Unpacking world’s largest bike sharing startup Ofo’s India plans

Shadma Shaikh May 23, 2018

Pandurang Gaikwad or Gaikwad kaka as he is fondly called in the neighbourhood of Parvati Hill in Western Pune, pedals his way to work on a Humber cycle every day. Gaikwad is 68 and he has been cycling for 40 years now.

“Pune was a different city at that point,” he recalls. “The four-lane and six-lane roads that came along sadly had no lane for cyclists,” says Gaikwad, who now works at Vikram Pendse Cycle Museum, a year old establishment that reminds you of Pune’s legacy as a cyclist’s paradise.

From the late 70s through the 90s, cycling was big in the city. Gaikwad recalls “the golden era” of cycling that started from the year 1978 and lasted till about 1994.

“Those days, every other Sunday there was a cycling tournament, some were national level, some state level. In 1978, I successfully completed one of these tournaments that started in Baroda and finished in Mumbai. It was a very different kind of thrill and craze back in those cycling days” recalls Gaikwad, who now helps restore old and damaged cycles at the museum that has vintage cycles from the pre-independence era on display.

On his six kilometre ride from home to the Museum in Karvenagar, Gaikwad has been spotting these colourful cycles on the road lately. “You can book them from a mobile app,” he says. His scepticism for borrowed cycles aside, it makes him happy to see more cycles on the road.

Pandurang Gaikwad, 68, veteran cyclist
Pandurang Gaikwad, 68, veteran cyclist

The glory days of cycling aren’t coming back to Pune. But cycling might see a revival as more than half a dozen well-funded companies launch bike-sharing services in densely populated Indian cities. Most of these companies are running pilots, but in the next 6 months to a year, they’re likely to put millions of bicycles on the road.

These new age cycles–yellow, neon green, teal blue and so on– are a new hope. They don’t pollute, they’re a cheaper and healthier mode of transport. But we’ve seen this movie before: city administrators and private companies announce grand plans that hardly work.

But this time it could be different. There’s a new scalable business model built around the concept of ‘dockless’ bike sharing in town and there are nearly half a dozen new companies, including the world’s largest bike sharing company ofo, looking to grow their market in India.

Ofo announced its entry into the Indian market early this year, followed by Mobike, ofo’s competitor in China and another billion-dollar Beijing based bike-sharing app. This was a little over a month after the homegrown Zoomcar launched Pedl, its own pilot of dockless cycles. Then there are others like Bengaluru based Yulu, Gurugram based Mobycy and Ola’s Pedal.

Dockless bikes don’t need a dock to park. Customers can use an app to unlock the bike, use it for a ride and leave it when they are done. The nifty mobile apps obviate the need for expensive docking stations and make bike sharing a scalable solution. This seems to be working in China, where millions of people shared ofo’s bikes. The company which was started by five students at the Beijing University in 2014 now operates in 250 cities across 21 countries. Ofo, backed by Alibaba is the largest bike sharing app in the world. It operates over 10 million bicycles globally and is valued at $3 billion and India, where millions of people commute to work, is their next big market.

The Chinese company quietly launched in the country sometime in February. It has been testing the service in closed environments like apartment complexes and university campuses. It’s already seeing early traction. Ofo executives told FactorDaily that it had already received more than 1.1 million orders in India in the first quarter of 2018.

Ofo wants you to leave your car at home–much like Uber, but better. This approach promotes sustainability. “It’s not just about long mile connectivity,” says Dexter Sim, regional expansion manager, APAC, ofo. “If I know that my last mile and my first mile is guaranteed and covered, I can safely leave my car behind. Only then can we make a difference,” says Sim, a Singapore national. The idea is to flood the market with cycles that you can always find one.

“We are taking a conscious step by step approach,” says Rajarshi Sahai, director of public policy and communications, ofo. This involves understanding the nuances of the market, hiring and training in local talent and working with city administrations to create bicycle-friendly policies. Ofo has been hiring city heads, someone with decent knowledge about the city to work with different stakeholders–urban planners, government bodies, regulatory authorities.

“We have to ensure that we are feeding in the right kind of signals, right from managing the government’s view, helping them understand why this good for the country to reaching eyeballs in terms of customers to a range of stakeholders around this ecosystem,” says Sahai. “We don’t want to rush into it and risk it in being the cause of cynicism.”

In March, Ofo rolled out its first set of bicycles in a township in Pune. Its service is now available in seven Indian cities, including New Delhi, Indore, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Pune, Coimbatore and Chennai. The company, known for its rapid global expansion, follows a ‘minimal exposure, maximum learning’ approach, which helps them change and tweak their strategies as per the market.

“In India, we started with identifying pockets where we can add value on a regular basis. Townships like Magarpatta where people commute short distances on a regular basis proved out to be a good use case,” says Sahai.

Sahai says they’ve started identifying pockets where there would be a repeated use case for users, for example, residential societies closer to technology parks where people would use cycles to ride to work.

Responding to the growing use of cycles in Magarpatta township, authorities have painted some lanes yellow for cyclists, says Sahai. Ofo started its rollout in three types of pockets: residential colonies like Magarpatta in Pune, tier 2 cities like Coimbatore and private educational institutes, like university campuses. Users have to make a Rs 99 deposit but the rides are free for now. Sahai said the company will have a creative pricing announced soon based on the kind of use cases the company has seen so far.

The data factor

For a four-year-old startup, ofo’s growth is eye-popping. It has 200 million users across 251 cities who have completed 6 billion rides. On an average day, the company clocks 32 million transactions. Ofo uses this user data to figure out which areas need how many cycles. The company uses telematics to analyze bicycle density and bicycle efficiency in any area over a given period of time. This helps ofo decide where it needs to deploy more cycles.

