dandyReview: The Biko App

Image sourced from www.bikoapp.com

Story by Cayley James 

BIKO wants you to get riding! Have you been collecting points? 

Biko launched in Toronto in mid May to much fanfare. It’s a cycling incentive app that converts kilometres cycled to “Biko Points.” You can then cash in these points for free stuff and discounts at businesses around the city and online. The intention is to entice people to bike more with the sweet promise of Jimmy’s Iced Coffee, free flights of beer at Hendersons, and discounts on helmets from Urbane to name a few. In time, we’ll have a greener city with healthier denizens committed to spending money at local businesses. As the Biko website shows, there is already some pretty impressive data collected from their users. (See above.)

Founded in Columbia, the app was available first in Bogota and Medellin and soon after Mexico City. Vancouver was their first venture north of the 49th parallel last year. The app's arrival in Toronto seems primed for success. But almost 4 months later, it's still gaining steam -- and participants both on the cycling and business side, with 16,500 people signed up for the points-per-kilometre scheme and 40 local businesses providing the rewards.

Incentive programs aren’t a foreign concept here, but Toronto has been slow on the uptake. There are a few businesses that offer their employees monetary incentives but as far as connecting riders and businesses on a city-wide level, things are relatively quiet in Canada's largest city. We have Strava - but that's not really accessible to those who aren't head over heels for stats (and willing to use their data to clock long road rides.) And there's the Toronto Cycling App ... which is ... nice? I guess? (Full disclosure: I have not used it.)

But I wanted to know: Is Biko worth using up my data for?

The simple answer is yes. The interface is easy to use and appealing from a user stand point. They have an impressive roster of rotating rewards that are conveniently categorized into: Food & Drink, Lifestyle, Bike Shops, and the slightly mysterious Other. There are the usual suspects like; Urbane, Bateman's, Sweet Pete's, Fresh and Henderson Brewery. But there's a growing cadre of further afield businesses that are getting involved as well. Such as small shops like Brika, purveyors of local farming Fresh City Farms, ECW Press, and Jimmy's. And Biko doesn't use data while on a trip - it uses the GPS built into your phone to see how far you've travelled. However, Biko does require data (or wifi) when synching your rides with our servers, redeeming rewards, navigating the map, editing your profile, and connecting with Facebook.

For me I don’t need an excuse to go ride a bike but I do like beers and cold press juice -- especially at discounted prices. If your rides barely exceed five km at a time it is going to take you awhile to clock points. In order to collect more in one go I gave myself the afternoon off one Wednesday for a long ride along the waterfront in the name of research. I ended up logging something like 20 points. Using the app is easy as pie but I am forgetful. I can’t even remember to take vitamins on a daily basis so when I’m rushing out the door I’m not exactly thinking about turning on Biko. For example, just days after I downloaded it I cycled from Little Italy to the end of the Leslie Street Spit and completely forgot to use it, which would have likely been about 15 km one way! So, that was my loss. There have been times that I’m running around the city, stopped at an intersection and realized I could be collecting points for brunch and turned it on mid ride. That being said I also managed to delete close to 10 points by accidentally closing the app (twice) without saving. So don’t do that. It does give you a handy summary of each ride that includes average speed, calories burned, distance, and the CO2 you're offsetting. Which, if you're riding casually everyday as a commuter, can feel pretty impressive when its tabulated like that. 

I spoke with a few people who were quite vocal about the app on social media. Joe Byer had been deemed “unsafe” due to his intense workout rides when he went above 40 km/hr. “Seeing as your distance is clocked on your GPS and not data you can sometimes lose the signal...it can sometimes think you’ve gone faster than you actually have.” This is also true if you’re going to turn the app on whilst popping in and out of stores while running your errands. Last week I cycled from Koreatown to the Beaches and back. Somewhere along the way I lost the signal and therefore lost the chance to gain points. Be warned! 

Joe said he understood the need to deter speed. “I can understand that they have to cap [the speed]. I mean, I could throw down 175 km in a week, get a free helmet at Urbane each week and flip them on eBay.” Joe’s commute on a normal day is about 10 km. So he logs about 19 Biko points a day and is “looking forward to a free  lunch at Liberty Commons soon!”

