Have you seen these mysterious e-bikes?
A couple of well-known startup guys in Los Angeles have launched a new electric bike company — backed with millions in venture capital dollars — and they’ve chosen downtown San Diego as their first market. The company has unloaded 500 electric bikes in the Gaslamp, and the founders say the adoption has been “explosive.”
The new company is called Wheels, and their bikes are a bit different than their competitors. The startup was founded by the two brothers behind the popular dog-walking app Wag, which raised nearly $400 million and is used in over 100 cities. They’ve recruited executives from Uber, Bird and Lyft, and they just closed a $37 million round of financing to push Wheels to other cities.
The brothers — Jonathan and Joshua Viner — quietly unloaded 100 of their electric bikes in the Gaslamp district for a test run in December. They say San Diegans immediately took to the bikes, with each unit getting more than seven rides per day. That was enough to warrant Phase 2 of their roll-out: deploying 500 bikes this week in the Gaslamp, and they’re rolling out more bikes in College Heights, Pacific Beach and Seaport Village now, a representative said.
The bikes are free to unlock and cost 25 cents a minute. By comparison, their e-bike competitor, Uber’s Jump brand, costs $1 to unlock and 10 cents a minute. Wheels is running a promotion from now until Feb. 1 in which users can get unlimited free rides on certain e-bikes downtown.
What’s different about Wheels?
These electric bikes have a few bells and whistles — like a built-in bluetooth speaker system so users can pair their phones and ride with tunes — but the company says their competitive edge has more to do with their operations plan. The marketing message behind many of these e-bike and scooter companies is that they’re helping cut down on traffic and allowing users to be more eco-friendly. But most companies see their products beat up, abused and scrapped on a regular basis. That can’t be sustainable, the Viner brothers said.
“When we evaluated this market, we identified a major opportunity to better serve cities with a sustainability-first approach to dockless electric mobility,” said Jonathan Viner, president at Wheels. “We’ve spent countless research and development hours on new manufacturing and servicing models to afford first-ever offerings such as swappable part replacements and removable batteries.”
The company has its own employees in San Diego, a Wheels representative said, whose sole jobs are to maintain the bikes. They say their bike design and maintenance structure allows the dockless bikes to survive longer — four times longer — than their competitors’ bikes and scooters. Joshua Viner, who leads as CEO, said that gives Wheels “compelling unit economics,” which no doubt appealed to the company’s new investors.
Although scooters have been far more popular in San Diego than e-bikes, Wheels said they are confident there’s still a place for e-bikes. There’s more city infrastructure to support bike riding, so cities are a fan of the model. Scooters, on the other hand, are often driven on sidewalks, frustrating pedestrians. And Wheels’ early data from their test run also showed an older demographic of customers are using the bikes, with 30 percent of riders over 35 years old. That’s a bit older than the demographic normally seen sailing through downtown San Diego on scooters.
A company representative said Wheels has a warehouse in San Diego with thousands of e-bikes lying in wait. While only in San Diego for now, Wheels has plans to “rapidly expand” across Southern California and nationwide.
Wheels will be competing with another red and black e-bike on San Diego’s streets. Uber dropped 300 of its Jump e-bikes in San Diego in November.
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