In 2008 the then-mayor of Montreal called on the city to develop its own solar-powered bike share system. With a CA$25 million investment, it came up with the concept and product now known as BIXI — the station-based public bike-share scheme that debuted in 2009 with 3,000 bikes and 300 stations. The project’s success drew worldwide attention: cities like London wanted to buy it for themselves. This led to the creation of PBSC Urban Solutions and the export of the BIXI idea internationally.
But over time, the city came to realise that its role as a public body wasn’t to act as a private company and in 2014 sold PBSC’s international activities to now-CEO Luc Sabbatini.
“Once we took over PBSC, we invested a lot of money in research and development to improve the software, the bikes and charging stations,” says Sabbatini. “In 2015, there were 15 cities with PBSC. Today, we are operational in 35 cities and have an exciting pipeline for 2020.”
With many cities already expanding the PBSC bike-sharing service, Sabbatini and his team have entered new urban ecosystems, including Barcelona, Monaco and Sao Paulo, cementing PBSC’s status as a world leader in micro-mobility solutions.
Avoiding a Dockless Disaster
Cities around the world are constantly fighting a micro-mobility war, as countless companies are flooding the roads with bikes and scooters. This may help improve the awareness of micro-mobility services, but it has created a bit of a mess, with bikes thrown in lakes and scooters collapsed across footpaths. However, through the use of smart docking stations, PBSC has created a solution that allows customers to digitally lock their bikes to selected areas in the case of overcrowded drop off points.
“A few years ago, you had the ‘Asian invasion’ of dockless bikes with the likes of Mobike and Ofo,” continues Sabbatini. “Quickly, everybody realised that this was creating a mess; bikes were thrown all over the streets and there was no thought to safety.”
PBSC’s model allows operators to monitor bike health and location remotely. It has two e-bikes: the first developed a few years back and one that debuted last January. Unlike with dockless e-bikes, where operators often have to swap out batteries, PBSC give cities the option to charge directly at the dock. When bikes dip below a certain charge percentage, they are locked and cannot be checked out. This way riders always have access to a bike that has enough charge to get them to where they are going.
“If a city is serious and sees this as a genuine part of their transportation system, they should invest in bike-sharing the same way they invest in public transport,” he adds.
Novelty vs Solution
Micro mobility has, in its infancy, divided opinions within the industry, as some people still believe they are still a novelty over a genuine urban solution. However, with the right set up, these services are able to take cars off of the road and significantly improve emissions.
PBSC wants to satisfy both sides, focusing on helping commuters and casual riders through simple QR codes, a smooth application and allow a hassle-free ride for people travelling around the city.
There’s a lot of companies that are in it for the show, launching good looking mobility products that catch a lot of attention. But, when you put the bike or scooter into circulation, you soon realise that they don’t live up to the hype.
“When you put these bikes on the street, they have to deal with such things as the weather and people throwing them around. They have to be sturdy,” warns Sabbatini. “Our bikes are designed and developed for bike-sharing, so there’s a difference in terms of reliability.”
He tells me that, in London alone, PBCS has some bikes that have covered 60 thousand miles – that’s more than what most people drive. He also tells me that there are bikes back in Canada that are over 10 years old with no issues at all, thanks to routine maintenance.
“Sure, there are some bikes that are ‘sexier’ than our bikes, but they just won’t last. You need to start from scratch, invest and update when needed,” continues Sabbatini. “We have over 80,000 bikes on the street and not one of them has been sent back due to a cracked frame or anything like that.”
It is a different mindset that will make a service like this succeed in the overcrowded e-bike market. It’s not about the flashiness of a product, but how it can directly impact and improve city life around the world. Sabbatini is in it for the long-run. In fact, he tells me that his team calls the company “the best-kept secret in the bike-share industry,” as PBSC avoids trying to be flashy, focusing its efforts on clean, sustainable and efficient micro mobility solutions.
“We’re supposed to be in a green environment and you still have huge dockless-bike graveyards in parts of the world. We’re supposed to get cars off the street but, instead, we’re dumping a tonne of scrap bikes and scooters. It’s time to change.”