“WE ARE CARETAKERS OF OUR COMMUNITIES AND THE PLANET.”
Some love it, others hate it: cycling, especially in cities, divides opinion. One person that can’t live without it is Shabazz Stuart. In 2017 he founded Oonee, a bike parking startup in Brooklyn that designs customisable pods that provide secure bicycle and scooter storage.
Shabazz Stuart became “obsessed” with biking in college. He started to take his bike everywhere, but he soon realised that this was a mode of transportation with no support structure when it came to helping him deal with things like a flat tyre. To make matters worse, his bike got stolen – then it got stolen again, and again – and yet again. After the third bike theft in five years, Stuart decided to do something. It was the beginning of Oonee. We sat down with Stuart to find out exactly how Oonee began, why they are essential in the urban space, and how close they are to achieving their goals.
Shabazz, what is Oonee about?
In most cities in the Western world, bikes are now seen as a real mode of transportation. But no one is talking about a key issue: there’s often no place to put these bikes. If people get their bikes stolen, they can’t use them. After my bike got stolen for the third time, I was frustrated. At first, we thought: let’s build an app that connects people with bike rooms and parking garages or parking lots that have bike parking. But after a couple of months of looking into this, we realised: there are no spaces for bike parking! So we’re working to create a next-generation bike and scooter parking infrastructure in cities. From a climate change perspective, 30% of all emissions come from cars. And here in New York City, about 50% of our car trips are under three miles. That’s perfect for walking, for public transit, and also for bikes and micromobility in general. But bikes and micromobility can only be competitive if we figure out how to answer the parking question. No one is going to buy an e-bike for several thousand dollars and leave it overnight on the street. And no one’s going to haul it up upstairs into their apartment.
What’s the solution?
The solution was obvious, but it was hard. We’ve got to have convenient, easy-to-use parking facilities that meet 21st century standards. They needed to be well designed because if we’re going to be operating in places like downtown Manhattan, it’s got to look good. They had to be automated and open 24/7. Property owners and cities don’t want to take on another management burden, so we would have to manage them. And without putting burdens on the cyclists. We spent about six months just listening to people, then we came up with the concept for the first pod. Each pod features bike parking on the inside and public space amenities, like benches, on the exterior. We work with cities and private property owners, and we don’t charge cyclists to use the pod. We make money through sponsorship and advertising. Eventually, our parking facilities will be fully paired with digital services allowing users to schedule repairs, maintenance, charge e-bikes and other resources while their bikes are parked in the pod.
You’ve compared riding a bike in New York to the Wild West. How so?
It’s like the Wild West in that you’re on your own. When you get on public transit and your train breaks down, there’s someone you can call. There’s a conductor, there’s an engineer, there’s help on the way. If you drive a car and it breaks down, you can call your insurance company or AAA (editor’s note: American Automobile Association). There are apps that show where you can get gas and signage telling you where to find parking. These are concierge experiences that we’ve become accustomed to for getting around. On the bike, there’s nobody. If you get a flat tyre, you have to find a bike shop. You’ve got to drag your bike there. Maybe the bike shop is open, maybe it isn’t. If you’re a few miles away from it, you’re out of luck. What are you going to do? Maybe call a friend and ask them to pick you up. There’s no ecosystem of services designed to make this experience of biking reliable and convenient. In that sense, it’s like the Wild West – a place where everyone is their own man. That’s not going to appeal to the vast majority of people. We’ve got to make cycling much more like driving and much more like public transit if we’re going to attract people onto bikes.
You want to make cycling and scooters account for 25% of all trips in cities. What impact would that have?
According to the Department of Transportation (DOT), the number for biking and scooting in New York City is now about 2.5%. I think that’s an undercount, but that’s what the DOT says. We know that 30% of emissions in cities come from vehicles. Let’s say you migrate half of those car trips over to bikes. Then we’re looking at a 50% reduction in urban emissions.
How are things going for Oonee?
Right now, we have two operational pods, in New York and Jersey City. And we just announced an expansion of 30 stations in Jersey City. We’ve also announced partnerships in Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia, and Detroit. And as a company, we’re only five years old! We’re incredibly excited because it’s like bikeshare: you get one city right, and that opens up the next thirty. Currently, our big obsession is that we need to raise money. We are a black and brown-owned business. People like me are not expected to do things like this. First-time entrepreneurs, a black guy from Brooklyn. We’re hoping to get up to $3.5 million. That’s a modest sum in the capital market. But it would be transformative for us. The good news is that we can say things that others can’t say. I’m screaming it from the rooftops: we are revenue positive! Our two pods made $200,000 in 2021. That’s unheard of in mobility! We are screaming it from the rooftops: this works! All we need to do is scale it. There’s demand. Cities are saying: I want this. 50% of our user base is non-white. 25% is below the median income. That’s outrageously good. This is something that works for everyone. Everyone loves it. Now we need to get investors to love us.
