Rekola four years on: Bold pink bikes in the public space capture imagination of cyclists from Prague to Brno

Photo: Gabriela Hauptvogelová

What began as Rekola, the NGO, is now an NGO-slash-successful socially-conscious business. If you need to get quickly from A to B in Prague or a number of other Czech cities, pinpointing the nearest Rekola bike through an online app is simple, and the bikes are easy to spot because they are… pink. For a mere 32 crowns for single use, you can zip around the so-called Pink Zone here in the capital. Rekola now has almost 15,000 registered users across the country and is even looking to expand abroad.

Vítek Ježek, photo: Martina Pavloušková
I spoke about Rekola’s services and success with one of the founders, Vítek Ježek.

"Firstly, we should talk a little about how Rekola works. The reason is because it is a little bit different from how other bike sharing schemes work. What sets it apart is that Rekola has no public stands where you borrow or return the bike. Our app shows you where the nearest of our bikes is to your current location and these are bikes which are locked with a normal combination lock.

“Through the app you obtain the lock code and you can unlock the bike and ride wherever you wish. When you are done, you lock the bike again either at a place where there are bike locks or a railing and then you click in the app that you have returned the bike so it can then be used by anyone else."

"Mostly we are using public infrastructure. We are trying to help the city with biking. And we offer workshops to the public so that they are not afraid to bike in the city. We help people who haven't biked in the city before overcome their fears and it isn't that hard, actually. We cover safety tips and then ride into the city together and later they feel more confident about driving in traffic, either with Rekola or with their own bike."

Prague is a very beautiful city but obviously it was never designed for car use and at times it can get very congested. Drivers also weren't so tolerant of cyclists in the past... Is the perception changing?

“We are trying to help the city with biking – to get people to see cycling as an efficient and cheap alternative.”

"I think so. On the other hand, here in Prague 1, they are trying to take steps which are rather backwards: to ban bikes in some areas altogether, in fact from a number of very crucial streets and I think this goes against the mindset of most European cities or even Prague as such. You have individual districts, like Prague 1, but then you have the city of Prague as a whole, the town hall, which is trying to improve things for cyclists, so this is rather crazy. Prague in general wants more cyclists, more routes, but Prague 1 argues it gets the most pedestrians because of the historic centre. But I think other solutions than a ban should be possible."

I was going to ask you if biking was your preferred choice over all other modes of transport.

"It isn't. I am not militant about it – it really depends on the situation. Some situations taking a bike is better, sometimes it is better to walk. I don't think it always has to be a bike at all costs.

Photo: Gabriela Hauptvogelová
The heart of this service, as you said, is really the application.

"That's right. It runs on Android, iOS, the code base is really big, we have a web application and SMS text service. We are not just in Prague but other cities as well and the application is really big, we have lots of employees and service people. The whole thing is very data driven. Based on what we learned, we put more bicycles in areas we know there is greater demand. The aim is to improve things even more for our users."

That's the beauty of the whole thing: you come, you type in the number that you get from the app, you take the bike, there’s no paperwork involved, you arrive at your destination and you leave it where you are supposed to and you walk away…

“Yeah, that’s right.”

Why did you decide the paint the bikes pink? To my mind there is a kind of punkish attitude there (ok, it reminds me of Never Mind the Bollocks as well as of countless art school student bikes)… but maybe I am reading too much into it…

“Because of the app, the whole thing is very data-driven: we are able to make adjustments based on how and where most clients use our bikes.”

“At the very beginning, you could say that the idea was quite ‘punk’. But the colour is not a reference to punk but to probability: there are studies which in the past showed that pink bikes were the least likely to be stolen. That was the first reason for choosing pink. Later, we found out that there were some other benefits as well: the biggest advantage is that because the colour is so ‘odd’ that the bikes really stick out and are noticeable even to people who haven’t heard of us, many people know us only as the pink bike project, nobody else has their bikes in this colour. So it works as a kind of branding.”

And the name, Rekola?

“Kola means ‘bikes’ in Czech and when we started we didn’t have any plans beyond the Czech Republic which is now happening. We are looking into possibilities of introducing our service abroad and re-branding there might be an option to consider. English-speakers otherwise sometimes think we are some kind of cola drink company.

Photo: archive of Rekola
“As for the ‘Re’ that is short for recycling. When we started the aim was to recycle old bikes, we held weekend workshops where we, as girls and guys, fixed the bikes mechanically and painted them pink. We wanted old used bikes to be fixed and out on the road again. Since then, we have upgraded to better bikes, better quality components and we even commissioned our own new design, so that more people would be attracted to the service. The new bikes are available in Prague and Brno.”

To me, it sounds almost like a lifestyle choice: someone who might be your core customer cares about recycling, about saving the environment…

“There is another aspect as well, and that is the use of public space. I believe in the public space. Here is the problem: in Prague many people don’t want to be in the public space, when they commute…”

They really want to just get through it as fast as they can…

“The number one motivation for me behind Rekola is that people use and enjoy the public space.”

“Exactly. My view is that the public space can bring great benefits and it is important to get out of one’s comfort zone. You can have a great time in the public space, have new experiences, be with your friends, live there and enjoy it. That is why I do regular flashmobs in Prague: we try to change how public space is perceived and games and other activities are perfect for that.

“For example, we built a temporary tearoom in the wagon of a metro train, or we organised a Counter Strike hub where we got together to play. There are lots of things which we are doing in the public space or transport, to get people to think differently. That, I believe, then has an affect or knock-on effect on politicians and political will. If you ask me what my main motivation in projects like Rekola is, it comes down to that: that the public space is not avoided and that it is used.”