John Surico is a freelance journalist and researcher who covers transit and open space for a number of outlets, including The New York Times and VICE. He’s currently a MSc candidate in Transport and City Planning at University College London.
The founders of Revel, an e-scooter-share startup, think U.S. cities are ready for a bigger, faster kind of boosted bike.
My Google Maps route from Bushwick to Greenpoint, in North Brooklyn, was in the red—no surprise there: It was evening rush hour in New York. But that was for cars; here I was, weaving in and out of traffic on a electric moped. Google Maps said 20 minutes, maybe. I made it in 15 flat.
One of Frank Reig and Paul Suhey’s many pitches for their new rent-an-electric-moped startup, Revel, is that it’s just plain fun: Users will take that first or second ride—which is given to them for free on the app—and get hooked on the thrills. As I cruised down empty, industrial backroads, I sort of understood what they were getting at: Who would want to be crammed onto two subways in the after-work crunch (which is what my trip would’ve required) when you could be out on this?
Revel, which launched in Brooklyn last week, is the latest installment of what some consider to be the Next Big Thing in shared mobility: a vehicle faster and more capable of going toe-to-toe with traffic than dockless bikes or electric kick-scooters, but smaller than car-shares like Car2Go. Seen already in cities like Atlanta (Muving), San Francisco (Scoot), and Pittsburgh (Scoobi), Revel is New York City’s first.
The mode might seem relatively novel in America, but these kinds of almost-motorcycles have long served as affordable people- and stuff-haulers worldwide. Stylish Vespas filled mobility gaps in austere postwar Europe, and sputtering gas-powered mopeds and minibikes remain popular throughout Asian and Latin American cities. (My only prior experience riding one was in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where mopeds act as taxis to carry you to the top of the sprawling hillside favelas.)
“It’s not just developing countries; it’s all throughout Europe,” said co-founder Reig. “Every country out there has their mopeds. Everyone’s riding them, male and female, young and old. And there’s a reason.”
So why does Revel think Brooklyn is ready to embrace the motorscooter’s latest electric variation?
That was the question I posed to Reig and Suhey at their headquarters on the Bushwick-Ridgewood border, just a day after they announced that 68 Torrot-brand emissions-free mopeds were available to the public at a press conference alongside local City Councilman Antonio Reynoso. When I arrived, a couple walking by was busy snapping a photo of the two blue rides out front.
Reig said electric mopeds, in particular, address two of New Yorkers’ pet peeves in this current moment: noise and parking. “Since they’re electric, the noise pollution is out of the question,” said Reig. “And these are really able to fit into that spot that’s close to a fire hydrant, but a car couldn't fit into.”
Suhey also argues that mopeds can fix a critical weakness in the Manhattan-centric hub-and-spoke model of New York’s mass transit—an issue that arises often in debates over the city’s buses and subways. “We think there’s just a gap for transportation options that allow you to go inter-borough.”
During its pilot, Revel is only available in the neighborhoods of Greenpoint, Bushwick, and Williamsburg—a test zone of, at most, 5 miles. The zone was targeted specifically because it sat at the edge of the city’s CitiBike service area, Suhey explained. Right now, the mopeds are for one-way, point-to-point trips, a la Car2Go. Being in North Brooklyn makes them a viable option to get to alternate transit during the 15-month-long shutdown of the nearby L train, which commences in April of 2019. “It will help in its own way, to be able to get you to the J/M/Z [subway lines], to be able to get you to a ferry on the East River,” Reig said.
Reig, a New York native, said he had noticed the lack of north-south transit options from his 12 years living in Brooklyn. He met Suhey at an investment research company, where the two worked together in the energy division. There, they studied lithium ion batteries—and saw how quickly the technology was developing. “Right now, the range is 50 miles, but two years ago, it was 20 miles,” said Suhey. “The business model running an electric moped company is now viable, compared to a couple of years ago. “
Improving battery technology has created a whole new genre of electric vehicles, including the e-bikes operated by delivery workers that New Yorkers are familiar with (and often annoyed by). The Revel mopeds avoid the debate over e-bike legality that City Hall has been engaging in, because they are Class B vehicles, registered with the state DMV, and insured; they’re not allowed on highways, and don’t go any more than 29 miles an hour. Users need a driver’s license to operate them, and must pass a background check into their driving record.
