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This crowdfunded project wants to transform electric bike-share

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HumanForest wants you to give it a million quid.

In exchange, the team there promises to provide 1,500 shared electric bikes across 15 London boroughs next year. There’s more: there’s no unlock fee and the first 10 minutes of every ride is free.

These are big claims – is there a catch? Well, sort of. A couple. The company doesn’t have any bikes right now. After running a successful pilot in Islington and Camden over the summer (starting 23 June) with around 200 bikes, HumanForest discovered a defect with the bikes. The whole lot was returned to the supplier, bringing a rather definite end to the pilot programme on 21 September. Oh, and those free minutes? Paid for by advertisers showing you promotions at the beginning and end of a ride.

Neither of these are insurmountable problems. Acquiring a fleet of e-bikes is simply a case of amassing lots of pennies and then spending them. HumanForest started off with an investment of £1.8m. The return of the faulty bikes apparently came with a full refund, so the operator plans to use the cash it currently has to keep running the business over the winter before roaring back with better bikes and lots more of them. The small matter of the £1m crowdfunding campaign, due to begin on 17 November, will be used to buy the new e-bikes and enthuse riders prior to the business opening its doors again.

The advertising, too, need not be an issue. Actually, it’s pretty clever. Advertising is a powerful tool, and companies such as the FT can buy more minutes for riders, to use as promotions or company perks. There’ll be question marks over data mining, of course, but a company spokesperson insisted that only appropriately anonymised, aggregated data is provided to advertisers.

As to whether it can be a sustainable business, the jury is out. The pilot programme was seeing ridership numbers of 7 to 10 j/v/d (journeys per vehicle per day), according to the company, which is extraordinary. But with no unlock fees and small geographic area, there can’t have been much cash coming back to the company.

On the other hand, the nation-wide explosion in bike use over the summer and reticence by many to use public transport won’t have gone unnoticed by companies who usually advertise on the Tube or buses. HumanForest provides an attractive, rider-targeted alternative location to spend those marketing dollars.

HumanForest uses geofencing to create designated, virtual parking areas and adjustable speed limits, and the new bikes will feature internal locking mechanisms to minimise touchpoints. The company plans to add another London warehouse to its existing facility, from where a fleet of electric cargo bikes and quirky electric drop-side vehicles can easily cover the territory for rebalancing and maintenance duties. And the new e-bikes could hit streets as early as Spring 2021.

The biggest hurdle HumanForest will face is one that no amount of crowdfunding or big investors will solve: getting approval from London boroughs to expand across the city. Other bike-share operators have tried and failed. The regulatory environment may be changing, along with the appetite of boroughs to find new ways to move their residents around safely that don’t drain the council coffers. But there are simply no guarantees at this point.

HumanForest’s spokesperson points out that an incoming byelaw in early 2021 should remove the need to add borough permits one-by-one, adding : “We have either an MOU [memorandum of understanding] or a right to park in eight boroughs right now, so to get to 10, given the environment by Spring, is doable.”

The operator is trying to create a community of loyal users-turned-advocates, much in the way that Tesla has managed to do in the electric car space. Any investors in the crowdfunding campaign will get free ride minutes as well as a little slice of the company.

Our take

We like the concept of HumanForest, and everybody loves free rides. We worry, however, about the scale of ambition being promised to everyday investors.

While we are not financial advisors, we’d simply say to those thinking about raiding the piggy bank: as with any similar initiatives, read the small print and interrogate the figures before committing, and don’t put in any more than you can afford to lose.

But we would also strongly advise advertisers to give HumanForest serious consideration. Getting more shared e-bikes on the streets of London is the best thing you could do with your ad bucks, especially for companies based in the capital.

Good luck, HumanForest.

This article was updated on 09 November 2020 to include comment from HumanForest its anticipated situation with regards to borough permissions.

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