Malta is not known for being a bicycle-friendly country. Despite this, you decided to invest in a bike-sharing service. What made you believe in the concept in the first place?
When I was living in Germany, I saw bike-sharing services becoming very popular. I immediately thought that this concept presents an opportunity for Malta. Bike sharing can reduce traffic congestion while promoting environmental sustainability and a healthy lifestyle. Cycling is also a stress-free and time saving alternative to commuting by car or public transport; it is not only easy to avoid traffic jams but it also reduces the need to find parking. We were obviously aware that cycling is not very common in Malta and that we needed to encourage a cultural and behavioural shift in favour of cycling. But this never seemed impossible; so I contacted Nextbike in Germany and told them that I am interested in setting up in Malta. I partnered with another local investor, and we invested some €500,000. We then launched Nextbike at the end of last year.
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What hurdles did you have to overcome initially?
Bike-sharing concepts are usually implemented in cities, not necessarily in an entire country. Although Malta has the size of a city, we had to deal with a lot of different authorities, for instance with all the councils in the localities where we planned to set up docking stations. This process was very time consuming. Research shows that if bicycle users don’t find a docking station within four hundred metres in densely populated areas such as Sliema and St Julian’s, most likely they will not make use of the system. We always tried to place the stations close to bus stops, so that bike-sharing can be linked to the public transport system. We also had to make sure that the bikes are sturdy enough for use in Malta. For instance, we needed to ensure that panel colours do not fade because of the sun and that the frames and stations would not rust because of the sea.
Can you tell us about the cost of bike sharing and explain the rental procedure?
Rentals are charged in 30 minute blocks, but we also offer annual membership: for just €80 per year the first 30 minutes of any ride are free. The pay-as you go charge is €1,50 for the first 30 minutes, and then €1 for the following. For members, it is €0,50. Once €8 are reached, you can keep the bike for the day. A free mobile app allows users to see the nearest stations and the number of bikes available at each one. It will also send the lock combination to release the bike.
"If bicycle users don’t find a docking station within 400m in densely populated areas, most likely they will not make use of the system"
Since you started, how has your business developed?
We started with 10 docking stations in December, but since then we have constantly expanded the network. We now have 50 stations and 300 bicycles. This figure will go up to 60 stations and 360 bikes shortly. We currently register some 200 rentals per day, and in the first three months of 2017 we saw rentals increase by 60-70% per month. We are aware that it will take time until we see large-scale adoption, but the results of the first few months are very encouraging. We are also noticing that the presence of our Nextbikes has encouraged more people to use their private bikes. This is a great development because it helps bringing about this much-needed cultural and modal shift.
What is the profile of your riders?
Some 50% are tourists, and some 50% are residents. Of these residents, 60% are foreign nationals and 40% are Maltese. We expected Malta’s expat community to be early adopters. Most of them grew up in European countries with strong bike cultures, where children from an early age are used to get around by bike. They are now pulling the Maltese, and from our usage patterns and times, we can clearly see that a large number of people use the bikes to get to work. Large companies, who are keen to see docking stations close to their offices, have also approached us. Some cover the bike-sharing costs for their employees, as they realised that it is much cheaper than refunding parking costs and providing sufficient parking spaces for all their employees. We now offer special corporate rates for companies wanting to offer this service to their employees.
THERE'S AN APP FOR THAT : Nextbike revolves around an electronic renting system which manages and unlocks the 300 plus bikes spread in various stands all over the island.
One of the main arguments against cycling in Malta is the lack of dedicated bicycle lanes.
This is true, and we heard many people saying that they are afraid of driving on Maltese roads. However, in the past six months, we had only one reported bicycle accident, while there are 34 car accidents reported every day. The probability of ending up in a car accident is much higher. We obviously advise bikers to be careful, and on each bike one finds a number of safety tips. It is also a chicken and egg situation, and the question is: could we have advocated for better cycling infrastructure before we had the system in place and people are using it? I think we have better chances now that we are already seeing the first signs of a growing cycle-culture.
"In the past six months, we had only one reported bicycle accident, while there are 34 car accidents reported every day."
What are Nextbike’s plans for the future?
We would like to cover Malta, and I think that this could be achieved with 600 bikes. We are currently working on a plan for Valletta, which is very hilly. We will shortly introduce e-bikes in the Bugibba/St. Paul’s Bay area. For us the most important thing is to maintain the level of service. We have a 24-hour hotline, while our service team checks the bikes daily. We run our own technical facility for bike repair and servicing. Customers can report a problem on the app or helpline, and within two to four hours we would have picked up the bike and replaced it.
What final comment would you like to make about the industry and Malta’s economy?
We, as Nextbike, can offer a great service, but we obviously cannot improve the infrastructure for cyclists on our own. I would like to see this move up the policy agenda, as I believe it is a key element for mobility in the future. I am also a huge advocate of the sharing economy in general. It leverages technology and community power. Malta’s economy needs to be a fully equipped sharing economy, and here I am not only taking about bikes but also about cars, houses, workspaces and so much more.