What started as a straightforward bike-sharing operation quickly transformed into Urban Sharing, a tech platform that develops urban mobility solutions. The Oslo-based company is best known for Oslo City Bike, its flagship system, and now supports multiple international platforms, such as Edinburgh Cycle Hire, Trondheim City Bike, and Oslo Cargo Bike, to name a few.
Urban Sharing’s numbers speak to the company’s successes: From 2015 to 2018, the company tripled the number of Oslo City Bike trips and now boasts some of the highest use-per-bike rates in the world. Curious to learn more about what sets the company apart, we spoke with Axel Bentsen, CEO and founder of Urban Sharing, to learn more about the company’s origins and its vision for urban mobility.
What was your personal inspiration for founding Urban Sharing?
Initially we were not a tech company. In fact, our original intent was to finance and operate Oslo City Bike. This was in the midst of the dockless bike craze, which presents its own challenges. We discovered pretty quickly that the software we inherited needed to be upgraded if we were going to meet these challenges and ship our operation to other cities.
This was a pretty big task, so we created Urban Sharing to focus solely on the platform side of operations. We ended up creating a platform that was a unique mix of the new demand for dockless assets and the proven order of docked systems.
We now use this platform in Bergen, Trondheim, Edinburgh, and Oslo, and have plans to expand into even more markets this year.
Urban Sharing has a number of projects under its belt, beginning with Oslo City Bike. How did this project unfold and how has the city changed since?
There actually has been a city bike system in Oslo since 2002. A customer would use a card to access the system, which over the next decade became a bit outdated. A tender was put out by the city asking for a completely new system with both app and card integration, which we won.
When we began operations there were around 29,000 unique annual subscribers integrated into the card system. By the next year we had over 41,000 unique annual subscribers, of which only 70 users continued to use the card system. Most users preferred the app.
Since then we’ve tripled the number of trips per year from just over 900,000 in 2015 to 2.8 million trips in 2018. We had 53,000 annual subscribers in 2018, and 103,000 unique users in total. In 2015 each bike averaged 4.3 rides per day. In 2018 that number has almost doubled to 7.8 rides per day, which is among the highest use-per-bike rates in the world.
I wouldn’t say we created bicycle culture in Oslo, as that for sure existed already. But what we have done is help move bicycling from a leisure activity, to one people in Oslo feel comfortable incorporating into their daily lives.
What other projects are you working on?
Our primary focus has been on expanding how we think about Mobility as a Service (MaaS), both in terms of how long mobility services are available during the year, and what modes of transportation we offer to our users. So, over the winter, we tested a pilot winter bike program that is just now wrapping up. We have teamed up with Hertz Bilpool to work on a cargo bike pilot that would allow subscribers to transport large and heavy loads across the city.
We’re also very interested in new technology and tackling the challenges that come with them. In April we will begin testing a 400 e-scooter pilot in Fornebu – an area right outside of Oslo – so we can better understand how to apply our operational model to a semi-freeflow system. At the same time we’re heavily devoted to researching developments in e-scooters, e-bikes, hybrid locks, and other new technologies. We want to find ways to introduce these technologies into a city that are sustainable, responsible, and integrate well into the existing public transportation system.
What has the public reaction to these projects been like?
We have a platform which allows for customer feedback, which has been for the most part positive. Typically people who take the time to submit critiques either really love a service, or they have experienced a bad day, so direct customer feedback is not necessarily the best metric for determining user satisfaction.
Instead we look at the numbers, which speak for themselves. We’ve tripled the number of trips taken since 2015. This isn’t just from pouring in new users; a good many users are riding bikes more than they ever had before. For example, in 2015, the average number of trips per annual subscriber in Oslo was 33. In 2018, it was 52. This tells us that not only does Oslo City Bike have a good reputation among users, but that those same users are making use of our service more and more.
Your website states: “Most cities aren’t embracing the full potential of sharing technologies.” Are there cities that you think are taking advantage of these technologies? What do most cities need to improve?
What we’re really keen to talk about is how cities can improve the conditions that would lead to a better utilization of sharing technologies. One thing that is key is the ability to create regulations that stimulate responsible sharing rather than quashes it. You can only do that with data, and you can only do that when working within an environment where sharing data is part of the culture. The best solutions come when a ride-sharing service works closely with public officials and entities to create a plan that best serves the needs of the city.
But a city also should look at bike-sharing not as a trend or a company being allowed to plant its flag on its soil, but more as a long-term contributor to the overall public infrastructure. Bikes and e-scooters don’t have to be a replacement for buses and subways, but instead can be the missing piece that allows a user to go from one public transportation hub to another. There should be a conscious way of handling permits and regulations that doesn’t always just go to the lowest bidder.
What sets Urban Sharing apart from other sharing technology platforms?
We are a data-driven company that uses analytics, optimization, and machine-learning algorithms as a part of our operation. This places us in the forefront when it comes to predicting demand for bikes, e-scooters, and parking spaces at all stations throughout the day; predicting the need for maintenance; determining the optimal number of e-scooters and stations in the system; determining the size of our crew and evaluating various operational strategies; and determining the number of operational hubs, and where they are.
How did you source your funding as a startup? Which VCs or companies have invested in Urban Sharing?
Before accepting our first contract, we had spent a year and a half soliciting funds. This means we were fully funded from the day we began our first contract. From 2015, we’ve been financed by both Nordea Bank in Norway and by a number of founding partners. For the most part we have been funded through capital from the Selvaag Family.
We’ve increased our investment volume from NOKm 60-65 in 2016 to around NOKm 220 on our current contracts in 2019, initiating a second round of funding. In Q3 2018, we reached an agreement with Møller Mobility Group. Both Møller and Selvaag have since injected another NOKm 125, which has been a boon for developing future projects in urban mobility and urban infrastructure.
What are your goals for Urban Sharing over the next few years?
We’re in this for the long haul, and a lot of what we do is with a long-term strategy in mind. So you’ll see us supporting a wider portfolio of assets, such as e-scooters, e-bikes, and other emerging technology. We’ll work with cities to find a responsible solution to the e-scooter boom as it peaks and dissipates over the next year or so. We’ll continue to expand into both European and North American markets while exporting our Nordic approach to bike- and e-scooter-sharing. We’re very optimistic about the direction of this industry and what it can do to bring urban infrastructure into the future, and we plan on playing a big role in that.