Is subscription the future of urban cycling?

We’re witnessing the end of bike ownership in urban areas, writes Tom Hares, co-founder and CEO of Buzzbike

Last spring, with £2 billion promised by the Government for cycling and walking initiatives, we were promised a ‘golden age’ for the bike following lockdown. For a long time now we’ve been told that a greener future means more people owning bikes. However, I’m of the firm belief that we’re witnessing the end of bike ownership in urban areas.

Thanks to the pandemic, the demand for bikes has spiralled with people rushing to secure a limited supply. For those of us championing bikes as the silver bullet to solve many of the issues at the centre of city life, this was our nirvana moment in the backdrop of a crisis, the true beginning of a global cycle revolution.

Whatever sector of the bike industry you were in, buy, share or in our case subscribe, the result was record sales numbers. Over the last 12 months our fledgling business, which is based on bike subscription rather than ownership, has grown 450% and, whilst this once-in-a-generation shift to two wheels was getting the headlines, there was an equally profound subplot emerging.

The largely millennial first-time cyclists drawn to subscribe vs. own were a fresh breed of new cyclist. Before the pandemic, first-time cyclists had carefully considered this decision, had likely been meaning to do it for years, had spent time thinking about what bike to get, how they would deal with repairs, purchased theft insurance, researched equipment and planned their routes to work.

This new group of newbies were very different. They had little time to ponder or prepare. Their demands were for a turnkey solution that offered everything they needed in one package on their terms. To subscribe was completely natural. If we are to realise more liveable cities through a cycle revolution it is this group – the 90% not currently cycling that we will need to convince. This reinforced our belief that subscription was the future of urban cycling and what we were witnessing was the beginning of the end of urban bike ownership for the next generation.

“What about “Boris Bikes” – London’s bike share scheme or the plethora of bike share options spread across our pavements?”, I hear you ask. We absolutely believe they will have a role to play but are publicly focused on what is known in transportation as “the last mile” – essentially filling in a part of your journey versus the primary way we get around. It’s very unlikely they will ever be able to reach the coverage to be convenient enough to get us from A-B daily, are often too heavy and uncomfortable for long journeys or in the case of the more desirable electric versions, are prohibitively expensive.

OK, so as a founder of a bike subscription company, I would say the future is bike subscription, so let’s look at some of the evidence. First, it’s hard to avoid the meteoric rise in subscription services, catering for every aspect of consumer life to the point that the average household now has seven subscriptions with an estimated annual spend of £700, double what it was in 2017. From the once unthinkable, now “traditional” music and TV subscriptions to pet food, meal boxes, craft beer, beauty and even coffee pods, with customers prepared to pay £25+ per month for a supply of their favourite brand of caffeine.

The mobility market has been slow to catch on but in the last few years many of the leading car makers have realised they need to move swiftly to avoid becoming the next Blockbuster (who were famously slow to realise the pace at which Netflix was taking over) and are rapidly rolling out their subscription offers to keep up with changing consumer needs. So why not bikes?

We buy into subscriptions for one of five reasons: reduced cost of entry, convenience, a curated experience, personalisation and controlling monthly outgoings. At Buzzbike, we tap into each of these areas to provide a holistic approach to starting and keeping our members riding by making it super easy to start, with no big upfront cost of purchasing a high-quality commuter bike (compared to a £450 outlay – the average cost of a bike in the UK). For a first-time cyclist, being able to access a high-quality bike daily is vital in giving cycling a proper go without the commitment of purchase.

When they are up and running it then becomes about convenience and experience – which any reputable marketeer or trend caster will tell you are vitally important aspects to a millennial purchase decision. After all, who wants to be spending their time fixing (or paying for someone else to) their bike if we can come to you and fix it at your door or replace it if it gets stolen in one touch on our app.

More than ever, as we head towards lockdown easing, connecting with new people, seeing new things and enjoying the best of city life will be more sought after than ever. Rather than just having a bike, a subscription bike can provide members with education, support and community through road-ready workshops, group rides, cycle-friendly turn by turn navigation and treats to the best food, drink and experiences in the city the more they ride through a virtual reward currency.

Subscriptions are becoming the new normal, there’s a growing need to solve the issue of urban mobility as city populations swell (70% of us are expected to live in cities by 2050, up from 55% today) and, on top of that, a younger demographic is demanding more than a transactional relationship from every purchase. All of this combined means that we’re convinced we are at the beginning of the end of urban bike ownership.

Will we see the death of bike ownership overnight? Will it be everyone? All types of bikes? Of course not. But the change has begun and it’s a transition we expect to be complete by the end of the decade.

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