Urban Infrastructure Partner: An operator for urban sharing

From a small office that overlooks the slate-blue Oslofjord and the hypermodern buildings that rise around it, Urban Infrastructure Partner (UIP) is working to solve the big challenges faced by cities around the world. UIP, explains founder and CFO Kristoffer Bøe Henriksen, is “a company that develops, finances, and operates shared urban infrastructure. It’s a way of providing infrastructure that’s much more effectively used because it’s shared.”

UIP was founded in 2014 by Henriksen, Axel Bentsen (CEO), and Trond Christensen, all of whom met at BI Norwegian Business School in Oslo. The idea for a fully-operative shared infrastructure company was developed when Henriksen, who was working for an investment bank, was approached by Christensen; he was working at the outdoor advertising company Clear Channel, which was looking to finance a new bike share scheme in Oslo. After some discussions, Bentsen, also a successful entrepreneur, became involved.

Following some initial investment pitches, it became apparent that this project needed much more than an advertising company’s bikes and some financial backing if it were to achieve its ultimate goal: providing Oslo with a quality, lasting bike share scheme. The platform, they determined, needed to be created and run by a fully-operative company, and they needed to be the ones to start it. And with that, UIP was born. After many months of negotiations with Clear Channel and the Oslo municipality, along with rapidly building up their business operations, Oslo City Bike became UIP’s first shared infrastructure platform. Now in its second year, it’s considered one of the most efficient bike share schemes in the world.

The founders see the key to the platform’s success in the way it uses digital technology within the operation. “In one sense we are a software company much more than we are an infrastructure company,” says Henriksen. “If you do bike sharing schemes, it’s got a lot of hardware, which is necessary to provide the service. But our software core is much more important to run the whole scheme effectively.” Bentsen agrees that it’s not so much about the bikes themselves, but the way that the sharing scheme is operated. “What matters is everything around it,” he says. “It’s the platform, the software, the overall experience.”

This approach to modern infrastructure is driven by what UIP sees as an urgency in the realm of urban mobility, which must, they argue, look at shared mobility not as novelty, but an increasingly pressing necessity. Both Henriksen and Bentsen say that what started as a “nice to have” has now become a “need to have” in cities, especially in regard to bike sharing. As hundreds of new bike share schemes have popped up in recent years (often operated at least in part by advertising companies), city officials and politicians are happy to be able to “check the bike share box,” so to speak, pleased to tell the world that their city is progressive because it has bike sharing.

Not only have bicycles become a trendy two-wheel accessory for the modern urbanite, bikes are also, of course, a zero-emissions alternative to cars. Providing bike sharing as an option within public transportation is a quick way for a city to show that it’s taking steps to become more forward-thinking and eco-friendly. There is a big difference, however, in having a few bike share stations around town which contribute to the city’s eco-aesthetic but aren’t very widely used, and operating an effective bike share scheme that serves a purpose greater than just good PR. That’s where UIP comes in: operating quality, long-term mobility infrastructure, with resource sustainability as an implied positive effect of a larger and more ambitious goal. That goal? Solving transportation challenges in an increasingly urban world.

“What’s happening across the world now is what I like to call the ‘urbanization multiple,’ which is that cities are growing much faster than the population itself,” explains Henriksen. He gestures to the window, which frames an Oslo skyline dominated by cranes and concrete pillars, a city ascending. “If you look at the 35 years from 2015 onward to 2050, the population of the world will grow by about 2.2 billion, whereas the urban population will grow by about 2.5 billion. Which means that every single person that’s added to this world in the next 35 years will be living in a city. And consequently, cities aren’t able to adapt to the enormous growth that they see in population. How does that influence transportation?”

That’s why UIP is driven by the issue of mobility above all else. For them, it’s the understanding that space is — and will increasingly become — a limited and coveted resource in growing urban areas. Options like bike or car sharing takes pressure off of highly-trafficked mass transit, and is a much more efficient way to quickly move around city centers, especially for short trips and so-called “first-mile, last-mile” trips. Bentsen explains that public transportation administrators are now looking beyond traditional forms of transit, and are mostly concerned with the need for more effective mobility, regardless of its form. “They don’t care if it’s bus, walking, biking, train, — it’s about mobility. And I think that goes for all the cities in the world now. You’ve come to a place where space is the biggest problem. It’s not about adding more buses; there’s no room. So people need to think about the more complete picture.”

As its first sharing platform, UIP launched Oslo City Bike in the spring of 2016 with enormous success. In its inaugural season, the people of Oslo made over two million trips on city bikes, with each bike getting an average of 9.7 trips each day — a massive amount of usage compared with other bike share schemes. The bikes can be locked and unlocked using the the Oslo City Bike app, which shows nearby stations and availability, while also gathering data and analytics for future platforms. Information about the city bikes has also been made available in Oslo’s public transit app, making the bikes a cohesive element of the city’s mobility infrastructure. In just a year, the bikes have become a dynamic part of Oslo’s urban culture and people’s daily lives.

With Oslo City Bike, UIP has created a concrete example of how and why their model is so effective. Now, armed with a proven platform that’s ready to scale, they’re preparing to expand to new cities, and new platforms. “We still of course want to expand the bike sharing platform, but that’s just one of the contexts that we can attach to our software platform,” says Henriksen. Looking ahead, the company hopes to adapt Oslo’s bike sharing platform to additional cities in Europe, while also developing other possible platforms such as car sharing and parking. And while the operation is driven by digital technology, UIP strives to maintain a human element in the way they operate. The platforms are designed to adapt to the local culture on a street level, blending into the fabric of each individual city.

To address urban mobility issues in a truly effective way, UIP believes that it’s all about putting ideas into action. “Cities like to say ‘Oh look, we can all have a bike sharing scheme, it’s fantastic,’ and the mayor cuts some ribbons and everyone’s happy. But people are tired of cutting ribbons, I think,” says Henriksen. “You need to solve actual problems for people.” Christensen agrees. “The most important thing is that we’re actually doing something; everyone else is talking about it,” he says. “We have the technology, we’re actually applying it, and we’re getting results. And that’s a fantastic start to making a difference.”