07 May 2021
Beirut, Lebanon
Sustainable Mobility

At its worst, Beirut’s traffic can drive the most mild-mannered commuter to the brink of desperation. One such passenger, the affable Dutchman Jan Willem de Coo, resorted to a simple solution: the humble bicycle. After switching to two wheels, de Coo saved 90 minutes per day on his usual taxi trip to and from work. “I thought: this can’t just be good for me!” recalled de Coo, chuckling.

De Coo built on this bright idea by establishing Wave, a subscription-based service for renting electric bicycles (e-bikes). The company has invested years of time and effort in making e-bikes a viable transport alternative in Beirut, where many view cars and taxis as their only realistic commuting options. “We want people to see e-bikes and think: this is something for me,” de Coo explained.

Three years ago, de Coo quit his development job in Beirut and started pursuing an ambitious dream: promoting e-bikes as an eco-friendly way around Lebanon’s chronic traffic congestion. From the outset, de Coo and his business partners decided that Wave would be a long-term subscription service, providing e-bikes to customers for at least one month.

This feature differentiates Wave from popular Lebanese ride-sharing services — such as Loop, an electric scooter rental company — which are geared towards irregular one-off trips. “Wave has a different focus,” said de Coo. “We hope that people will use our e-bikes for much longer periods — for example, each day when they travel to university.”

De Coo’s team left no stone unturned when establishing Wave. From late 2019, the company went through an extended pilot phase, which involved soliciting customer feedback and perfecting a bespoke e-bike, suited to Beirut’s roads and traffic conditions. 

The end product is impressive. Wave’s e-bikes have tyres thick enough to handle broken glass and other debris, handlebars narrow enough to zip between cars, and motors powerful enough to scale Beirut’s most daunting hills. At the same time, Wave emphasises safety: each subscription includes insurance and maintenance, and riders can take training courses to build up skills and confidence on riding in city traffic.

At first, Wave financed the design and purchase of its e-bike fleet through donations from the team’s family and friends, supplemented by small-scale Lebanese investors. As the project gathered momentum, Wave received a significant grant from the Dutch government, which propelled the company towards finally opening for business.

Wave launched in March 2021, attracting around 30 subscribers in its first month. Almost all of these customers renewed their subscriptions, offering auspicious early signs for Wave’s vision of implementing long-term shifts in Lebanese commuting habits.

This immediate popularity poses a welcome challenge for Wave: sourcing enough e-bikes to meet customer demand. Wave must import vehicle parts from overseas at a time when e-bikes are becoming increasingly sought after.

Wave must also set subscription prices carefully, in light of Lebanon’s ongoing economic crisis. According to de Coo, Wave is committed to making e-bikes as affordable as possible, but must also cover overheads associated with imported parts. Nevertheless, he feels that the current prices represent good value for customers.

“If you take a shared taxi every day, it works out to the same cost as a Wave subscription — but without the health and efficiency benefits of riding an e-bike,” de Coo reasoned.

Emboldened by early success, Wave now wants to export its vision for habitual e-biking around the region. Two key target countries are Egypt and Turkey, which boast large potential markets for eco-friendly commuting. Of course, these different markets will sometimes require different planning from the Lebanese approach. In Cairo, for instance, Wave may need to start in quieter suburbs before tackling downtown’s notoriously manic streets.

De Coo and his team are ready for all challenges, which they have — and will continue to — overcome with sheer persistence. “Everyone wants to talk you down, saying that Arabs don’t cycle or it’s not in our culture,” said de Coo. “But if you believe in the idea, you should really go for it.”

 

Learn more about Wave through the website, Facebook, and Instagram.

Photos courtesy of Wave

David Wood is a freelance writer and research based in Beirut. He previously worked in Cairo.David Wood
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Wave Sustainability Mobility