29 November 2017 Startup 2018: The companies and issues to watch

Get on your bike: navigating around city officials

Despite the rift with Uber, London’s transport honchos are increasingly in the mood to work with startups – so long as they play by the rules.

While Uber has landed in TfL’s bad books, other startups are quickly inserting themselves into the gaps of London’s transport network. Citymapper has been granted a licence to run buses on under-serviced London routes, and has partnered with black cab service Gett to provide on-demand shared taxi-buses between set destinations.

Meanwhile, on every street corner, brightly-painted bike hires are contending with Santander Cycles. For transport upstarts, now’s the time to strike.

Up against budget restrictions and safety concerns, TfL and local authorities have two options: treat newcomers as unruly competitors, or as welcome assistants to running underfunded networks.

Lessons learned 

Singaporean dockless bike-sharing company Obike aptly illustrated how to get on the wrong side of the authorities when it launched in London last summer, without first meeting with the relevant decision-makers.

One council served its bikes with obstruction notices for blocking pavements, and officials resorted to tweeting the company to get its attention.

By contrast, Chinese competitor Ofo has put 500 bikes on Hackney’s streets, with the council’s blessing. ‘It’s a really attractive model,’ says councillor Feryal Demirci. It costs £2,000-3,000 to install just one Santander Cycle docking station, she says, adding ‘boroughs simply don’t have the cash at the moment’. (Even TfL made a £3.6m loss running the bike-share scheme last year.) Meanwhile, working with Ofo is free – as long as the company sticks to its commitment to deal with any misuse of the bikes.

‘As a city, we need to be open to the way that transport on-demand is working,’adds Demirci. ‘We have to think about how we want to shape these companies and see these services delivered, so they meet our needs.’

Making friends 

Following the battle over bikes on streets this summer, collaboration now seems to be favoured. TfL recently issued a set of guidelines for bike companies operating in London – Obike, Mobike, Urfo and Ofo at last count. Meanwhile, insiders say it’s likely Uber’s discussions with TfL over its licence will result in new regulatory policies being negotiated, which will set the standard for the rest of the ride-sharing market.

Until that happens, Uber competitors Taxify and Via are in limbo. Both applied for taxi licences from TfL in the spring, and have yet to get a response from the regulator . In November, Chariot, a startup owned by Ford, also applied for a licence to run a 15-seater shuttle bus service along fixed routes in London. Whatever the outcome of these applications, city transport is certainly in for a shake-up.