A photo of Revel electric motor scooters
Is electric motor-scooter-sharing a commuting breakthrough or a hair-raising fad? Scooter startup Revel is hoping for the former. Revel

Revel’s rentable motor scooters offer a faster brand of of zero-emission shared urban mobility. But to ride safely, cyclists need to learn some new skills.

On a recent Saturday morning in Washington, D.C., I convinced my girlfriend to try a new way to get to brunch: We’d ride one of the shiny black-and-blue Revel motor scooters that had just arrived in town.

D.C. has become something of a hotbed for micromobility experimentation—a rainbow of dockless electric kick-scooters vie for sidewalk space with Segways, hoverboards, e-unicycles, and other wheeled gadgets in the District’s touristy quarters. But the arrival of Revel for a four-month pilot represents a new twist. The company, which launched in Brooklyn last summer, offers a fleet of decidedly more robust vehicles—electric mopeds that can seat two, keep up with traffic, and general behave more like the cars and trucks with whom they share the streets.

As my Atlantic colleague Ian Bogost wrote last year, the motor scooter straddles two transportation worlds:

American cities really don’t make it easy to get around quickly without a car. Cars are loud and expensive, they pollute, and they take up public space. But until recently, the quiet, cheap, green alternative mostly amounted to bicycles. A motor scooter splits the difference between the two, offering some of the benefits of a car and some of those of a bike.

Compared to the toylike, rule-flouting, sidewalk-cluttering kick-scooters, proper motor scooters also promise to be a more regulated—and officially legitimized—form of urban transportation. “It rides and parks in the street and flows through traffic, completely off sidewalks,” says Frank Reig, CEO of Revel. “You’re part of the traffic lane and have a license plate.”

As with similar moped startups—Muving in Pittsburgh and Atlanta, Scoot in San Francisco—you need a driver’s license and a proper helmet to grab a Revel motor scooter. To get started, the company requires a scan of your license, accompanied by an in-app selfie, to go through a $19 background check approval. What you don’t need is a motorcycle license, or any prior experience piloting these kinds of vehicles. And that could prove to be a challenge for some.

When I giddily unlocked my first Revel scooter, I popped open the back storage case on the bike to reveal two provided DOT-approved helmets, accompanied by two parking tickets that it had accrued on its very first day in the District. (The company will hold riders accountable for fines up to 24 hours after they park, if no other rider moves the vehicle.) These were just the first of many signs that riding this kind of scooter is a higher-stakes game.

In an effort to calm the nerves of newbie riders like me, Revel offers a “free safety minute”—knocking off the first 25 cents of the ride to get your helmet and game face on. I spent mine trying to remember the two-and-a-half minute training video that I had watched the night before. I adjusted the mirrors, secured my phone, checked my brakes and tires, and I fumbled around through the buttons on the dashboard to remember what they do. There’s a red button that honks a cute, high-pitched horn, a sliding switch for the very vocal turn signals, and a green ignition button that, of course, ignites nothing—the electric vehicle’s dashboard just reads “READY” as you pop up the kickstand and wobble away after a good pull on the throttle.

The electric mopeds that Revel uses in D.C. are made by the Chinese company NIU; they sell about $3,000 to $5,000 if you want your own, and they are similar in price and capabilities to their gas-powered Vespa cousins. They have a range of about 60 miles and can go about 30 miles per hour—fast enough to keep up with traffic in the city.

Following brunch (I skipped the mimosas), I took the scooter for a longer ride, winding it out on a 10-mile route around the hills of D.C.’s Mount Pleasant and Woodley Park neighborhoods; that hour-long jaunt cost a little more than $18. The next day I took a 5.6-mile route across town with my fellow passenger handling our directions, tackling big stretches like a car would instead of a bike. Revel’s app only restricts where its vehicles can park, but its “no parking” corridors work as a decent map of where scooting with cars would be too difficult anyways.

Uneasy rider: The author parks and embarks on an inaugural scooter ride. (Sarah Solon-Hanover/CityLab)

I was definitely hooked. Both rides were calm, easy, and the closest thing to a date-mobile that my car-free lifestyle has ever allowed for. (Reig told me that more than 20 percent of their rides have two people on them, which the app checks for insurance purposes, adding an additional dollar to the base fare.) But my joyrides also made something abundantly clear: If you’re a seasoned bicycle rider, your bike-brain will need to be rewired. The old defensive urban cycling maneuvers I use to keep safe on the road—drifting to the right side of the lane, hopping curbs, blowing the occasional traffic light, and rolling up on the sidewalk in an emergency—won’t cut it. This isn’t vehicular cycling—it’s an actual motor vehicle.

While motor-powered scooters are as old as cars, the emergence of moped-sharing in U.S. cities could mean that a wave of clueless first-timers like me are now piloting these machines in urban traffic. So far, everyone I spoke with on a Revel in D.C. told me they started out biking and don’t normally drive cars or ride motorcycles in the city. They might need to learn (or remember) the city-driving basics, plus some skills and mores unique to motor-scooterdom. (Only in California, for example, may riders split lanes legally, though urban motorcyclists often deploy this traffic-busting trick.)

