future of transportation
VanMoof, the Dutch e-bike company taking inspiration from Apple and Tesla, is one of the world's hottest brands in a bike market remade by the pandemic. Will it help reshape urban transportation?
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By Adam Satariano
This article is part of our series on the Future of Transportation, which is exploring innovations and challenges that affect how we move about the world.
Growing up in the Netherlands, with its network of pathways, its flat landscape and its bicycle-friendly traffic laws, the brothers Ties and Taco Carlier were commuting with their parents on bikes by age 4. Many families in the country didn't own cars.
But traveling to New York and other cities as adults, the Carliers realized that few people commuted on bikes in the same way they did back home, turned off by the sprawl, the hills and the weather. The experience planted the seed for what would become one of the world's hottest bicycle brands.
In a bike market remade by the pandemic, VanMoof, the Dutch e-bike company started by the brothers, has been among the biggest winners. With a simple and stylish design and clever integration of technology, the company has drawn comparisons to Apple and Tesla and has attracted a loyal and fast-growing customer base among urban professionals in Europe and the United States.
Sales of the battery-powered bikes more than tripled during the pandemic, and the company has raised more than $150 million from venture capitalists who don't typically bet on bicycles.
"We wanted to change the bike in the way it functions, but also from a technology perspective," Ties Carlier said in a video interview from the company's headquarters in the Netherlands.
"Amsterdam is very small and flat, but most cities in the rest of the world are very hilly and can be really hot in the summer, and the distances are much further," he said. "But those limitations really change completely when you have electric bikes."
Once seen by consumers as unreliable, expensive and ugly, battery-powered bikes are now one of the fastest growing forms of urban transportation. With simplified designs, new corporate and government incentive policies and more awareness about the environmental benefits of cycling versus driving, VanMoof estimates industry sales will hit $46 billion by 2026, double prepandemic predictions.
Changes to urban transportation prompted by the coronavirus pandemic can be seen around the world, with commuters having abandoned public transit because of Covid fears. Paris roads are crowded with cyclists taking advantage of new bike lanes and lower automobile speed limits. Berlin is building a cycling "superhighway" across the city. And in New York, home to the largest urban bike network in the nation, ridership soared so much there was even a problem finding places to park a bicycle.
"You have all the cities around the world investing in bicycle infrastructure, which is obviously a very good thing," Mr. Carlier said.
VanMoof, named as a playful Dutch spin on the word "move," did not make battery-powered bikes when the brothers started the company in 2009. A breakthrough came in 2014 when they came up with a design that put the costly and temperamental battery inside the bike frame, helping protect it from rain, thieves and other risks.
Putting the battery out of sight had the added benefit of giving the bike a more straightforward design. A VanMoof bike is sporty but has the sturdy practicality of a Dutch bike, where the rider sits more casually upright than on a traditional road bike.
At $3,500 for the latest models, the cost of a VanMoof bike will scare off many prospective customers. The company said it was targeting not cycling enthusiasts but commuters who might see a battery-powered bike as a good alternative to public transportation or owning a car.
"This will only really work if we design a bike that is specifically for transportation to go from point A to B in a city," Mr. Carlier said.
VanMoof bikes now come with three gears that shift automatically based on speed, and they can go about 90 miles per charge. A boost button on the handlebar gives riders an acceleration push of up to 20 miles per hour to get up a hill or to start quickly from traffic lights. Mr. Carlier said VanMoof bikes would do about 80 percent of the work for a cyclist.
VanMoof does not rely on third-party sellers. Its bikes are sold directly by the company online or at its shops in cities including London, Paris and Munich. VanMoof designs most of its components itself, rather than relying on suppliers in Taiwan or China, which helps it produce a more integrated design but has added manufacturing and supply-chain challenges. Mr. Carlier lives in Taiwan to oversee the company's manufacturing and production, while his brother is in Amsterdam.
VanMoof, like many venture-capital-backed privately held companies, is not profitable. Its future success will hinge on continuing to convince customers that spending $3,500 on a bike is worthwhile. Many cities have bike-sharing services from Uber and others. Companies like Ride1Up offer models that are less expensive than VanMoof's. And foldable commuter bikes like those made by Brompton are increasingly popular.
Theft is another major concern. VanMoof has a robust security-protection system that includes a GPS tracker and a warranty program to replace stolen bikes that are not recovered within two weeks. But bike crime remains a problem in major cities and is a top concern for many would-be customers.
An added inconvenience is that the company has only a few maintenance shops, which means that customers not in one of those major cities need to box up their bikes and ship them to the company for servicing.
Horace Dediu, a technology analyst who has been studying urban mobility, said that e-bikes were still a niche product but that their popularity would continue to grow swiftly. He said the business reminded him of the early days of the mobile phone market, before it was revolutionized by the iPhone and when there were many more brands making different models.
"Somebody will step up," he said. "It could be VanMoof; it could be somebody else."
Mr. Dediu said e-bikes had the potential to help reshape urban transportation by giving people the ability to commute across town without the heavy exertion needed to climb a steep hill or race to a meeting. Eager to get polluting cars off the roads to address climate change, governments and corporations have offered incentives to help offset the cost, which has helped drive purchases.
At VanMoof's store in London — next to the Battersea Power Station, which will soon be home to Apple's British headquarters — Trey Williams, the store manager, offered a test ride of one of the company's latest models, the A5.
It has a simple look and wide handlebars, but at nearly 50 pounds, it is not easy to lift. The bike is turned on and unlocked when a button on the handlebars is pressed in a specific pattern, like typing a key code into a smartphone. There are integrated lights on the front and back. A slot in the middle of the handlebars works as a holster to hold and charge a smartphone. The bike syncs with a VanMoof app that shows details like speed and how much charge is left on the battery.
On a ride through a nearby park, the bike proved easy to operate, and it took only a couple of presses of a button to adjust how much power support to get from the battery. At the highest level of support, it can feel as if the rider is hardly doing any work at all. Hydraulic brakes brought the bike to a swift stop at the bottom of a steep slope in the park. Mr. Williams hit the VanMoof boost button and sped up the hill without any effort.
Adam Satariano is a technology correspondent based in Europe, where his work focuses on digital policy and the intersection of technology and world affairs. @satariano
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