The micromobility boom that’s flooded cities around the world with bike-share systems, e-bikes, and scooters has so far primarily offered mobility on demand. Step out of a downtown building or subway station, and an array of branded mobility options are just an app’s touch away. Go from point A to point B and leave the bike or scooter there for the next user to ride.
One new service that’s spreading across European cities adds a little more permanence to the micromobility concept. Instead of renting a bike by the ride, it’s more like a lease that can last a month or more.
The Netherlands-based company behind this concept is called Swapfiets, and it’s now operating in six countries in Europe. The fiets in its name is the Dutch word for bicycle, but it’s the swap that’s the main pitch to potential riders. Included in its monthly fee (roughly $20) are free repairs on flat tires and other mechanical issues, or a fully tuned replacement bike swapped in within 48 hours.
Though changing a flat tire on a bike isn’t exactly high-level mechanical engineering, it’s just one of the annoyances of bike ownership that inspired Swapfiets’s three founders to start the company in 2014 as university students in the Dutch city of Delft.
“Biking was the way for us to move around as students through the city, but it also provided a lot of hassle—buying, maintaining, selling, walking to the repair shop if it’s broken, stuff like that. So we thought about how we can fix that,” co-founder Richard Burger says. He and his co-founders wanted to create a way of “having the benefit of going from A to B without the hassle.”
So they bought about 40 used bikes, made a website and a Facebook page, and started Swapfiets. The first customers were other students, and Burger and his co-founders juggled running the company with wrenching bikes back into shape. “At first we were doing it ourselves—repairing on Sunday evenings and handing out bikes on Monday mornings,” he says.
Soon the idea caught on, and they began offering bikes in other Dutch cities. The company now operates in more than 50 cities and has 35,000 members in Amsterdam alone. In total, there are more than 200,000 Swapfiets users in the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, and Denmark, and the company recently expanded to Paris and Milan.
Burger says the growth is an indication that people want to have a bike without having to worry about dealing with even the fairly simple issue of fixing a flat. “It’s not a very complicated product, but still I think in our environment today, we find ourselves very busy doing all kinds of different stuff. I’m not sure if people really find that fixing a bike is a good way to spend their time.”
A lot of effort goes into making sure the company’s bikes need as few repairs as possible. “We started with off-the-shelf bikes and we measured the stuff that broke down and improved the parts on the bike so it breaks down less often,” Burger says. The company now offers a series of custom-designed bikes that have been adjusted over the years with maintenance-light features like a frame-mounted lock, battery-free dynamo-based lights, and a rack moved to the front after back-mounted racks kept breaking. The front wheel of most Swapfiets bikes is bright blue and has become a company signature.
Those blue wheels make the bikes easy to spot in cities like Berlin, where the company has been operating for the past two years. Lisa Ruhrort, who researches urban mobility at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center, says she wasn’t surprised to see the company become successful. “Particularly in Berlin and in the other large cities in Germany we’ve seen a rise of mobility services, which are based on the idea and concepts of flexible use of different mobility options,” she says.
Ruhrort notes that Swapfiets’s model makes sense for students or expats, or people who may be moving to the city for an undetermined amount of time. “Maybe it’s more convenient to say okay, I want to have access to this bike for six months and afterwards get rid of it again,” she says. “Mobility customers are very different in their needs, so there’s a lot of room for different types of services.”
Burger says the company will continue to expand using a combination of revenue and outside investment. The founders plan to begin operations in London later this year, and hope to continue expanding across Europe. There are no plans to move to the U.S. market yet, Burger says, but he isn’t ruling it out.
“Of course there are limits of growth, but right now we see a lot happening in the micromobility market, not just different modes but the market in general growing,” he says. And that means more of his blue-wheeled bikes popping up on streets around Europe. “For me, that’s one of the most fun things when I’m cycling to work or through the city, I’m in my head counting all the blue wheels that I see.”