“Data constantly tells us how to rebalance our cycles, how to operate within an area by reaching maximum demand in the least expensive way possible,” says Sahai. We were able to achieve an average of 17.5 rides per bicycle a day in Pune because we use data to deliver our bicycles in areas where they are needed the most.

During their initial pilot in Pune, the company used its data platform and geolocation to identify hotspots in the city. The company has a fleet on the ground to transport cycles from one place to the other. The platform also uses additional data such as weather and road conditions and events in the city to predict demand.

“Globally, we see ofo as a tool that has enabled commuting,” says Sim, an Indophile. “We want to feed into the transport network system and improve the overall efficiency of the city traffic by helping people commute quickly.”

Challenges Ahead

In theory, ofo has a clean vision for India– an agile model that can be tweaked by thorough study and understanding of the local ecosystem. To its credit ofo gets a few things right. When it launched in UK and likewise in India, it took a more formal route of working with the government and regulatory bodies before its launch. Players like Ola and Uber in the past had to face the wrath of local governments in India when they announced their bike-taxis without taking government’s approval.

Ofo has a global version of the app that also incentivizes good behaviour for parking cycles in preferable places on the app, giving free rides as incentives. It gamifies the app, provides credits to the user for good behaviour and deducts points for unruly behaviour like leaving bikes in danger zones or damaging the cycle.

All of that, however, hasn’t stopped the issue of bicycles blocking freeways, abuse and vandalism of their cycles in China. If ofo were to scale like China in India, vandalism would certainly be an issue they will need to deal with. Moreover, India’s infrastructure is still not very friendly towards cyclists.

Policies helping build an ecosystem

Though India lacks basic infrastructure for cycling– separate lanes, safe parking zones and the likes– local governments are keen to help. Cities like Pune and Coimbatore have come up with a policy that allows smooth operation for bike sharing companies. Other cities will follow.

Kunal Kumar, former commissioner of Pune Municipal Corporation who brought the policy in practice said that it makes the corporation a facilitator. This means that any private company that signs a memorandum of understanding with PMC can operate in the market and will receive assistance from the corporation.

As a part of the MoU, the corporation helps these companies maintain discipline on the road, allot them parking spaces and helps reduce vandalism. The companies are required to share traffic data with the local corporation to help solve the traffic congestion in the city.

Opening up the market has created a healthy competition among bicycle sharing players, says Kumar an IIT Roorkee alumni who served as commissioner for nearly 3 years.

“Just like Ola and Uber operate in the private car space, citizen can have 3- 4 mobile apps like these on their phone,” says Kumar. He estimates that there are nearly 4500 new cycles in Pune. “In the next 3 months I expect the number to move to 20,000 bicycles,” he said.

Vikram Pendse Cycle Museum in Pune

Sankriti Menon, programme director, Centre for Environment Education (CEE) and a consultant on Pune cycle plan said that the corporation is also working on creating infrastructure– dedicated cycle tracks and 800 cycle stands in the city to make cycling more user-friendly. Menon, an avid biker herself, says with the launch of new players that have started operations in different pockets of the city, she has seen people from all age groups and economic backgrounds using these cycles– from newspaper vendors to senior citizen groups.

Competition helping ecosystem growth

China had an exploding traffic and pollution issue much like India when cycle sharing apps like ofo and Mobike came in as a respite. It, however, took China two years to make cycling a habit. Not to forget it involved generous help from deep-pocketed venture funds and an established infrastructure. India, according to players in this space has a chicken and egg problem.

“If there are more cyclists on the road, infrastructure will follow. Or it will all happen at the same time,” says Amit Gupta, founder of Yulu, a dockless bike-sharing app operational in Bengaluru and Pune.

Gupta says we cannot wait anymore for infrastructure to be built. In the past, there have been dedicated cycling lanes, blocked by motorists because there aren’t enough cyclists on the road. The idea with new generation cycling companies is to get as many cycles out on the road as possible, he says.

Greg Moran, founder of Zoomcar that launched Pedl cycles in October last year says that infrastructure or even safety of cyclists is not a deterrent for people who want to use a bicycle. “If people in India worried about safety no one would ride on a motorbike here,” says Moran. Pedl has deployed 3000 cycles across 12 cities. Last year India overtook China to emerge as the world’s biggest market for two-wheelers. A total of 17.7 million two-wheelers were sold in India in 2016, according to Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers.

Ofo also believes that competition in the space will prove to be an important factor for the space to grow. “It cannot be a one player game,” says Sim. Companies like Ofo have a market advantage because of the scale at which they operate globally, says Kumar, who will be joining the central government as joint secretary of Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs. “They (ofo) have started with the right nodes but scaling up is a larger part of the problem and in the next 3 months you will be able to say if they will be successful.”

Urban experts, however, believe that throwing bikes at the problem may not be enough to move the needle. A mindset change is needed. “Lack of safe infrastructure for cycling and a mindset issue at policymaker level are the two main deterrents in India for cycling to go mainstream in spite of presence and efforts of large players like ofo,” says V Ravichandar, urban planner and Chairman of Feedback Business Consulting Services Pvt. Ltd.

Having more bikes at public disposal will help create a fad about cycling, but for it to be an alternative to car or motorised transport, major innovative changes need to be made at infrastructure level and policy level, for which the mindset currently does not exist, says Ravichandar.


With additional reporting by Jayadevan PK
Visuals: Rajesh Subramanian