Listen to this article
London’s streets are awash with micro-mobility companies.
From the bright green Lime e-bikes and Jump’s garish red e-bikes to the e-scooters from Lime (again), Tier, and Dott, it’s rare to walk down a road in Britain’s capital without seeing at least one vehicle cast asunder by a previous rider.
However, there is another company operating in London which stands slightly apart – HumanForest.
The bikes aren’t brightly coloured, instead choosing a muted olive frame with a brown seat. The bikes are well put-together and look, well, almost like a normal bike.
So, in a city filled with vehicles from well-backed startups, why is HumanForest plotting a different course? Auto Futures caught up with Michael Stewart, co-founder and Head of Marketing to find out more.
“We offer affordable mobility,” says Stewart, talking over a video call from the brand’s Islington warehouse, “which supports and helps the planet.”
“What I mean by affordable mobility is that we give 10 minutes to every user, every day for free. And I want to be extremely clear with this, we do not use any codes, any vouchers, any coupons. This is hardcoded in our app, so we offer every single user 10 free minutes the first time they use the bike every day.”
To some, this approach might seem counterproductive. Push notifications offering money off can be a great way to entice customers to use a product again but, according to Stewart, eschewing deals is all part of the plan.
“Last year,” he explains “there was an average of 30 million trips a day in London, 600,000 of those were made by bicycle. We studied the data a little bit more and we realised that almost 5 million of the trips that are made by cars could have been cycled because of the distance.”
“We realised the best way to encourage people to change their behaviour in terms of mobility was to give a free service, it wasn’t to try and charge upfront, to give subscriptions, nothing like that. Let’s just keep the service free and not just offer whatever kind of bike, but a really well-built e-bike.”
Stewart explains that half of Brits either have a bike or have access to one, so there must be a reason that some – even in London, a city not renowned for being car-friendly – are choosing to less sustainable modes of moving.
Despite currently operating just 800 e-bikes in select areas around the centre of London, HumanForest is already starting to see riders change their habits.
“The average trip that we are having is a little bit more than 15 minutes,” says Stewart. “It’s amazing because users can do whatever they want with the bike, they have proved they ride more than the free 10 minutes.”
“We also see how satisfied the users are with the bikes,” he continues, “they are using it on average 1.5 times a day – so this means a lot are using the bikes two or three times a day.”
“They are changing their behaviour. They are commuting in the morning and commuting back in the evening. And it was our mission to try to change the future of mobility, making it affordable to everyone, not just to an elite.”
The company has even started a new loyalty program to reward users with a free extra minute of riding for every five miles they cycle on one of their e-bikes.
Spotting the wood for the trees
The company’s branding, which seems remarkably out-of-step with its peers in the micromobility game, is no accident according to Stewart. In fact, in many ways, the company has made its offer fade into the background as much as possible.
“My job, being one of co-founders but also the head of marketing, was to build the brand,” says the Chile-born Stewart. “There were many ways to go here and starting with the name, ‘HumanForest,’ it has no relation to a mobility company.”
“Many people told us ‘No, don’t go for HumanForest, nobody is going to understand it.’ But we said to ourselves, when they understand what we’re trying to build, they will never forget our name. We say that, in a forest, trees capture CO2 but in a HumanForest, everyone can avoid emitting CO2 by using truly green e-bikes.”
Admittedly, the analogy might not make complete sense but, in a world filled with monosyllabic startups whose names bear just as little resemblance to their operations, does HumanForest’s name actually matter?
What matters more, however, is the company’s e-bike design.
“They are not flashy,” says Stewart, “we didn’t want to contaminate the city visually.”
“There are many people contaminating the city,” he says, before quickly clarifying “and I’m not talking about operators, I’m talking about the city as a whole. We didn’t want to put more trash into the street, we wanted to have a bike that looks like the one you might own, and you also want to take care of.”
The bike’s colour scheme, meanwhile, is “absolutely deliberate,” according to Stewart.
“We have a lot of people telling us ‘Are you sure you want to do something that people will not notice?’ That’s the point of it. It’s a HumanForest.”
For what it’s worth, in our experience, having spotted one of the bikes parked on Walworth Road in South London a few months back, you start seeing them everywhere whereas you previously wouldn’t have noticed them.
Operating in London
“I don’t think crowded is the right word,” says Stewart about the state of the London micromobility market. “I think demand is what I’m talking about but there is so much space to grow.”
“We love the competition,” Steward continues. “It’s competition that makes us different and, competition, regardless of how they operate, puts more people onto bikes and fewer people into cars.”
However, it isn’t just other companies that could cause problems for HumanForest.
London is split into 32 separate boroughs, each with their own elected councils and list of demands. Some boroughs, such as Bromley in the Southeast are huge, covering almost 60 square miles with a population of more than 300,000. Others, such as Kensington & Chelsea, cover less than five square miles but have more than 150,000 residents.
There’s also the City of London, occupying the traditional square mile in the middle of the city which has its own police force, rules, and a population of less than 10,000, despite more than half a million being employed there.
Meeting the demands and mores of these disparate boroughs can be challenging.
“It’s difficult because everyone is different,” says Stewart. “Think about a normal B2B company with 33 different clients that all have their own needs and their own view of the problem and the solution.”
“We came here with a proposal that is free for the community and is sustainable. It’s not just a free 10-minute ride, all of our bikes are recharged with renewable energy and our operational fleet – all the [Mercedes-Benz] Sprinter little trucks we use – all of those are electric and charged with renewable energy.”
“Every single battery is recharged with renewable energy and every lightbulb you have seen here, the computer I use in our office, our warehouses, everything is powered by renewable energy. We know that we are not using any mode of energy that pollutes the environment and we’re in the process of certifying it with First Climate.”
“It’s just a matter of time that we can add more bikes in more boroughs,” says Stewart. “But yes, it’s challenging because there is not one single entity you can talk to.”
Despite the challenges, though, HumanForest is planning to expand.
“The future of micromobility is multimodal and soon enough you will see HumanForest going multimodal,” says Stewart. “We will give different segments an alternative to move in a sustainable and affordable way.”
Despite starting small, HumanForest clearly has big plans for expansion in London. Whether it will be able to fight off larger, more established competitors remains to be seen. Giving away free bike rides, though, seems like a pretty good way to go about it.