Written by Lane Florsheim
Growing up in Amsterdam, Julia Munsters always thought of mopeds as the ideal way to get around. Ahead of her 16th birthday, she saved up for a Vespa, which she passed down to her brother after she left for school in the U.S. a few years later. Since moving to New York City in 2018, Munsters, now 24 and a fundraiser for a humanitarian organization, always considered buying another one but it never seemed like the right time.
Then the pandemic hit. She didn’t want to take the subway anymore and was impressed to learn Vespa had become more environmentally friendly since she’d bought her first moped; the company’s i-get engine platform, which was introduced on 2016 models, optimized consumption and power to meet new Euro 4 requirements. Munsters picked out a Vespa Sprint 50, a sporty model that gets up to 81 miles per gallon. “It’s a great time to get used to driving a scooter in the city because there’s so little traffic,” she says. “It’s so quick to get around. You can park everywhere. I’ve been able to take some of my friends on the back. It’s been a really positive experience.”
Looking to stay away from subways, buses and rideshares, city dwellers like Munsters are increasingly buying and renting their own forms of transportation, often of the two-wheeled, “open air” variety. More eco-friendly than cars—and less expensive—mopeds, bikes and scooters are all seeing a surge in popularity. For example, Vespa’s U.S. website traffic increased by 47 percent between April and May, according to Marco D’Acunzo, the chief marketing officer of Vespa in the U.S. (Vespa launched e-commerce in January.)
Noticing that people are changing their habits, investors are putting money into these forms of transport, especially in the rental market. For those who don’t want or aren’t ready to invest in their own vehicle, rental and sharing startups like Revel (electric mopeds) and Lime (electric scooters) make avoiding mass transit easier in the cities where they operate. For Revel, that’s New York; Austin, Texas; Miami; Washington, D.C.; and Oakland, California. Lime, which isn’t in New York yet, operates in over 100 cities around the world. Revel raised $27.6 million last fall in its second round of funding, and in May, Lime announced a new $170 million funding round led by Uber, which also gave the scooter startup control over Uber’s own electric bike and electric scooter business, Jump. Lime’s chief policy officer, David Spielfogel, says adding Uber’s fleet to Lime’s will help the company better serve entire cities, since most riders prefer using bikes over scooters for longer trips.
Unlike many bike-share programs, Revel and Lime don’t have hubs around a city; instead, users open an app to see where all the available mopeds or scooters are currently parked so they can retrieve one. (Lime does have “hot spots” in reliably trafficked locations, and Revel has a service area where mopeds can be parked and rides started.) According to Revel data, the company’s average daily rides in New York City were up 112 percent in the last 15 days of May versus the first 15 days of March of this year. “One of the hardest things to do in transportation and mobility is to change people’s habits,” says Frank Reig, the co-founder and CEO of Revel. “The one thing with coronavirus, we’re changing people’s habits right now.” In the month of May about 30,000 people signed up for Revel. The company, which originally opened its New York City program in Queens and Brooklyn in 2019 following a nine-month pilot program, recently started operating in Manhattan and the Bronx as well. Part of the expansion’s aim was to be of service to health-care workers, who were given free rides for 10 weeks and then another month with 20 percent off all rides, in all of Revel’s operating markets.
Dr. Kurt Yaeger, 31, who works as a resident physician in the Mount Sinai Health System in New York, had never driven a moped before learning about the free ride program. “I was a little nervous to try it out at first, but I took it around the block and it worked perfectly,” he says. He plans to keep using Revel: “It kind of replaces the ridesharing services. Today, I took it, and to get from downtown Brooklyn to where I am now in Astoria was only $10. It got me here in about the same time as an Uber or Lyft and it was a fraction of the cost.”
To take out a Revel, which reaches a maximum speed of 30 mph, riders have to be at least 21 and have a valid driver’s license. The company provides two helmets with each moped for their riders to use. Revel has implemented an “enhanced disinfection process” in light of coronavirus, cleaning high-touch areas of the mopeds as well as helmets with Covid-19-effective products. Lime says it has also enhanced its cleaning methods and increased the frequency of how often it cleans and disinfects its scooters, including cleaning all parts of it that are touched by people using only CDC-recommended and EPA-approved products each time a scooter comes to its warehouses.
Traditional bike ownership is also up dramatically. Connor Swegle, co-founder of Priority Bicycles in New York, said via email that sales have increased approximately fivefold since mid-March, when most lockdowns were put in place. In Venice, California, Adam McDermott, the founder and president of Linus Bike, whose bicycles are inspired by 1960s French design, says he’s never seen demand this high. There’s a Linus showroom in Venice, as well as a wholesale business to retailers across the country. McDermott says he’d seen a lot of those stores, which are mostly independent mom-and-pop shops, struggling or closing in the last four years. “Now the energy and the conversation have changed,” he says.
Tired of decontaminating the shared Citi Bikes she used to rent, Elizabeth Muñoz, a 30-year-old music producer who lives in Brooklyn, asked for a seven-gear road bike from Priority Bicycles for her birthday. She’d noticed a friend’s bike from Priority, liked how it looked and was pleasantly surprised by its relative affordability (her friend’s Classic Plus Gotham Edition costs $549). “I’ve been using it pretty much for everything,” she says, “to get to friends’ houses, to get to the studio, to get to protests, to go exercise, to clear my head, to go towards the water. I’ve been all about the bike life.”
Riders have also been noticing they’ve been able to appreciate new parts of the city. “It’s very freeing,” says Simon Kafka, a 37-year-old musician who lives in Brooklyn and recently bought a bike. “I’ve been in New York City for 19 years, and [there are] so many places I just didn’t have the energy to go to because the method of getting there was so difficult and annoying. It’s opened up the city in a bunch of new ways—like I hadn’t been to Coney Island since 2003 and it’s a nice [ride], an hour and change.”
“There have been a few straight-up joyrides for sure, just an hour of cruising around,” says Irina Jasnowski Pascual, a 30-year-old artist in New York, who uses Revel. “It’s made it so I can get to parts of Brooklyn that I’ve never been able to bike to.”
Many riders say they plan to continue using their new forms of transport even when the pandemic ends. Lime’s Spielfogel says that cities in the U.S. and Europe, wanting to offer their inhabitants more open-air solutions—and avoid a sudden buildup of car traffic—are accelerating their legalization of electric scooters. Some are embracing closed streets and slow streets.
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