The neon green and silver symbols of U-bicycle are all over Victoria streets, and local bike rental companies say that’s exactly the problem.
Doug Turner, president of Cycle BC, a company that rents motorcycles, scooters and bicycles out of a downtown location on Humboldt Street, says revenue is down since the dockless bike share company rolled into town.
“We play by the rules and we do what we can to support the local economy,” says Turner, who feels the City’s allowance of U-bicycle has created “an uneven playing field” for the bike rental market.
While the company may have been intended to appeal to local commuters, he says, it’s obvious U-bicycle is now infringing on some of the tourist dollars he and other similar businesses rely on, particularly at this time of year.
Turner expects to see some businesses close by next summer. While U-bicycle’s presence in Victoria was slated as a one-year pilot project (it began in September 2017), he says the damage is already done.
“The mayor has done a lot of work in Victoria to make it bicycle friendly and for many merchants, it’s been a disruption,” he says.
Turner claims the City gave U-bicycle special treatment – the mayor and City staffers learned more about the business model and technology during a trade mission to China – and didn’t consult with local businesses offering similar services.
And, Turner doesn’t think U-bicycle is as green an option as it bills itself to be; he says the kind of bike the company uses isn’t designed for long-term use and many are discarded.
“Here we’re charging five cents for plastic bags and stopping using straws, but we’re using disposable bikes,” he says. “I don’t think it’s a particularly green item.”
|U-bicycle launched in Sept. 2017 and now operates close to 500 bikes throughout Greater Victoria. Kristyn Anthony/VICTORIA NEWS|
When disruptive ideas come, it takes everyone a while to adjust, says Mayor Lisa Helps.
“We need to take the concerns of the bike stores fairly and we need to understand the U-bikes are there for a completely different purpose,” she says, calling U-bicycle a “first mile and last mile solution.”
She cites the example of a transit user who may only need the use of wheels for a 10- or 15-minute cycle home from a bus stop. “You’re not going to a bicycle store to rent a bicycle.”
Car share and car rental companies have found a way to co-exist, Helps continues, because they happily fill different niches. “If U-bike didn’t fill a need, they wouldn’t have any customers.”
And, being a pilot project, U-bicycle will come up for review and Helps is open to making changes in order to be sensitive to the needs of the bike shops: “Our job as the city is to make sure we regulate businesses fairly.”
U-bicycle – a Canadian company founded by three female graduates of Simon Fraser University – purchased the technology from China and CFO Angel Fu says the business employs six people locally.
The technology itself is U-bicycle’s primary overhead cost – the bikes use a remote GPS system activated by mobile apps – she explains, and a virtual storefront doesn’t come cheap.
“We are the first to introduce such a new technology to Victoria and we can understand a lot of people don’t understand it,” she says, adding a comparison of the two business models isn’t exactly “apples to apples.”
Before launching U-bicycle, Fu and her team consulted with local cyclists and determined bike rental companies were “not there to serve local residents.”
The target market for U-bicycle is “anyone who wishes to use bicycles to get from point A to point B conveniently,” but Fu says 75 per cent of their active users are local residents.
Roughly 500 bikes make up U-bicycle’s fleet across Victoria, Saanich and Esquimalt. Fu says the company operates independently, with no subsidy from the City of Victoria, and shares cycling data from its GPS system with the City’s urban planners.
“Whenever technology can provide a solution to a traditional business model, somebody is going to be upset,” Fu says. “We’re open to these discussions, but at the end of the day, we’re trying to provide a solution.”