This is the third (and I think final) piece in my series on emerging trends in micromobility. I started with electric kick scooters, moved on to ebikes, and now I’m going to tackle sit-down e-scooters. Right off the bat, I need to deal with a terminology problem. If you Google “e‑scooters,” the results will reference a wide variety of vehicles including both the kick scooters I wrote about eight months ago and the sit-down scooters I’m writing about today. To me, these are two very different forms of transportation and yet they are often referred to with the same “e‑scooter” terminology.
What I’m writing about here are scooters where the rider is seated, not standing, and the scooter moves forward primarily in response to the twist of a throttle. This includes what are often called “mopeds” which have the ability to be pedaled but rarely are unless the battery is dead. In my mind, ebikes are different from electric mopeds in that they are designed primarily to be pedaled and the electric motor boosts the pedaling process. My current topic also includes “Vespa-like” scooters that simply use an electric motor and battery pack to replace the more traditional gas engine. Confusingly, Vespa-like scooters are sometimes also called mopeds even though they have no pedals. In any case, the following pictures illustrate some of the wide variety of vehicles that I categorize as an electric sit-down scooter and which I, for the sake of brevity, will arbitrarily refer to as e-scooters for the rest of this post.
My definition of e-scooters overlaps with another type of vehicle that I think should be referred to as an e-motorcycle. Several traditional motorcycle manufacturers are designing electric motorcycles capable of traveling at highway speeds. Currently, this is a relatively minute part of the transportation landscape and doesn’t fit the definition of micromobility, so I’m not going to include them in my comments.
|Juiced Hyperscorpion electric moped|
|Vespa Elettrica scooter|
Cost, Features, and Speed
Even given my relatively narrow definition, there are a wide variety of e-scooters available, each with their own combination of features and capabilities. At the low end of the spectrum are the moped e-scooters that generally cost between $1,500 and $2,500. Most are intended for a single rider with a rack for some cargo, but a few can accommodate a second passenger. Controls are pretty basic (throttle, brakes and simple lighting) and the top speed is generally 20 to 25 mph.
Spending a little more, say $2,500 to $3,500, gets you a more full fledged vehicle that has a legit dashboard, turn signals, horn and full suspension. Lighting is typically sophisticated enough that they can be safely ridden at night. Vehicles in this category are likely to be more of the “Vespa” style scooter, although some of the beefier mopeds make it to this price range as well. Room for two riders is pretty common, along with some lockable storage. Top speed, however, is still typically limited to roughly 25 to 30 mph. In most states a top speed below 30 means that no motorcycle license is required -- just a standard driver's license -- and insurance and registration requirements may be reduced.
Spending more than $4,000 or 5,000 gets you a higher top speed, higher quality components and designs that are more stylish. Here the line between scooter and motorcycle starts to blur, but generally you still have the step-through frame design and a top speed that is not intended for highway driving.
Some may be wondering what the key distinctions are between an pedal-assist ebike and a throttle based e-scooter, particularly since the price points overlap considerably. Aside from the obvious need to pedal, ebikes are much lighter and more nimble. But the biggest difference, in my opinion, is that e-scooters feel like a real motor vehicle that deserves to be in the middle of traffic with cars and trucks. As such, e-scooters might be a better choice where heavy traffic or a lack of bike lanes make riding an ebike feel unsafe. Ebikes can get away with riding on traditional bike trails and bike lanes (although they should watch their speed) but I don’t think those are appropriate places for an e-scooter. The range for e-scooters varies between models, but 30 to 60 miles on a single charge is pretty common. This means that e-scooters can easily handle longer commutes that might strain the rider of an ebike.
My experience on an e-scooter
In order to get some first-hand experience, I used a company called Revel that operates a dockless, moped-sharing system in New York, Washington D.C., Miami and the San Francisco bay area. Revel is positioning itself as a full service urban mobility company with ebike rental and Tesla-based ride share programs to go along with the e-scooters that I rode. The sign-up process is more in-depth than for a typical bike-share program, but it was still easy to get registered to ride and learn the basics with their online training video.
I took the extra step of signing up for an in-person training session which turned out to be well worth the trip to their Brooklyn headquarters and an hour of my time. E-scooters are closer to a motorcycle than a bike and I don’t have any real motorcycle experience, so I appreciated the detailed explanations of how their scooter and the associated phone app worked. After a few simple riding exercises on a quiet street, I was ready to go out on my own.
I spent about an hour riding around Brooklyn on the Revel scooter. I started on some residential streets with limited traffic, but quickly moved to more commercialized streets where the traffic was heavier and the speeds a little higher. When I wasn’t stopping for a traffic signal, I probably averaged 20 to 25 miles per hour. That doesn’t seem that fast, but in a dense urban area that is about as fast as traffic ever goes and so I rarely felt that I was an obstacle to the cars behind me.
