The town of Pocahontas, Iowa, is small enough–with a population of around 1,700 people–that it doesn’t have traffic lights. But it does have a bike-share system. The community is one of several to work with Koloni, a startup that brings dockless bike and scooter programs to areas that are often overlooked by competitors.
“I think [bike share] makes sense in a small town just as much as it does in a large metropolitan area,” says Brian Dewey, cofounder of Koloni. The company also works in more expected areas; one program will launch this spring at Northwestern University. But Koloni, which is based in Pocahontas, saw the opportunity in small towns.
In many cases, towns see bike-share programs as a way to help attract new residents. “For a lot of these small towns, a real big pain point for them has been losing population for decades,” he says. “And now they’re all talking about trying to compete to keep millennials in their town, or trying to get millennials to move back to their town, and how to develop infrastructure to recruit these millennials. This is a very low-cost, effective way of adding to that.”
That’s true in Pocahontas, where the town was lobbying for the extension of a county bike trail in the area, and saw the bikes as a way to prove interest in bike riding. “We’re a rural area, and we’re looking for quality-of-life offerings for the people who want to move back, or have moved back, and trails rank very high,” says Carmella Schultes, who runs the Pocahontas Chamber of Commerce. “Having a bike-share program is going to only make that more likely.” The town is also small enough, she says, that it’s perfectly suited for running errands by bike. Lamoni, an Iowa town with a college campus, wanted to offer bikes so students without cars would be more likely to shop at local businesses. Rock Valley, another small town in Iowa, wants to offer bikes to summer tourists at a local campground.
Some other micromobility companies are less likely to work in small towns, or even small cities, because ridership may be too low to make it economical. Instead of relying primarily on making money per bike rental, Koloni charges communities a monthly fee for the hardware–bikes with smart locks that can be parked anywhere–and software, and a small transaction fee. The monthly fee is $35 per device. “We’re just not as dependent on that daily transactional fee as some of the other companies are,” says Dewey. The business model makes it financially sustainable for the company to stay in a community; some small towns, he says, have gotten bike-share programs in the past, but then had the provider leave soon afterward. The cost is also low compared to some competitors, which can charge as much as $5,000 a bike in startup costs. Communities can choose their own price to charge users for the use of the bikes, which can be unlocked through an app.
Koloni is also interested in working in suburbs and filling in gaps in cities that may already offer some micromobility options. The startup is currently expanding in more than a dozen communities, including Morgantown, Kentucky, and Willmar, Minnesota, using bikes that it saved from landfills when a competitor, Spin, pivoted from bikes to scooters. Pocahontas recently expanded from 15 bikes to 25–technically, a higher number of bikes per resident than the Citi Bike system in New York. For now, ridership is low, especially during harsh Iowa winters. “I think there’s going to be a bit of a learning curve for the community,” says Schultes, who says that when the bikes were first promoted during an event last summer, some people said they’d seen them around but didn’t realize that they could rent them. “I think it’s only going to pick up.” The town is now also adding signs and paint to ask drivers to share the road with cyclists.