A 20-minute ride costs $4, and after that, 25 cents a minute. There’s also a one-time registration fee of $25. At those rates, why wouldn’t a regular e-moped commuter find it cheaper in the long run to just buy an electric moped of their own? “Because a restaurant worker doesn’t have $7,000 in their bank account,” Reig quickly replied, when I asked him. “But they do have $4 to hop on for 20 minutes, and get to northern Greenpoint, or south Bushwick. It’s giving someone the opportunity to use a vehicle, whether it’s a moped, an electric bike, a car, that doesn’t have the upfront capital to be able to purchase it.”
Indeed, Reig and Suhey sung the praises of other shared mobility services in our conversation: They said that Revel should be a complement, not a rival, to CitiBike, the city’s new dockless bikes, Car2Go, Zipcar, and ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft. “The more services out there that do shared mobility, the more people are used to using shared mobility,” Reig said. “I love Car2Go, I love JUMP, I love Bird, I love CitiBike. The more, the better.”
In the 24 hours after their launch, Reig said they had received emails from people asking for the service in other Brooklyn neighborhoods. Should the pilot go well, he said, an expansion could take the mopeds down the Brooklyn waterfront, and up to Queens—a service area similar to that of Car2Go. Annual membership options, like CitiBike, might also be considered. But first, they want to ensure the demand is there, that the neighborhood wants it, and that daily maintenance and battery-swapping operations run smoothly.
“We don’t really know how people are going to use it,” said Suhey. “It’s such a unique vehicle. So it’s really interesting to us to see if people just use this to get from Point A to Point B, or do they have this to have a little fun, and explore new neighborhoods?”
After we spoke, it was time for my safety tutorial. When you download Revel, the app asks if you have experience riding a moped—if you say no, it recommends visiting the offices for a lesson, or watching this YouTube video. The lesson consists of learning how to use the kickstand, getting familiar with the weight of the nearly 200 pound bike; adjusting the helmet, which is stashed in a small back trunk (also included: disposable hairnets); and flicking the throttle on and off.
Revel’s offices are along a side street that doesn’t see much daytime traffic. I took it for a spin around the block. If your only e-scooter experience is with the little Bird variety, the speed and power of a Revel bike is a bit of shock, but once you learn how to handle the brisk acceleration, you get used to it. I sat at a red light behind a Dodge minivan, made a right, and then came back.
Later that evening, I rode another Revel, because it actually made a lot sense for my commute. I live in northern Queens, which, from Bushwick, can take up to three or four subway lines to get home. Factoring in likely delays, that meant an hour, or maybe more. (And it was rush hour.) So I charted my alternate route: Take the Revel to Greenpoint, where I could CitiBike home in 20 minutes. I downloaded the app, put in my credit card and license, and waited at a local coffee shop for an hour before a background check into my driving record was completed. Once approved, there was a Revel sitting a block away from me.
When I made it to Greenpoint (as noted, in 15 minutes), I pulled over near a CitiBike dock to park it. Across the street, an older man named Martin, who was waiting in his car, asked if he could switch parking spots; I happily obliged, and walked the Revel across the street, hitching it in a small space between a car and a driveway’s entrance. As I stored my helmet, and closed the app, Martin came over and asked if the moped was mine. I told him about Revel.
“I had a small motorcycle in the city for years,” he said, looking the moped up and down. “It was a blast.”
He asked me how much the mopeds go for—I told him the pricing scheme, and how I came from Bushwick in 15 minutes. His eyes widened. “How cool.”