Cycling in Czech Republic viewed as sport rather than means of transport, says Homeport founder

Photo: archive of Homeport

The Prague-based company Homeport, which is operating successful bike sharing schemes all around the world, including Great Britain, France or Saudi Arabia, is planning to launch its services in Prague. The company wants to take part in a public tender for bike sharing operators, which should be announced by Prague City Hall by the end of the year. Apart from traditional bikes, Homeport would also like to introduce electric bikes, which they believe are the best solution for Prague’s hilly terrain.

Photo: archive of Homeport
I visited Homeport’s base in the district of Karlín, where all of their bikes are developed and tested, to meet with the company’s founder, Charles Butler. I first asked him how he got involved in the bike sharing business:

“Originally, and that’s why it has the name Homeport, we started with the idea of unattended home delivery, but that didn’t work out for various reasons. But we have already developed this special lock and so we thought: what else could we use that for?

“And bike sharing in a way is the same process as unattended home delivery so we thought we would go in that direction. I think that bike sharing is so positive in almost every aspect, it wasn’t a difficult decision to focus on it.”

Would you say it is also profitable?

“Up to now we are on zero, which I wouldn’t say is a fantastic result, except for having a very good feeling, which is definitely worth some money. But I think it really can be profitable.

“We think that e-bike-sharing is something which is a big business and therefore the company involved in it in the beginning should make money.”

How long ago did you establish your first bike-sharing scheme and where was it?

“That was in 2009 in La Rochelle, France, so it has been seven years now.”

And I imagine that was preceded by a long phase of development.

“Yes, we spent two years developing on the top of what we had already done for the unattended home delivery. But specifically for bike sharing we spent further two years from 2007 to 2009 before we had something which we were confident could survive outside, used by many different people.”

So far Prague has only served as a laboratory, a place where you are testing all your bicycles, but you would like to launch a system just for Prague…

“I think that most people who cycle in Prague discover that it is incredibly quick to get from one place to another, particularly in the centre of town.”

“Exactly, Prague is one of the few towns in Europe which does not have a bike-sharing system. For us it has always been a slight source of embarrassment when asked how come that we are based in the Czech Republic and there is no bike sharing system here. So we are very happy that a decision has been made to install one.”

Would you be interested if the system wasn’t subsidised by the city? And is it in fact possible to run a successful bike sharing scheme without subsidies?

“There are no such bike-sharing systems in the world at the moment. Bike-sharing is a form of public transport and most public transport is subsidised. Dopravní podnik has a big budget trams and buses and the metro.

“But we have tried to develop our product to make it as close to break even as is possible, because we believe that if you want to make it really a mass product used by a lot of people, then it can’t cost the city a lot of money.”

So how exactly does the system work?

“There is actually not a business model yet, the tender process is only just starting. In a normal course of events the city runs a tender for the supply of the hardware, stations, bicycles, software and so on. Sometimes they announce a separate tender for the operations and sometimes a separate tender for sponsorship.

“There are two sources of revenue for these systems. One is sponsorship, which is often much bigger than the other, which is rentals or subscriptions by customers. One of the reasons why lots of cities make the system very, very cheap and the reason is that bike-sharing has a lot of health benefits for people.

“Someone in France actually calculated that every kilometre ridden on a bicycle saves 1.2 Euros in health care costs. And I am not surprised. My own personal experience is that if you ride for just five or ten minutes a day you definitely feel a lot better and happier, so it would make sense that it would have an impact on your health.”

Photo: Robert Candra
So what do I need to do if I want to rent your bike?

“You simply go to our page and register, it taken only about a minute, and you get sent a log-in number by e-mail and by SMSs, you stick those into the station and you can start riding.

What kind of bikes do you currently offer?

“We use Prague as a test site so we have a range of different bikes in fact, some have three gears, some have seven gears and some have no gears. At the moment, we are also starting with a few e-bikes, so we can see how customers react and how they use them.