Revel uses e-scooters from Niu that are modified to accommodate their GPS tracking system and their check-out/check-in software app. Acceleration was snappy all the way up to their top speed of about 28 miles per hour, and handling was very predictable. I was surprised how quickly I became comfortable riding the scooter in traffic, even in an unfamiliar city. In some ways it was easier than driving a car because I felt more engaged with what was going on around me. The scooters come with a mount for your phone and a USB charging port. I wish I had taken advantage of those features, because I ended up missing a turn and had to pull over so I could figure out where I was. Aside from that mistake, my ride was fun and problem free. My biggest challenge, in fact, was not riding the scooter but finding a place to park it legally when I was done!
Comparison with kick-scooters and ebikes
The three forms of micromobility vehicles form a pretty linear continuum regardless of what measure of transportation I apply to them. In terms of speed, effective range and carrying capacity, the e-scooter comes out on top followed by the ebike and then the kick-scooter. But all three are effective forms of transportation and the differences aren’t as big as you might imagine.
For some factors, the continuum gets reversed. Cost of ownership/operation, for example, or ease of use. The all-important fun factor probably favors the kick scooter as well. Not that the larger e-scooter wasn’t fun, but it was clearly a serious piece of transportation equipment and riding it made you focus on what you were doing more intently so that you didn’t cause an accident.
In summary, all three devices have their strengths and weaknesses. Choosing the “best” device will be a very personal decision based more on individual circumstances than on any inherent advantage. Perhaps the most important point is that all three devices get you out of the steel cocoon of your car and connect you more intimately with what is going on around you. Of course, many people probably prefer being in the cocoon, but I find it liberating to at least have options that let me experience urban life more directly and deeply.
The impact on cities and urban living
The Revel business model makes sense in the four coastal cities where it is currently operating but would probably not work in the less dense cities of the midwest (with the possible exception of Chicago). But that does not mean that a privately-owned e-scooter wouldn’t make a very useful addition to many urban households. My local scooter store here in the Kansas City metro carried the same Niu scooters that Revel uses. Scooters generally are much more popular in Asian countries but they are slowly spreading to the US. In the right circumstances, an e-scooter would make a relatively inexpensive commuting vehicle with a lower environmental footprint than the standard car or motorcycle.
In terms of the broader impact of e-scooters (and other micromobility options), the key question is whether any of them individually or in combination could replace the need for a personally owned automobile. Or perhaps more realistically in the midwest, allow a household to get by with one car instead of two. In my mind, the answer to that question is a definite “yes,” but with some important qualifications. The ideal candidates for this kind of substitution would need, first and foremost, an adventurous attitude and a willingness to try something new and different. Midwestern cities are making progress in supporting micromobility options, but they have been historically so auto-focused that there is a very long way to go before traveling on a bike or scooter is as safe and convenient as it should be. That means that being routinely reliant on micromobility will require people who are willing to experiment to find out what works and what doesn’t.
Secondly, using micromobility to replace a car is likely to work better for households in relatively dense areas of the city where typical trip lengths are shorter -- particularly for the most common trips such as the commute to work or school. In fact, I suspect that not only is density important, but proximity to the metro core is as well. While micromobility might work in a dense suburban location, the closer you are to the core the more options you are likely to have available and the more that automobile drivers are likely to be expecting bikes and scooters to be sharing the road. That expectation and experience is a large part of what it takes to make people on bikes and scooters safe.
Finally, substituting some form of micromobility for a car will work best where you have options on those inevitable days when midwestern weather is at its worst. If you are adventurous and willing to dress appropriately, this might only be 20 or 30 days per year, but you can’t ignore this issue if you have to get to work on time every day. Transit is an obvious option in certain areas and most transit agencies are actively working to pair up with micromobility. Carpooling is another option, particularly for a household that has at least one car. For many households, however, the most flexible option might be a ride-sharing service such as Uber or Lyft. While these are expensive if used on a regular basis, they are much more reasonable if used in “emergency” situations such as a sudden downpour or unexpected blizzard.
I know I have made this point before in previous posts, but our cities would function better and our lives would be healthier and more interesting if we were less dependent on the automobile for transportation. All three of the micromobility options that I have explored (plus old fashioned walking and traditional biking) need to be taken seriously by Public Works Departments and Departments of Transportation at the local, state and national levels, and they need to be given significant shares of transportation funding.
In addition, transportation regulations need to be thoroughly revamped with these newer transportation options in mind. With respect to e-scooters, for example, I think the maximum speed for devices that can be operated with a traditional drivers license instead of a motorcycle license should be increased to 35 or 40 miles per hour. This would enable them to keep up with traffic on most streets which would make e-scooters far more useful and probably safer to ride since they would be less of an obstacle to normal traffic flow.
As with many things in our lives, the future of transportation is going to be more diverse than the past. This is just one more thing that will make some people feel “uncomfortable” and make some yearn for the way things used to be, but what we need is not a return to the past but a way to make people accepting of a future where diversity and change are normal.
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