Bike sharing shifts into a more manageable gear

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by Pete Sweeney via Reuters Breakingviews

Bike-sharing companies are back in the saddle after a brutal wipe-out. Survivors are now pedalling their way onto public markets in a fresh test of investor endurance. 

China invented so-called “dockless” shared bicycles: hardy vehicles unlocked by smartphone and left anywhere for the next user. Mobike and Ofo spawned dozens of imitators at home and abroad. A price war ensued, while bike-strewn sidewalks irritated municipal officials, who cracked down. The collapse was brutal: Ofo had raised $2.2 billion, per Crunchbase, before it failed. 

Yet the concept, now extended to electric models too, still appeals to commuters seeking to shorten the so-called last mile between subway stations and final destinations. With the sector no longer swamped by entrants offering free rides, pricing models are rationalising. And public nuisance concerns are being addressed with artificially intelligent “geofencing,” which turns off electric models when they enter prohibited zones and disables bike locks. 

There are new sources of revenue too. Patrick Davin, founder of Mute, says he sells his scooter data to advertisers and companies wanting to analyse transit habits. One major electric car manufacturer even offered to supply him with free vehicles in exchange for movement pattern information, letting him keep rental fees – near-instant operating profit. 

New investors will soon opine on these improvements. Ford Motor (F.N) is considering selling its scooter-sharing service Spin, Bloomberg reported last week. China’s Hello, which says its Hellobike brand is the country’s largest provider of shared bikes and e-bikes with some 183 million users, recently disclosed plans for an initial public offering in New York. The Ant-backed company reported a post-pandemic 89% surge in bike-sharing revenue in the first quarter, to $180 million, from a year earlier, as overall losses narrowed. 

California-based Bird, meanwhile, is going public by way of Switchback II’s (SWBK.N) special purpose acquisition company in a deal that values the electric scooter enterprise at $2.3 billion. Although its top line is rebounding like Hellobike’s, Bird expects it will take until 2023 before adjusted EBITDA turns positive. The valuation represents 12 times projected 2021 sales, where Uber Technologies (UBER.N) trades at 9 times. Even with spiffier bike-sharing business models, investors may be wary of being taken for another ride.

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