A Donkey Republic-branded bike. Donkey Republic

The app is a global passport to a roving network of urban bikes.

A Copenhagen-based startup thinks it’s come up with a more convenient alternative to your city’s bike-share program—and its co-founders have ambitions to bring their business to a city near you.

The problem with public bike-share programs, says Donkey Republic co-founder Erdem Ovacik, is two-fold. First, they’re unpredictable. Sometimes you’ll arrive at a station only to find all its spots filled, with your allotted bike time quickly expiring. Other times—particularly if you’re a visitor to a city and don’t know your way around—you’re unable to estimate how much time it will take to travel to your destination.

Then there’s the typical government program issue: rampant slowness. Even if city’s bike-share programs are mostly funded by deep-pocketed corporate entities, building bike-share infrastructure—including stations, apps, and maps—takes some time.

But what if introducing a new bike-share to your city was as easy as downloading an app? It’s the concept behind Donkey Republic, founded in 2012 in Copenhagen, which now boasts more than 10,000 trips and 500 users. Is it competing with public bike-share programs? “Yes, inevitably,” says Ovacik. “Our partners are the bike owners on our platform [and] rental shops.”

Welcome to the Donkey Republic

The system, which Ovacik says is currently aimed at out-of-town city visitors, works like this: First, the user logs onto the app wherever they can get smartphone service or wi-fi (often using a hotel or hostel’s connection). Once logged in, the user reserves a bicycle within the designated area (the company calls these “hubs”) nearest to them. The bikes are priced at a sliding daily rate—10 euro for one day, or 42 euro for a week (about $10.80 and $45.40, respectively). The app has a built-in map that guides a user to a bike, which is secured using a bluetooth-enabled lock. Turn on the phone’s bluetooth capability, connect to the lock, and voila—the bike is ready to ride.

(Donkey Republic)

The really interesting stuff is going on at the owner level. The company has partnered with a number of existing bike shops and gotten them on the Donkey Republic system, giving these businesses another way to rent out their bikes.

Private bike owners can also rent out their bikes for short amounts of time using the AirDonkey system, a self-styled “Airbnb for bicycles” network. Owners who want to make money off their spare or mostly-unused bikes can order an AirDonkey kit, which includes bright orange stickers and large handlebar mounts to identify them as part of the bike-share system. The kit also comes with the bluetooth-enabled lock, which the company says lasts for 500 days between charges. Thread your bike chain or leash through the lock, park the bike near a hub, take a picture, and list it using the app. When you want to ride the bike yourself, you can take it offline for as long as you want.

The AirDonkey users’ kit, for private bike owners. (Donkey Republic)

By July, says Ovacik, Donkey Republic will live well beyond Copenhagen, with bike rental companies in Spain, New Zealand, Germany, Israel, and Holland set to come online. The company has ambitions in the U.S., too. Owners in Miami, New York, and San Francisco have shown interest in the startup, and are among its target cities.

If Donkey Republic’s goal is world domination, it’s a gentle and eminently cycling-friendly kind. Ideally, a tourist could visit any remotely bike-able city in the world with a passport to a fleet of bicycles right in her pocket—a rental that’s free of language barriers. “Our vision is to have an impact on urban transport, and not just the tourists,” Ovacik says. Eventually, the company wants to be a “first-mile, last-mile” solution, too, filling the gaps that other forms of public transit can’t.

That pesky sharing-economy problem

But as with all “sharing economy” panaceas, liability questions lurk. Through the app, users agree to not hold the platform or the bike owner responsible for any injuries or accidents. The app also reminds riders to check specific bike components to make sure they’re in order prior to getting onboard. But ultimately, it’s up to the bike owner to service and maintain the bike, as it is for an Uber or Lyft driver to take care of her car.

If a user doesn’t eventually return a bike to its designated hub—or goes ahead and steals it—they’re charged a fee through the app, and the bike owner is compensated. But the owner has to spend time fetching and hauling their bicycle back to its home—or is out a bike altogether.

(Donkey Republic)

If a bicycle is stolen while a user is renting it, they’re responsible for paying for its replacement, though Ovacik says the company will soon give users opportunities to purchase insurance. After a few break-ins in July, the company has re-designed its locks, and says it hasn’t had a stolen bike since.

To this end, Donkey Republic’s current strategy of partnering with existing bike rental companies is a smart one. These (hopefully) have insurance, regular maintenance schedules, and the occasional stolen bicycle built into their business models.

Closing the bike-share gap

But there’s a world in which the person-to-person (the peer-to-peer”) concept works, too. As my CityLab colleague Eric Jaffe pointed out (again) last week, North American bike-share programs have largely benefited wealthy neighborhoods, in part because they have the clout to demand bike-share stations and the infrastructure to support them. A more informal network could be an entree to a larger bike-share system, sparking interest and demand for the concept in lower-income neighborhoods. Though Ovacik says the company is “inevitably” in competition with existing bike-share programs, it could also complement them.

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