“We want to get 10,000 bikes out on roads by the end of the third quarter.”
A group with $ 1.2 billion asset base, Hero Motors Company (HMC) is name to reckon with as being the world’s largest manufacturer of bicycles with over 20 companies under its belt. Spearheading the next generation of Munjals, Aditya Munjal, Director, Hexi, a last-mile connectivity solutions provider/startup arm of HMC is upbeat about the bicycle market in India and shall pick-up pace gradually. In an interview with Manali Jaggi of BW Smart Cities, Aditya talks about a consumer driven strategy by introducing various new strategic initiatives which can be instrumental in developing a robust cycling infrastructure and providing economic mobility to the disadvantaged.
Tell us more about your public transportation program, how do you intend to steer a social change and make cycling more of lifestyle than transportation?
It was roughly 20 years ago when bicycle sharing started off in Europe. It started with a dock based system where there were heavy docks and bicycles used to be parked in it and customers used to go and find these docks, unlock the cycles and park them in different docks. The constraint in the system was that these docks were expensive to put up and they were few in number so when the customer used to take them from one point it would take them effort to find another dock, another point to park the cycle. There was a step up jump 3 years ago in China, where they put this lock on bicycles itself, which is why they call them smart bicycles. Since then the convenience now is very strong. Many times you can find a cycle outside, you can park it, leave it anywhere, and find it on your phone; and that is why for short distances, bicycle sharing system is a good convenience factor for customers.
When we talk about e-mobility, infrastructure is a big problem in India, how are you thinking of making e-mobility a mainstay in the absence of a robust charging infrastructure?
The proposition here is of faster bicycles, lesser effort and a manner of commute where we mostly use this product. It is a very good proposition for the end customer. The only place where electric bikes and scooters have been successful is China. Reason being, it is greatly driven by policy. There are various aspects to the policy. Big metropolitan cities like Shanghai are motor free. Be it motor free zones or subsidies in the product. Electric bikes are more expensive than bicycles. For the end customer this is a barrier. So many times to break this barrier, policies are driven. Subsidy on products is another way. Then very cycling friendly laws, for example in Europe, if a car driver hits a bike, even if it is the cyclist’s fault, it is the car driver according to law who is penalised. So for customers to enjoy this proposition, policy plays a very important role.
Your bike sharing venture Hexi is already operational in Punjab University, when will it be launched in cities like Vishakhapatnam, Pune and Bangalore. Is there a timeline you are looking at for same?
The first phase of Hexi will be launched in Vishakhapatnam by the end of this quarter. Then there are other three universities out of which two are in Punjab, where we are going to have our systems running by the end of this quarter. Rest we are in talks with Smart Cities and others which are in pipeline. In terms of timeline, our intent is to get going with the customers, but these plans are in pipeline.
Are you engaging with authorities to educate and sensitize communities and people about responsible bike sharing practices?
Yes, there are a couple of stakeholders we are in talks with. Whenever you get into a city the first point of contact is the Government, you have to get them on your side, then the second one is the local authorities, to ensure everyone in the system is clear, and it is up and running. Then there are local stakeholders in local colonies, be it the aggregators at different metro stations for auto-rickshaws. The challenge is to get these people connected to the system in some way, make them partner with us rather than seeing them as a competition. And, finally there is the end customer. For the end customer bicycles in our country, people think that our country may not have a culture where people ride bicycles, but, on the contrary, our country has an inherent biking culture, people do cycle a lot.
We started off in our own small way in each place, for example in universities when we start; we do a lot of engagement with students, where we do different slow ride races. Every part of our brand Hexi is thought through, so that it is seen in a fun aspirational way. The name Hexi means hero in a sexy way. The bikes are also designed by some of the best designers. The quality of bikes is way superior to bikes around the world because we want to give quality to our customers, so that they get aspired to get on to them. Rather than seeing it as a milk man’s mode of transport, it should be seen as a new fun and cool way to commute.
Given the condition our roads, road safety is a big issue in India, are you engaging with the Government to intervene and ensure dedicated lanes for bicycle commuters?
It is a constant collaboration with each city we get into to get these basics moving. Basic cycling infrastructure such as a cycling lane is essential for this to be a success in the longer term. Like you mentioned the issue of road safety and accidents- we need friendly policies for cyclists which includes motor free zones in key metropolitan cities. Countries like Europe, China, England and America have taken drastic policies to set this in motion. So, yes, our effort is to get constantly into the cities and help them set up enabling infrastructure.
The market for tech-enabled cycles is at a very nascent state in India, do you think there is a need to disrupt this space here too like China. How can technologies like IoT, Big Data, Data Analytics and cycle sharing apps can be leveraged to make cycling a viable transportation mode in India?
Having good working application and a backend where you ensure distribution happens well is the key, we are as strong as any country abroad as we have a good working system now. As regards to matching up to China’s size, I think China leads the bike-sharing market globally, with its market pegged around $ 1.62 billion in 2017 and increasing. I do not know if we want to get in to that size but my aspiration personally would be to get more bikes on our roads. However, overcrowding a city with too many bikes also leads to a lot of congestion of public areas, hence our efforts in smart cities are to genuinely understand the requirement of the respective cities and place the bikes in areas that have distinctive parking zones and see the number of bikes needed suitable to the potential of the cities. Hence, I am not sure if we will ever get to China’s size, but our efforts are to build sustainable modes of transport city by city.
Except for the 4 cities you mentioned, are there any other cities you are targeting?
We are in active talks with a lot of cities currently which have a mandate to have a strong last mile connectivity public system and are about to take it to the next level.
How do you see the ride ahead? What kind of growth numbers are you looking forward at clocking this year? What targets do you envision for the next 5 years?
It is too recent right now to talk about the targets we want to see by the end of the year, as it is about correcting the system first and then expanding as and when we get the product and services right. A lot of cities are interested but in order to materialize on each city, it is not in our hands entirely because we are acting in conjunction with the Government bodies. However, roughly speaking we want to get 10,000 bikes out on roads by the end of the third quarter. We are going ahead with a mixed model of universities and cities. We are very clear that we will not take China or any other country’s model and replicate it in India, as it is a country which has its own reach and concerns peculiar to it. What we require in India is a multi-model, short distance or a last mile commute. For example, if 10 people come out of a metro station, 2 of them may want to get on a cycle, other 4 may want to find rickshaws and other few may want to get on to buses or their scooters. Hence, we have started now, giving them a multi-model solution. We are also actively looking at other modes of transport as well, rather than bike share, so that we offer the end customer a multi-model solution for his last mile needs.
Any investment outlay for these 10k bikes cost?
The bikes are manufactured in our factories, and we put a lot of focus on cost and quality. There is a whole system of technology which goes behind it and there are intensive local operations as well. So, yes, it is a capital intensive game.