Joe Travers, a Cycle Toronto ward advocacy captain and board member, started using it after reading the coverage in Now magazine. “I'm in it for the food and beverage rewards," he said.

Personally, I’m not inclined to rush out and spend points as soon as I’ve got enough to do something fun. I’m a saver. I’d gotten to 120 odd points and realized that in my lull I missed out on some introductory offers. So sloth consumers you will definitely want to bear this in mind. New rewards are added frequently, but they've moved away from consumable things to discounts. Once I got my act together and redeemed some points, I had missed the introductory offer of free brunch at Liberty Commons so I went for a free flight at Henderson's worth 30 points. I should note this reward has been replaced with a free pint. It was tasty. But, like I do with many of the things in my life, I over complicated the entire process. For some reason I thought I needed to redeem my prize before I got there. The Biko team sends you a lovely little email to confirm that you've redeemed it and thought I was all set. But ladies and gentleman don't do that. Wait till you're at the till and have the bartender, barista, or bike mechanic see you redeeming it in real time! Otherwise you'll get weird looks and they'll wonder how you even get dressed in the morning.

Determined to not screw it up I went to another fine establishment. I managed to get a free coffee with a donut at Glory Hole (worth 5 points). No problem!

Shop keepers at partner businesses described folks coming in as "bike types" to me. The bartender at Henderson was quick to mention the courier community has embraced the rewards-based app with open arms.

What I wonder is whether Biko will successfully bridge the gap and get groups who aren’t usually out there cycling? I spoke to an early adopter of the app, who preferred I did not use his name in print, he spoke frankly about his early enthusiasm which has waned significantly. As an already avid cyclist he was not inspired to ride more than he already did. For him the take away was pretty clear: "I do not think that Biko got people who felt unsafe or uncomfortable riding a bike in Toronto, sadly. A free thing is not enough of a push to get some people riding in the city...The potential is pretty great, but I think it is limited and will only really grow biking within the communities who already bike." As for whether he keeps using it himself he's not that enthused; "I am sitting on a bank of 800 points... I do like that I can still rent a free rental from Bateman's if I have a pal visit me, and I might redeem the discount on a bike repair at Urbane, but that's about it."

The target audience is clear to me: young urban professionals who live and work in the downtown core. Yet the areas that could benefit the most from this kind of incentive building are areas that deserve better cycling infrastructure. Not to say that Biko should forego lucrative downtown collaborations. But it would be so refreshing for them to look a little further afield and try a city wide approach. People who live in Scarborough or North York are not going to cycle Kensington market for a premium iced-coffee from Jimmy’s. 

The one element that genuinely surprised me was that it offers a comprehensive map of bike lanes across the entire GTA. Even if you don’t use the app for any other reason than to map a safe route. Despite being one of the most interesting elements of the app it is also one of the most underdeveloped. For example,  there are options to share with other users points of interest but every time I have tried to add one the app closes on me. My bike was stolen at the end of May from a City Place rack and I would have liked to add that - but it keeps crashing on me. Also the map filters that should show you bike share stations, workshops, road announcements and concerns like bad lighting don't seem to appear.

These features could make this app indispensable for connecting the cycling community in the city. I wonder why aren't these crowd-sourcing features being promoted front and centre, or for that matter working properly? Data this comprehensive could be invaluable for city planners and every day regular cyclists.

So the take away from my first few weeks with Biko is that although it has the best of intentions, discounts aren't enough to get people to overcome their fear of travelling on two wheels. It will be interesting to see if it will continue to grow, keeping businesses interested and riders happy with the perks. 

It is, of course, a step in the right direction. If you do use it, send the fine folks at Biko your feedback -- they are a responsive and enthusiastic young company. Let them know how they can really tap in and enhance the potential of cycling culture throughout the whole of the greater Toronto area.

Bike currently has 16,500 users and 40 partners in Toronto (not the GTA).

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