If you live in a metro, you might have noticed people on little blue bikes zipping past you on their merry way, even as you’re stuck in traffic or waiting for your ride to arrive. Or maybe you have noticed bicycles neatly lined up outside a metro station with SmartBike stamped on them. What you are seeing is the new micro-mobility solutions that is taking Indian metros by storm. Several start-ups, including Yulu and SmartBikes, have launched app-based bicycles and electronic bike rentals across cities to ease traffic snarls and offer an affordable, convenient and non-polluting option to commuters.

If you have been debating whether to hop onto a rented bike to your destination, here’s all you need to know about the service.

Smart solution

The little blue bikes are Miracle bikes offered by Yulu. They are compact electric vehicles that come with an in-built IoT device, which makes them easily trackable, and therefore, theft-proof. The vehicles are equipped with a SIM card, and are bluetooth and GPS-enabled. “To rent a Yulu bike, you need to download the app and register. The app will help you find a Yulu bike zone and you will receive a QR code, which can be scanned on the bike to unlock the vehicle. You can use it for as long as you want and deposit it at another Yulu slot to end the ride," said Amit Gupta, co-founder and CEO, Yulu Bikes. The service was launched in Bengaluru and has since expanded to Mumbai, Pune, Bhubaneswar and Delhi.

Graphic: Naveen Kumar Saini/Mint
Graphic: Naveen Kumar Saini/Mint

Unlike Yulu, SmartBike offers regular bicycles, but intends to launch e-bikes soon. The bicycles are available near metro stations and major bus stops across Delhi, as well as Hyderabad, Chennai and Amaravati. To rent a bike, you have to install the ‘nextbike’ app, which will then show you a directory of SmartBike stations available in your area. The user is charged 500 at registration. Once you start using the service, this amount is used up as rental tariffs. You can top up your balance using your debit or credit card. Rental costs for non-members start at 10 per 30 minutes. They also have cheaper membership plans.

Suraj Mandal, 27, who uses Miracle bikes for short commutes, swears by the service. “They are sturdy and smooth to ride. I had no issues with the app either, and was pleasantly surprised to find that a balance of 25 was added to my top up amount the first time I used the service," he said. The Miracle bikes can run for around 60km on a full charge. The maximum speed you can go up to is 25km per hour. You can also pause the ride. “Another thing to keep in mind is that you can’t ride pillion on these bikes. If you get caught doing it, you’ll be charged a penalty Of 10,000," said Mandal.

Bridging the gap

According to a study conducted by the Central Road Research Institute in Delhi, for the average metro rider, the non-metro part of the commute, which constitutes getting to the metro station and to the final destination is just 20% of the total journey distance, but takes up more than 50% of the travel cost and over 40% of the total commute time.

This is where services like Yulu and SmartBike can come in handy as they are aimed at bridging the first mile and last mile connectivity gap. The metro or bus service can only take you to a certain point, but for many urban Indians, the short distance from there to the office or home is the real issue. Both Yulu and SmartBike have set up rental zones near bus stops and metro stations for easy access. These rentals can eliminate the need to haggle with an auto driver or booking and waiting for a cab—both of which are likely to cost you more. Autos in NCR charge a minimum of 30 for a ride, and even the fare for extremely short rides on Uber or Ola would add up to at least 50-70 (see table). In contrast, the charges for the electric scooters start at 10 and go up by 10 every 10 minutes, aside from a deposit of 250. “You can also keep the bike with you overnight under Yulu Keep for a charge of 90, and bring it back to the Yulu zone the next day," said Gupta. If you keep the bike, you might end up paying somewhere around 150, which would still work out to be cheaper than auto or cab rides to and from your destination.

Glitches to fix

While these services do offer convenience, according to online reviews by users, they have a few glitches that need to be worked out. Some are not too happy with the deposit amount these services demand, and complain that customer support is not as prompt as they would like. But there seem to be simple solutions to at least some of the problems reviewers mention, which the app can help you find. For instance, one complaint several reviewers had about Yulu’s Miracle bikes is that the code wouldn’t scan easily or that the bike wouldn’t get unlocked even if the code was scanned. However, according to Mandal, each bike also has a unique seven-digit number, which can be typed into the app to start the ride.

Another common complaint was the lack of convenient drop off points. “As a thumb rule, what we have seen in India is that there is a flaw in the system: there aren’t enough drop off points. So if a person takes a bike on rent, they really have to hunt for a dropping point, which becomes a liability. Where people generally need the last mile connectivity from needs to be thought through. If there is a metro or bus station, there should be a survey to find out what is the origin of the people coming to that spot. Based on that, if the company logically places the vehicle points, it can be really useful," said Parthaa Bosu, an environment expert and CEO, Domain and Functional Advisory, an environment consulting company.

According to Ranjit Srivastava, vice president, marketing and operations, SmartBike, the company has already addressed this. “We have conveniently located locations that are closely networked so that people don’t have to look for drop off stations. We also use our app-based platform to track all our bikes, docks and stations," he said.

The safety hurdle

Another issue to contend with when using bike rental services is that of inadequate infrastructure. Most urban roads in India don’t have proper bike lanes, which exposes riders to the risk of accident and injury; so these services can only be utilized in certain areas and at certain times of day. “There is no infrastructure for cycling in India. We have been trying by writing to different governments as the smart cities are coming up. They have been built in some places like Dwarka and Raipur, but proper implementation is not absent. There are no laws in place for bicyclists, not even the most basic rule of wearing a helmet. There are laws for every other vehicle but not for cycles," said Onkar Singh, chairman, Cycling Federation of India.

According to Gupta, while they don’t mandate users to wear helmets as bikes are not motorised vehicles, they do encourage a BYOH (bring your own helmet) policy. “We have had very few accidents so far. The number is in the single digits," he said.

Given the high air pollution levels in most Indian metros, especially the national capital, services like Yulu and SmartBike definitely seem like a step in the right direction for cutting emissions. However, according to Nityanand Jayraman, a social and environmental activist, they are unlikely to make much of a dent. “While such services can be a good solution for last mile connectivity, they won’t do much for the environment. Further, given the air quality in most Indian metros, the amount of pollution a cyclist will ingest especially due to exertion, can be dangerous," he said.

If you have trouble finding transport for short distance, bike rentals like Yulu and SmartBike can help you save money by forgoing that cab or auto ride. But keep in mind that these services are relatively new; so there might be some teething troubles. Micro-mobility solutions might be the future, but on ground, they still have some distance to cover.