"THERE’S NO ECOSYSTEM OF SERVICES DESIGNED TO MAKE THIS EXPERIENCE OF BIKING RELIABLE AND CONVENIENT. IN THAT SENSE, IT’S LIKE THE WILD WEST."
How did joining URBAN-X help?
It was transformative. We have an entirely new product called the Oonee Mini that can hold eight bikes and is small enough to fit into a car parking space on a residential street. We wouldn’t have been able to get it without the intellectual know-how and the expertise that the URBAN-X team brought to bear. And even though the programme is over, we’re still working with the URBAN-X engineers to retrofit and customise the units.
What do you at Oonee plan to do next?
We’re thinking broadly about all the added value our infrastructure can provide within the urban context. In some cases that might mean primarily secure bike parking and charging, but in other cases a community may say “yes, we want bike parking, but we also need waste storage or outdoor dining… can we pair the two?” We often get asked these questions and are actively thinking about ways to incorporate these other modular options into our designs. Land use in big cities is not a simple task: some people may see a need for bike parking, others may see a need for retail space or for storage. As a business stratagem, being able to address more than one priority makes rapid scale much more realistic. However, as an equity driver, I think the potential opportunity here is equally as exciting.
What do you see as your task here?
We can leverage creative funding mechanisms to provide the communities with versatile and iterative infrastructure that solves real problems. This is about how we can derive maximum value from the built environment around us and how we can do it in a way that places people first. Oonee has always been about finding a way to align our business with these goals. We are convinced that this formula will unlock the next great story in entrepreneurship and leave a legacy of which we can all be proud.
What change would you like to see in the world?
Our foremost job, not as entrepreneurs but as people, is to act as stewards of the next generation. We are caretakers of our communities and the planet. I think we’ve forgotten that there’s a world that will be here long after we’re gone. We have to be able to answer our kids and grandkids when they say, “Why did you do this?” I would hope that our grandkids and great-grandkids can look at our generation and be proud. That theirs is a world that is egalitarian and has climate justice. Where we don’t create millions, if not billions, of refugees because their homes have been ravaged by lack of rain, by too much rain, by too much flooding.
What does the world that you want to live in look like?
It would be a world where everyone can be happy. We rarely talk about happiness, but I want to live in a world where collectively we can all be happy and pass that on to our kids. Right now, we live in a world where a large percentage of people are saying “I’m going to be happy” but we’re doing so not only at the expense of our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world but also at the expense of those who will come after us. I hope that we can reverse course, and that the work we’re doing is a small part of that.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT?
Oonee provides bike and scooter storage solutions. The bike parking startup has designed customisable pods that offer bike parking on the inside and public space amenities like benches on the outside. Each pod could be put together, in less than one day, from a kit of more than 150 parts, and also be configured to different sizes, shapes and colours. The secure spaces are equipped with security cameras and lights. Because they’re financed through advertisements, the pods can be used by cyclists and scooterriders for free. Also a digital platform connects cyclists and scooter users to a range of services, including maintenance, emergency repairs, and accessories. Oonee was part of Cohort 9 of URBAN-X in 2021.
WHY WAS THE STARTUP FOUNDED?
Climate change and traffic congestion threaten urban life. Many cities want to shift transportation from cars to bicycles and scooters to complement mass transit. But the vast majority of cyclists in the US don’t have access to secure parking and storage facilities. Studies in New York City show that there’s only one parking spot for every 116 bikes. As a result, over half of all urban riders have experienced bike theft. According to Oonee, the lack of secure parking is a major reason why people choose not to ride a bike in the city.
WHERE IS THE HEAD OFFICE?
Oonee operates out of Brooklyn, New York.
WHAT IS THE MEANING OF THE NAME?
Oonee is Japanese for sea urchin. “Urchins come in all shapes, colors, and sizes. They are malleable creatures that can live in different environments—underwater, above water, in salt water or fresh water,” says Stuart. “It’s evocative of what we’re trying to do with biking infrastructure.”
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URBAN-X is the platform for founders reimagining city life. Founded by MINI in 2016, URBAN-X partners with startups to build bold technology solutions for a sustainable planet. Breaking from traditional startup programme moulds, URBAN-X provides entrepreneurs from Seed to Series B with individualised and tailored support that accelerates growth and builds successful businesses for the next generation of climate- and city-focused innovators. Core to its platform, URBAN-X offers world-class engineering and design resources, industry-leading investment capital, a global network of investors, policymakers, corporate strategies and end-customers, and exclusive educational content for a global network of founders.
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