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The bike sharing pioneer, nextbike, has been offering sustainable, reliable modes of transport since 2004. On this week’s Mobility Moments, we talk to Krysia Solheim, nextbike UK’s Managing Director. She previously ran nextbike Inc, the North American subsidiary. 

How does nextbike work?

It’s a simple concept – customers register for a nextbike account, and, using an app on their phone, find the nearest available bike and rent it via a QR code found on the bicycle. Customers either pay for the rentals via a monthly or annual membership, or on a pay-as-you-go basis.

In the UK, nextbike operates docked systems, meaning bikes have to be rented and returned at official nextbike stations. This helps keep vandalism down, enables the system to operate efficiently, prevents streets becoming cluttered with bicycles and ensures people can reliably locate our bikes.

Where are you operating in the UK?

We currently have nine in-house schemes and two license schemes operating across the UK, and more than 200 across the world. Our bikes can be rented in Cardiff, Glasgow, Stirling, Milton Keynes, Hillingdon, Warwick, Guildford, Swansea, Penarth (soon), Exeter and Belfast.

We’re currently in talks with several local authorities and regional bodies, and hope to expand further across the UK over the next 12 months.

The schemes have been wonderfully received since we started, and each new scheme is becoming more successful than the last. We’ve seen a significant rise in rentals over the past couple of years as people in the UK have got used to bike share, the many benefits cycling can bring and as cycling infrastructure has improved. We’ve had 2,651,946 rentals and our customers have cycled an incredible 4.5 million km.

How does the UK market compare to the U.S. market?

The U.S. market has consolidated in the last couple of years to two main companies, largely due to the fact that most new projects do not come with government funding. This means it is really only feasible for companies with venture capital to launch large systems.

The UK generally provides funding for bike share, though it also went through a recent phase where local authorities were requesting systems for free. Because of that funding, the UK has a larger number of providers and is a more robust market.

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What effect has the pandemic/lockdown had on the take-up of cycling and the use of e-Bikes?

The lockdown inevitably had an impact on rental numbers when all non-essential journeys were limited. But once restrictions were loosened, we saw numbers rise to the point that, in July and August, we saw the highest monthly rental figures ever recorded in several of our schemes.

We believe this was down to the reduction in traffic on the roads and a desire to avoid crowded public transport, coupled with the fact that more people were looking for a way to get fit and active after months of restrictions. In terms of e-bikes, private sales have soared in the UK, which means it’s the perfect time for local authorities to capitalise on their popularity and introduce them into bike share schemes.

How has nextbike helped key workers during the crisis?

As we watched the Covid-19 pandemic unfold across the UK, it quickly became apparent that we needed to think differently about how our key workers were travelling to and from work.

While the ‘stay at home’ message applied to millions, essential workers still needed to keep the country running – and what better way for people to get to work than cycling? It’s the ultimate socially distanced mode of transport, and it allowed people to avoid the risks of travelling on shared public transport when the infection rates were still rising.

Working with various stakeholders, including local authorities and sponsors such as Scottish Power, we implemented various schemes giving away free memberships to thousands of free workers in Glasgow, Stirling, and Cardiff.

What needs to be done to get more people cycling in the UK?

We know from experience that it’s not enough to put bikes on the streets and simply expect people to ride them. We need to normalise cycling for the masses – that means pedestrians, cyclists and drivers. The more bikes we see on the road, the safer cycling becomes as other road users become accustomed to sharing their space with them.

We also need to give people the confidence to feel safe enough to give cycling a go. We have groups of people getting back into cycling after not riding since childhood, and the results can be life changing. People are healthier both physically and mentally, they’re reducing their carbon footprint and they’re helping to keep congestion levels down.

Fundamentally though, it also means changing the way we allocate our urban spaces, which have traditionally been dominated by cars and other motorised vehicles. It can be daunting for experienced riders to cycle alongside city centre traffic, so it is a significant barrier to entry for new cyclists. It’s no surprise that a spike in cycling over the summer coincided with the huge reduction in traffic that we saw as a result of lockdown.

We have to create safe spaces for people to cycle in and we have to create cycle networks that are useful and connected so that people can rely on them to get wherever they need to go safely and efficiently.

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What will urban mobility look like in 2030?

I would like to see most major cities roughly allocating a quarter of current street space to active modes of travel, the same to mass motorised shared electric/hydrogen powered transportation (buses/underground and overground trains/trams/on-demand micro-transport); a quarter to private vehicles and a quarter to urban gardens or affordable housing.

The goal is to create and invest in liveable cities where we can all thrive regardless of our backgrounds. The way we choose to allocate space is a direct reflection of what we value, and I would hope that cities actively choose to value the right to physical and mental health, air quality, safe streets, affordable housing, and fresh and affordable food.

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