YEREVAN—Residents of the Armenian capital will be experiencing the ‘micro-transit’ revolution in force this summer. At least two startups are vying to set up public bike sharing networks in the city. Yerevan is now the latest in a succession of global metropolitan areas to incorporate bike sharing into its mass transit strategies.
The concept has been met by a rather lukewarm reception from the general public. Some express concern over budgetary limitation, road safety and basic etiquette. It is estimated that at least a quarter of Yerevan’s residents don’t know how to ride bicycles. Proponents point to the success of similar concepts in curbing mounting air pollution and road congestion problems in other cities. While these providers will cooperate with the municipality, they receive private, not public financing. Either way, with the city’s new transit plan still years away, some argue that bike sharing could prove to be a welcome alternative for commuters on Yerevan’s congested streets.
The Armenian Road Police counts half a million vehicles congesting the streets of the Armenian capital. This number is set to grow. The Customs Service has observed a 120 percent hike in car imports over the last year, the majority of which will likely end up in Yerevan. A chronic lack of funding for public transport infrastructure, combined with the prestige associated with vehicle ownership is fueling a runaway traffic nightmare for the municipality.
This sharp rise in car ownership has caused its own set of unforeseen problems for frustrated traffic management engineers. In addition to the strain on road infrastructure, vehicle exhaust is contributing to the city’s looming smog problem. The Ministry of Health has recorded a spike in reported carbon dioxide poisoning cases in Yerevan over the last two years.
While the Health Ministry continues to collect data to definitively link premature deaths to car pollution, statistics from the Road Police indicate a clear correlation with traffic-related fatalities over the same period. According to their data, Yerevan has witnessed a 20 percent surge in car crashes, 343 of which were fatal.
Yerevan’s iconic circular street layout—the work of famed neo-classical architect Aleksandr Tamanyan—was once hailed as a triumph of contemporary urban planning. Inspired by the principles popularized by the City Beautiful movement—in vogue at the time—Tamanyan’s vision for an Armenian ‘garden-Capital’ put mass transit at center stage. A state-of-the-art network of buses and trams would ensure a smooth commute for the city’s projected 250,000 residents. However, this nearly-century-old design is beginning to show its age. That being said, the street plan offers opportunities for the co-founders of YerevanRide—Albert Manukyan and Alex Baghdjian. This ancient Urartian settlement’s centrifugal arrangement of wide avenues crisscrossed by spacious sidewalks also makes “a perfect city for bike sharing,” according to Baghdjian.
But YerevanRide has some competition. Mimo has seemingly taken the title of the first operational bike hire program in the city. Its bright yellow bikes can be spotted all over downtown Yerevan. Following a tried-and-tested model for bike sharing systems, Mimo hopes to encourage a growth of users by making the bikes as easily available to commuters as possible. By downloading the app, customers will have access to a map with coordinates leading to available bikes, which are then unlocked by scanning the QR codes behind the rider’s seat. Regular fees start at 9.99 AMD per minute, while students can ride at a discounted rate of 4.99 per minute.
Undaunted, YerevanRide still hopes to radically transform the daily commute in the Armenian capital. Once a symbol of poverty, cycling is growing increasingly popular among younger commuters these days. Enthusiasts routinely sermonize about the health and economic benefits. However, reversing long-held stigma might prove a difficult task. “Our biggest challenge right now is to promote cycling as a genuine transportation method – not just a hobby,” says Manukyan.
Targeting Yerevan’s ‘creative class’—graphic designers, techies, entrepreneurs and other knowledge workers—YerevanRide wants to foster a community of like-minded individuals around bike sharing. To boost its user base, the startup is partnering with local tech companies, creative studios and co-working spaces. These partners will be able to offer significant discounts on the yearly plan to their staff.
Unlike Mimo, YerevanRide will only offer limitless daily, monthly and yearly subscriptions, not per-minute costs. Commuters will have access to their bikes with an annual subscription of 49,000 AMD ($100). Members of organizations which partner with the bike sharing firm will receive significant discounts, however.
YerevanRide has taken a data-driven approach to solving Yerevan’s ‘last-mile’ commute problem. The team hopes to work with the ride-hailing firms to determine where strategically-placed bikes could make a difference for commuters. The rideshare startup also hopes its data could be useful to the Yerevan municipality’s efforts to build bike lanes in the capital. By tracking the movements of its bikes, they could establish the most common routes used by commuters. The municipality has already approved YerevanRide’s pilot program which will see at least 200 bikes hit the streets by July.
The Russian car-share startup YouDrive has also entered the race to solve Yerevan’s “last mile transit” conundrum. Their blue electric scooters have appeared all over the city, offering quick rides for short distances. Some commuters have been reluctant to sign up for the program however, citing data privacy concerns. YouDrive requires users to scan their passports to create an account. As the company is registered in Russia, user data may be accessed by the Russian government under a draconian new internet law. YerevanRide, on the other hand, promises not to collect private user data.
With cars piling up on city streets and no public transport reform in sight, whether Yerevan commuters will switch to bike sharing remains to be seen.