I guess Prague would be an ideal place for e-bikes because of its hilly terrain...

“Absolutely, because most people in Prague live on a hill. The centre the lower part of the town in fact is quite a small proportion of the town. So I think if all the people in Prague are paying taxes for the system I think it would definitely make sense to have a system which would allow people to go home to Žižkov or whichever hill they might live.

“To have a system which is covering just the low parts of the town I think would be a pity and to have a non-bike system covering the whole of Prague would mean a lot of expenses in re-distributing the bicycles. Everyone is very happy to run a bicycle down the hill but without the help from an engine they are unwilling to go back up.”

One of the issues I guess you have to deal with when running a bike-sharing system is how to prevent the bikes from being stolen...

“I think you have to divide between normal bicycles and e-bikes. Our experience is that there is not such a big problem with theft of normal bicycles because they are very robust, they are designed to be outside for many years every day of the year, so they are not exactly high-tech mountain bikes most people would like to own. That’s the first thing.

The second thing is that if they are being stolen for instance to be scrapped, you would have to have a very brave scrap metal merchant who will take a bicycle which was absolutely obviously not privately owned, trying to make that into scrap metal. So for normal bicycles there is not such a big danger. The cost is more from vandalism than it is from theft.

“Everyone is very happy to run a bicycle down the hill but they are unwilling to go back up.”

“E-bikes, which is an entirely new thing, we think will be a lot more interesting for people to steal. They are significantly more valuable. So our bicycle has a GPS and GSM system integrated in to the engine controller so that we can then track the bicycle in real time, we can turn the engine off.

“And if someone tries to remove the GPS and the GSM from the controller to hide where the bicycle is, it will no longer work. So I think through those kind of technical solutions the bicycle will not be easy to steal.”

You were talking about health benefits of riding a bike. Would you say it is the biggest advantage of bike-sharing or does it really help you to get from one place to another faster?

“In Copenhagen, which is a sort of bicycling Mecca of the world, when they ask people why they ride by bicycle, more than 50 percent give as the main reason that it is the quickest way to get from point A to point B.

“That’s what really excites us about e-bikes, because on an e-bike you can go around 24 kilometres an hour, which in main cities is the fastest way of transport. It’s very pleasant, much nicer than sitting in your car in a traffic jam or being on the bus and so we think that e-bikes are an opportunity both for cities and for people.

But bike sharing is also very positive and has many ecological advantages. If everyone was riding on e-bikes instead of taking public transport, the towns would definitely be much nicer. It makes people healthier. It is really hard to find some negative aspects of bike sharing.”

You have also carried out a survey to find out how many people use bike to get to work... What were the results?

“In Prague it is about two percent, which is low, particularly because Czech people are sporty. I think the bicycle in the Czech Republic is viewed as a sporting activity, not as a means of transport. But certainly given the sportiness of the Czech people one would expect a much higher percentage. Equally speaking it has to be said that the percentage of people travelling to work by public transport in Prague is extremely high relative to other cities. So our task I guess is to try to persuade people who are in cars to move to bicycles.

Do you yourself cycle in the city?

Photo: Tomáš Adamec
“I do and I think that most people who do discover that it is incredibly quick to get from one place to another, particularly in the centre of town. Prague 1 looks like a town designed for bicycling. The centre is not possible to drive through so anybody who starts to ride a bicycle discovers that places they thought were going to take 15 or 20 minutes to get to actually only take about half the time.”

Having that experience of cycling in Prague, what would you say are the biggest obstacles?

“The cycling infrastructure is not good. There are no proper cycle lanes in most places and there are a lot of cobbles streets, which are not comfortable to ride.

“Our experience in other towns is that if you have a bike-sharing system installed, which costs relatively small amounts of money compared to making cycle lanes, politicians are more ready to invest the bigger money in proper cycling infrastructure, because cycling than starts to be seen as something not just done by sporting fanatics in lycra shorts, but as something normal people would do. And once politicians see it like that they are much more ready to spend money on it.”