New Wave Of Electric 2-Wheelers Hits U.S. City Streets

Dec 29, 2017
Originally published on December 29, 2017 11:55 am

As car companies make strides toward expanding the reach of electric cars in the U.S., the same is happening in the world of two wheels.

Outside the U.S., motorcycles, mopeds and scooters are vital, affordable forms of transportation that alleviate congestion. They also run on fossil fuels, and many of the smaller motors are more polluting than regular cars.

In the U.S., these smaller vehicles largely have been leisure devices. But as battery technology improves and cities get denser, some startups are seeking to produce cheaper and greener mopeds, scooters and motorized bikes.

When John McChesney reported on e-bikes for NPR in 2008, they were pretty much a new thing in the U.S. Electric bikes have a long history but re-emerged after the turn of the century.

In that story, McChesney, a baby boomer, pedaled up a hill in San Francisco with the aid of an e-bike.

"This is pretty extraordinary," McChesney said, "because I can tell you, on this hill, I would never, ever attempt it, on my own."

These bikes aren't just good for hill country — they're helpful to people with injuries or heart conditions who ride on flat terrain, too. And they come in all shapes and sizes, including tricycles and recumbent bikes. The majority of buyers have been 45 or older.

Now, though, new startups in Southern California and Oregon are targeting Gen X and millennial consumers looking for something between a bike and a car that's less polluting. These companies hope to create a market for this kind of personalized travel in the U.S., as well as provide zero emissions alternatives to a market that's already popular elsewhere in the world.

URB-E is a foldable scooter built in downtown Pasadena, Calif. Peter Lee, one of the company's founders, is a millennial, and his scooters are aimed at a younger demographic than the electric bikes.

"URB-E stands for urban electric. We exist to solve the pain points of living in cities," Lee says. He says electric cars go a long way toward solving the air problems in a city like Los Angeles, but do nothing about the traffic.

"Using a Uber and Lyft is great and very convenient," Lee says, "but using a 3,000-pound car to move a 150-pound, 180-pound body 1 or 2 miles doesn't seem very convenient or efficient to us."

Lee isn't trying to replace the car or public transit. The point of these vehicles is what transportation people call the "last mile" — think the trip to the grocery store or from the commuter train station home. As cities around the globe look to ban cars in their central business districts and parking remains a premium, these small vehicles are there to fill in the gaps.

"There needs to be a different class of vehicles," says Ryan Rzpecki, CEO of Jump Mobility, an e-bike manufacturer and sharing service. He says that the new devices could be scooters or electric bikes, but that driving around in everyone's own personal vehicle is not the way.

As cars become more autonomous and electric, small e-vehicles will make sense to Americans as they rediscover the downtown, says Rzpecki.

"Plus they're cooler," he adds.

And Jodie Gates with Oregon E-bikes — headquartered in Hood River, Ore. — says electric bikes and other non-car alternatives can help those with limited mobility.

She says there isn't as big of a hurdle persuading people to ride: "You don't forget how to ride a bike."

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

What do you think of an electric bike or a moped? You might think of someone using these things for fun. But elsewhere in the world, from Mexico City to Shanghai, these smaller vehicles are actually vital forms of transportation. They're more affordable. They also help alleviate congestion. Well, now some West Coast startups think mopeds and scooters might present those same advantages here in the United States as well, as NPR's Sonari Glinton reports.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: About 10 years ago, electric bikes were having kind of a renaissance. This is from a story by my former NPR colleague John McChesney. For context, John is a baby boomer pedaling up a hill in San Francisco with the aid of an e-bike.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JOHN MCCHESNEY: This is pretty extraordinary because I can tell you, on this hill, I would never, ever attempt it. But I'm still working out, as you can probably begin to hear. OK. Rest break.

GLINTON: As that story shows, an e-bike can help you up a steep hill in San Francisco. And they're an alternative to gas-powered motors. Now, some of those smaller gas-powered motors can be more polluting than cars, and that's why a number of startups in Oregon and Southern California have sprouted up to help the commuter who wants something clean and somewhere between a bike and a car.

We stand at the front of this tiny manufacturing shop in downtown Pasadena that has about half a dozen workers. You can imagine what Henry Ford or Ransom Olds first car assembly shops looked like - kind of like this. This startup is called URB-E. They make foldable scooters.

PETER LEE: As you can see, like station four or five is where it all kind of comes together a little bit more.

GLINTON: More than 80 percent of workers in the U.S. get to work alone in a car, truck or SUV. Now, environmentalists have long seen this as a problem, with a new wave of entrepreneurs sensing opportunity.

LEE: My name is Peter Lee. I'm the CEO and co-founder of URB-E. URB-E stands for urban electric. We exist to solve the pain points of living in cities.

GLINTON: Lee says the biggest pain point - traffic.

LEE: So using an Uber and Lyft is great and very convenient, but using a 3,000-pound car to move a 150, 180-pound body one or 2 miles doesn't seem very convenient or efficient to us.

GLINTON: Lee says these vehicles solved the problem of the last mile - you know, the trip to the grocery store or those eight blocks to the nearest bus or train. Now, these startups want to make those trips easier and cleaner.

RYAN RZPECKI: There needs to be a different class of vehicle. It could be scooters. It could be electric bikes. It could be kick scooters. It could be a lot of different things. But driving around in everybody's own personal automobile is not the way forward.

GLINTON: Ryan Rzpecki is CEO of JUMP Mobility. His company makes a shared electric bike.

RZPECKI: One, you're not going to get sweaty because you're not exerting yourself nearly as much. Two, you can go up the hills no problem. Three, you can wear normal clothes. And, four, it is cooler.

GLINTON: As cities around the globe look to ban cars in their central business districts and parking remains a premium, entrepreneurs say these small vehicles are there to fill in the gaps.

LEE: Both feet are on the ground right now. Your right hand is on our throttle, so go ahead and twist that throttle back a little bit slightly.

GLINTON: Oh.

LEE: There you go.

GLINTON: Peter Lee with URB-E lets me go on a joy ride.

LEE: And as you go, you can just put your feet on the back pegs.

GLINTON: Oh.

LEE: And both feet will come up, and there you go. And the right hand is the brake.

GLINTON: I think I scared that lady there. If I don't come back, Sonari Glinton, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRAY FOR SOUND'S "CONGRATULATIONS, YOU'RE ALIVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.