Unsurprisingly, by the end of the first weekend of Revel’s entrance in the D.C. market, there was already one story of a serious crash, with a rider reportedly hitting a pothole and breaking his collarbone. In Brooklyn, the company has been the target of a personal injury lawsuit filed by a bicyclist who was struck and injured by a scooter. “Part of our claim,” attorney Daniel Flanzig told Streetsblog NYC, “is that they are putting people out there without proper training.”

So is the moped moment going to meet a swift and premature end because of safety concerns?

It’s not easy to do an apples-to-apples safety comparison of bicycles vs. motor scooters. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s latest report on motorcycle safety does not break out specific statistics for motor scooters, but motorcycles, mopeds, and motor scooters together accounted for 5,172 deaths and about 89,000 injuries in 2017, the most recent year reported. Regular pedal bikes, on the other hand, only resulted in 783 deaths in 2017, and NHTSA’s last injury report for bicyclists in 2015 estimated about 45,000 crash injuries.

In general, though, there’s no getting around the physics: more speed and more weight equals more danger for two-wheeled riders. “You are about 30 times more likely to die on a motorcycle versus a car, based on vehicle miles traveled, just because you’re so much more vulnerable without protection of a steel shell around you,” says Sue Carpenter, an editor at KPCC in California who covered motorcycles and motor scooters for the Los Angeles Times.

You can improve your odds a lot by avoiding alcohol, wearing a helmet, and slowing down. “You’re less likely to get in a crash on a freeway than an urban street, but if you get in a crash on a freeway, it’s a lot more likely to be fatal,” Carpenter says.

But the more common crashes in urban environments tend to be less severe: Only 7 percent of the total deaths in the category in 2017 were in less-powerful bikes of up to 500cc, which tend to be used more for in-town transportation. For all riders, Carpenter recommends padded, high-visibility safety gear rather than the classic black-leather look. “It isn’t very cool in an urban environment, I will admit,” she says. “But that’s what’s going to help keep you safe.”

Turn left to go right! (Courtesy Revel)

Motor-scooter companies offer free lessons on some of the basics: starting the vehicle, entering traffic, emergency braking, and parking. After my inaugural ride, I took Revel’s half-hour rider instruction course, held near the company’s warehouse side street in northwest Washington. Yassin Khalid, a Revel community manager, led me through a crash-course in motor-scooter skills; we learned how to pull the scooter off its center stand and into the road with pro-style aplomb and got a very basic overview of braking, cornering, and hazard-avoidance techniques.

If you plan to do serious urban riding, you might want to invest in a proper motorcycle riding course, says Richard Kleig, a motorcycle coach at Two Wheel Adventures in Atlanta. “The skills that you need are not just riding skills but also strategy—how to look, where to look, how to pay attention to somebody else, how much space to leave,” says Kleig, who is certified by the state of Georgia and the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. “People who even come out of the class tell me they feel like they became better drivers from it.”

One key lesson, he says: “It’s not if you fall. It’s when you fall.”

In my Revel safety course, I learned a little bit about the mysteries of countersteering and the importance of properly gauging stopping distance. Revel’s scooters weigh about 200 pounds, so you have to be prepared to brake sooner than you do on a pedal bike. (I have not yet dared to do a full swerve turn, where you accelerate into the turn to dodge an unexpected car, which you would learn in a real motorcycle class.)

Another thing less obvious to the bicyclist-turned-scooter-pilot is lane positioning. A cyclist’s first instinct may be to hug the right side of the street, either to be in the bike lane or let cars pass, or to just plow right down the middle of the road like a four-wheeled vehicle. Instead, Kleig recommends riding in the left side of the lane, right about where a car’s driver’s seat would be. That will help you avoid getting doored by parked cars, stay visible to other drivers, and give yourself room to maneuver. “You can be seen easier than if you're in the middle of the lane,” he says. “You might actually be hiding behind the car in front of you in the oncoming car may not see you.”

Kleig has another tip for being seen: “You can float back and forth in your lane, side to side a little bit, to draw the attention of the eye. It’s the same reason why the guys at the corner spin the sign trying to get you to come in to buy subs—you look at it because it’s spinning.”

Ultimately, Kleig says the biggest challenge for these new companies and the cities they operate is in cultivating an awareness of the road rules in drivers as well as riders. “It may take some time for the public to adopt and understand how that works, in the same way that bicyclists are supposed to give them three feet of distance when passing,” he says.

Some European cities have designated infrastructure for motor scooters, where they’re more common; until recently, Amsterdam even allowed motor scooters on its bike lanes. When the San Francisco-based company Scoot looked for new markets, it went to Barcelona, Spain, home of the Superblock, and Santiago, Chile, where it partnered with the municipality of Las Condes to create a slow shared space for all light vehicles.

But in U.S. cities, where the idea of the slow-speed zone is in its infancy, these rented motor scooters will have to co-exist with traditional urban traffic, riding among the cars that it may help supplant.

“Every city is trying to break car culture,” says Revel’s Reig. “Every DOT in every city in the United States is trying to do that every day. I think cities are quickly realizing that the electric moped operation can help do that. It can be one small piece of a much larger puzzle.”

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