Free-floating was born in China, thanks to the company Ofo, a bicycle-sharing specialist, which will deploy a first system in 2014. In recent years, free-floating has made its appearance in France and Europe. This self-service rental system allows a user to rent a vehicle at a point A and drop it off at a point B, without these points being specific terminals, which until then had been the most widespread model. Users can therefore pick up and drop off vehicles in the city as they wish. Vehicles are geolocated thanks to connectivity solutions and mobile applications make it very easy to locate, use and park a vehicle in a predefined area.
Total freedom, fun, speed, practicality, flexibility… The free-floating model has a lot of assets to seduce city dwellers. Less costly than systems that require public road improvements and a real complement to systems that relieve congestion on urban arteries, major European cities have been quick to deploy fleets of cars, scooters, scooters and bicycles based on this often ecological model, with electric vehicles. New players have positioned themselves in this niche but have quickly come to grips with the limitations of these devices. Problems of theft, durability of vehicles, incivility of users, lack of regulation, security, management of public space… As a result, we have witnessed many cross-fertilisation of players entering and exiting the free-floating market, failing to establish a solid economic model over the long term. However, the potential is enormous and has already proven itself, for example in Shenzhen where free-floating bicycles have replaced 10% of individual car journeys.
We therefore looked at the actual free-floating figures in order to separate preconceived ideas from actual performance and also to analyse the latest trends in this area.
Positive figures of free-floating
Free-floating is being introduced in cities as a complement to public transport and self-service vehicle offers. The aim is obviously not to cannibalise the offer, which is preserved for two major reasons: the shorter distances travelled by users and the price of these services, which is higher than for other self-service alternatives. It should be noted that according to the ADEME study, only a minority of users (20%) biked almost daily before using FFVs and 40% never used a bicycle before. This figure is much higher for scooters. This is a notable conquest, and one that continues the transformation of cities towards soft, multi-modal mobility.
A start full of panache, that’s what you can notice about free-floating. After only one year of deployment in France, free-floating bikes accounted for 20% of the country’s self-service bike offer. Free-floating scooters were an immediate success with users, with a start comparable to the Vélib scheme when it was launched.
Among the reasons for using vehicles in free-floating, 69% of users cite the fun factor, 68% the time saving and 22% the freedom to move freely from point A to point B without worrying about the bollards.
Difficulties on the free-floating experience
Insecurity is one of the major obstacles, cited by 68% of users according to the ADEME study, a figure to be taken in hindsight as it is a feeling shared by all micro-mobility users in urban areas. However, this feeling is reinforced when it comes to scooter users, a vehicle on which problems are tenfold.
30% of users of free-floating scooters admit to driving on the pavement and 20% of them admit to parking their vehicle in an awkward manner in public spaces. Same problem for scooters, a CityScoot study shows that 18% of users have received at least one ticket for annoying parking of a free-floating scooter over a year.
For cars and motorised two-wheelers, the regulations are obviously more restrictive since vehicles must be parked properly, which hinders the deployment of these solutions on a larger scale even if the automotive giants have not said their last word on the matter.
Financial health of major companies on the free-floating market
Cityscoot, Jump, Lime, Wind, Tier, Dott or Bird… all these companies have potential but have not yet proven their ability to generate profit in the long term. The first step would be to ensure the amortization of deployments, which was the challenge of this year 2020 for many of them.
Dott has seen an 85% drop in activity since the start of containment. Bird and Lime, the two American leaders in self-service scooter racing, are experiencing huge difficulties with waves of layoffs (30% of the workforce for Bird and 14% for Lime, instead of the hirings announced a few months earlier) and devaluations, and their balance sheet is not going to improve following the national containment. In this context, Lime and Uber are strengthening their ties around a $170 million fund-raising campaign in which Lime is taking over the assets of Jump, the micro-mobility service of the giant Uber.
Obviously, not all players are equal in the face of the crisis. In the automotive sector, it is the major manufacturers who have solid capital and who will therefore face the crisis. There are also companies that will compensate through their other activities, such as Uber.
New opportunities for free-floating
Pony Bike : the decentralized fleet belonging to its users
Pony offers a double alternative model to the classic free-floating models. Indeed, the company offers individuals the opportunity to become owners of self-service electric bicycles and scooters. Same system for the user, who will use an application to locate, unlock, use and pay for his trip. A system that has already conquered several cities in England and France, making everyone an actor in the ecological and economic transition around urban mobility.
Pony, creator of community around vehicles
Lara Trinh – Pony
Shared micromobility is a major opportunity to sustainably change transport habits. It is not a hobby or a fantasy, it is a key element in the package of services needed by those who make the effort to do without their car.
Pony is the only French player to offer self-service bicycles and scooters without a docking station and has created a sustainable and responsible model for tomorrow’s urban mobility. Indeed, in cities where Pony is setting up, residents have the opportunity to buy bikes and scooters from the Pony fleet. For each journey made, the owner gets half of the revenue back. The other half is used by pony for recharging and maintenance. It’s a model that gives city dwellers control over urban mobility.
The pony system changes the relationship between residents and the self-service vehicles in their city: this economic model creates a real community around the vehicles, which may belong to a neighbour, friend or relative. They thus become a good to be taken care of, not a disposable commodity: in the cities where pony is established, its model has led to a drastic reduction in acts of vandalism on vehicles.
Semi free-floating : the hybride solution
Once the coronavirus crisis is over, it will still be necessary to ensure a solid economic model for free-floating, which could find an answer in semi-free-floating. Between the classic model of shared mobility and free-floating, semi-free-floating consists in installing compact, inexpensive and easy-to-deploy recharging stations in part of the urban area concerned. This is a model that Zoov has chosen for the city of Bordeaux, on a fleet of 500 bicycles. The vehicles are equipped with two different types of batteries, community batteries that will be replaced by the company and USB rechargeable batteries.
A new sustainable and profitable alternative? To be continued…