Swapfiets has registered 3,000 users in four months.
A new group has joined London’s bustling bike couriers, style-conscious Rapha riders and Lycra-clad urban cyclists as they cruise the city. Thousands of people in the British capital rent Dutch-style bicycles from Swapfiets, a company that started in the Netherlands in 2014. It signed up 3,000 UK customers for its service in just four months this summer.
Every bike has a relaxed, straight riding style with a hands-free coaster brake. For a flat fee starting at £17 per month ($19), customers can choose from four models, including e-bikes, designed to meet needs ranging from casual weekend cyclists to dedicated delivery drivers who collect thousands of miles each month. Lights and locks are included in the price, along with a guarantee that the company will fix or repair any problems, such as a flat tire, within 48 hours.
If a bike is stolen – not uncommon in London – Swapfiets customers pay a modest £40 surcharge and get a new bike. To return the bike, give one month’s notice and return it to the shop near Spitalfields in East London, the company’s first location in the city. Katarina Hlavata, 27, Swapfiets’s UK manager, says only about 20 bikes per month are reported stolen in London. That’s 0.6% of their total subscriptions.
Customers say they appreciate the all-inclusive approach. Molly Alter, 28, who works for venture capital firm Index Ventures SA, was an early adopter of Swapfiets (pronounced “swap-feets”) when she moved to London from the US and signed up to rent a bike in March 2021. . “I was fairly new to the city and I was worried about investing in a bike and not using it, or losing it if it got stolen,” she says.
Alter bought another brand of electric bike, Cowboy, but still uses its pedal-powered Swap bike. Her boyfriend says she should get rid of it, but she’s keeping it for now. “It’s so handy that you don’t have to worry about it being stolen,” she says.
Hlavata says she’s signed up 3,200 customers, 3,000 in the four months between June and September 2022. That’s rapid progress compared to London’s bike-sharing program, Santander Cycles, which has added 12,000 bikes since 2010, and intense competition from rivals such as Uber Lime, Buzzbikes and Human Forest.
Hlavata says the company’s success is partly due to a design decision: Swapfiets bikes have a distinctive blue front tire. The choice was made by the founders to make their bicycles more recognizable on the street and as a nod to the famous blue Delft pottery from Delft, the Netherlands, where the company was founded.
The anti-theft guarantee makes customers feel comfortable leaving them locked outside, and Hlavata says her goal is to have a Swapfiets – bicycle means ‘fiets’ in Dutch, so Swapbicycle – with a blue front wheel which is locked on every bike rack in London.
Richard Burger, 29, co-founder and director of Swapfiets, says the company was attracted to London because of the city’s investments in cycling infrastructure during the pandemic. “Covid opened an opportunity for us to get to London faster than we had planned,” he says. Swapfiets has so far been most popular in Southwark, Islington and Hackney, areas known for local government investment in dedicated cycle lanes and for a concentration of young professionals.
The company’s model has so far attracted 280,000 paying bike members in nine countries in Europe, starting in the Netherlands and expanding to Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and now the UK. It has been particularly successful in bike-friendly cities such as Amsterdam, which has 60,000 paying members among the city’s 1 million residents. More than 60,000 have also registered in Germany.
The company says it needs 5,000 paying members in one area to prove the model can work, which will then trigger the company’s expansion into new cities and towns. Burger is confident it will exceed that number in London.
Swapfiets brought in investments from Pon Bicycle Group – part of the Dutch conglomerate Pon Holdings BV – in 2019 to help finance the expansion, but Burger says the company always strives for sustainable growth and does not lend its bikes below cost. He says rental rates are based on the “high quality” of their bikes. (A rival to the most expensive Swapfiets e-bike in London is the Zoomo e-bike, which retails for £2,200.)
Most customers ride the cheaper pedal-powered Original and Deluxe 7 models, but delivery drivers using powerful e-bikes are an increasing source of income for Swapfiets.
In March, the company introduced the Power 7 e-bike with a range of up to 100 kilometers, partly to attract deliverers from Deliveroo and Uber Eats. These users like that maintenance is included in the cost, but if they want to use the bikes for commercial purposes or for longer rides, they have to pay more for a “heavy” subscription.
Swapfiets is looking at mileage-based pricing for such customers to offset what Burger says are “higher costs for maintaining the bikes.” It handles about 100 repairs per week with five technicians based in London. One way the company keeps costs down is by repairing and reusing almost every bicycle part. It claims to refurbish and reuse 88% of parts, and only 3% of repairs produce waste.
According to the company, bicycle thieves are less of a problem than absent-minded customers who leave the country without telling Swapfiets or handing in their bicycle. Swapfiets employs staff to conduct ‘city sweeps’ to recover anything that is identified as missing or stolen.
There’s one problem with the UK rollout: UK Swapfiets customers aren’t used to the coaster brake, a feature unique to Dutch bikes that slows the bike down by kicking back and replaces the brake lever usually on the left handlebar. can be found.
Nathan Shipp, 28, warehouse and logistics manager, is responsible for keeping the fleet of thousands of Swapfiets bicycles on the road and his team records data on every repair. Those logs showed that Londoners “only use the front brake. They don’t use that coaster brake.” (Coaster brakes are so common in the Netherlands that many Dutch bicycles do not have a front brake.)
Swapfiets has no intention of slowing down the British expansion. The company maintains contacts with local authorities in Birmingham and Manchester and is particularly interested in bicycle-friendly cities such as Cambridge and Oxford.
Burger says he welcomes more competition from other bike rental companies. “I think it’s good that there are multiple subscription bike models coming into this scene,” he says. “For me it is a much nicer city if you have more cyclists than car traffic everywhere. More cars are never the solution. Seeing bikes in London and seeing the occasional blue band pass by is very energized.”
Look around you: you will probably notice the blue bands. Just be sure to keep an eye out for Brits struggling with the brakes.