Operators optimistic as bike-sharing sees a quiet resurgence in Singapore, but experts say it is not a viable business model

There are now 40,000 bicycles used by two operators in Singapore for bike-sharing. — TODAY pic
There are now 40,000 bicycles used by two operators in Singapore for bike-sharing. — TODAY pic

SINGAPORE, July 29 — Despite the Covid-19 pandemic taking a toll on many businesses, bicycle-sharing seems to have maintained its popularity with operators looking to expand their business. 

There are now 40,000 bicycles allowed on the streets, an increase of the 13,000 available in June last year.

During its peak at the start of 2018, there were six companies — Anywheel, GBikes, Mobike, oBike, Ofo, Share Bike SG and SG Bike — offering more than 200,000 bikes. 

After four companies closed down between 2018 and 2019 and only SG Bike and Anywheel remain. 

These companies — originally considered the small players among the giants — have managed to outlast their competitors including Moov Technology, which in October last year attained a licence to operate 10,000 bikes. 

The company quietly left the market during the circuit breaker in April and May that saw restrictions imposed on movemnet and activities. 

On July 22, Anywheel received approval from the Land Transport Authority (LTA) to expand its fleet from 10,000 to 15,000 bikes. 

SG Bike is licensed to own a fleet of 25,000, with most of its fleet coming from an acquisition of Mobike in September last year.

What bike-sharing firms say

While the total number of bicycles available on the road did drop slightly during the Covid-19 pandemic — from 45,000 in January to 40,000 now — operators here said that they are optimistic about their survival. 

Anywheel’s chief executive officer Htay Aung said that he has seen an overall uptick in demand. 

Between December and January, his company saw a 68 per cent increase in ridership, with a sustained month-on-month increase between 20 and 30 per cent in February and March. 

He expects a 34 per cent increase in ridership between June and July. 

To cope with the demand, Anywheel has increased its manpower by 50 per cent. 

SG Bike did not want to reveal its ridership data in the past months, but its marketing director Benjamin Oh told TODAY that since the circuit breaker in April, demand has been “steady” and the company is observing longer usage for each trip taken. 

Both operators attributed the increase in ridership and time spent on the rides to more cyclists making short trips within their neighbourhood and avoiding public transport during the pandemic. 

“The significant increase in ridership is mainly due to our growing fleet size as well as the shift in preference in mode of transport as members of the public are practising social responsibility by avoiding crowded areas during peak hours due to Covid-19,” Htay said.

Oh said that customers were also using the bicycles as a means of exercise by cycling around their neighbourhoods and parks, while others have turned to shared-bicycles as they take on food delivery jobs. 

Over the last few months, the two operators have been revising the deployment of their bicycles based on consumer demand. 

Anywheel bicycles are being deployed to “townships”, Htay said, explaining that trips taken within housing estates have become “much more common during this period”. 

“For example, if we focus on Yishun, we will also focus on Khatib, Sembawang, Canberra, Woodlands and Admiralty to make sure that the whole area has a healthy fleet to circulate,” he said. 

Oh said that SG Bike will continue to be deployed at key transport nodes including MRT stations, bus stops, as well as at requested cycling routes such as East Coast Park.

Htay said: “With or without the pandemic... we strongly believe that micro-mobility companies like Anywheel can grow organically and in a sustainable manner, thus achieving profitability.” 

Agreeing, Oh said that SG Bike will “continue to work towards (making bike-sharing) the fourth mode of transport in Singapore”. 

What analysts say

While operators are seeing a rosy future for bicycle-sharing, transport analysts interviewed by TODAY were less optimistic. 

The bike-sharing model, they said, has never been profitable globally and they do not expect such a model to work in Singapore either. 

Associate Professor Park Byung Joon, an urban transport expert from the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS), said: “Given that now, far fewer people are travelling to work (due to work-from-home arrangements), this is a bad time for any kind of transportation industry.” 

As for people cycling more around their neighbourhood as the operators had described, Assoc Prof Park said: “For Covid-19, we are supposed to go grocery shopping less frequently (to reduce interactions), which means that you have to buy a lot more than before With that tiny little basket on the bicycle, how much can you hold?

“There may be an increase in ridership but if it’s only 20 people doing it is it going to increase enough? I doubt that.” 

Agreeing, transport economist Walter Theseira from SUSS said that for frequent use such as for exercise, people would much rather buy their own bicycle than rent it. 

“(This is) because they value the performance characteristics of owned bicycles, (and look for) better quality,” he said. 

Asked whether 40,000 bicycles is a “sweet spot” for the industry — where there are enough bikes to conveniently commute yet not too many that bikes are haphazardly parked — Dr Theseira said that it remains to be seen. 

“If firms have a small number of bicycles and you can’t find a bike when you need it, you will stop relying on the system,” he said. 

“But when you provide a large quantity, that drives up your costs, and if the commuter isn’t willing to pay for availability through higher rental fees, that model doesn’t work.” 

Dr Theseira noted, however, that Government regulations are helping to keep the industry on the right track. 

“The business prospect as an unregulated industry is close to zero because of the low barrier to entry, which encourages competitors to simply dump bikes on the street,” he said. 

“As a regulated industry, where you can control total numbers, you may be able to charge enough to make ends meet.”

While the experts said that the bike-sharing industry still appears to be an unprofitable venture, this may change in the long run, if the Government provides subsidies. 

“If bike-sharing helps to substitute for public transport cheaply, it might make sense for the Government to subsidise users the same way that we are currently subsidised when taking the MRT or bus,” Dr Theseira said. 

“But bike-sharing needs to first prove that it fulfils that need well.”  — TODAY

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