Alex Ballinger

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