Metropolis

Are Revel Mopeds the Fad of the Summer or the Future of Urban Transportation?

The quest for an alternative to 4,000-pound metal boxes on wheels continues.

A Revel moped sits outside the company's headquarters.
Revel launched its black-and-blue mopeds in New York City in June.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, I came across a man in a motorcycle helmet pulling himself and his black Revel moped off the asphalt on Brooklyn’s Hoyt Street, after a spill on the rain-slicked street. This was serendipitous, because I was on my way to interview Frank Reig, the CEO of Revel, which in June deployed 1,000 electric mopeds to the streets of New York.

A few minutes after the crash, I asked Reig how he would address critics who believe riders may not be up to the task of piloting a moped through city traffic. “I would say, ‘We have thousands and thousands on our platform riding safely, effectively, loving it, having a shit ton of fun.’ ”

Can’t argue with that last point. Revel’s black-and-blue mopeds have the acceleration of a motorcycle, the nimbleness of a bicycle, and, on New York streets where the speed limit is 25 mph, the legal top speed of a car. (Revels can go 30 mph.) You can reserve a Revel up to 15 minutes in advance, unlock it in seconds, and park it anywhere it’s legal for the next 24 hours—which, thanks to the mopeds’ skinny profile, is no trouble at all.  Each bike costs a dollar to use plus 25 cents a minute, after a one-time license-check fee of $19.

In 10 weeks, the brand has gone from a curiosity to a ubiquitous sight in the prosperous neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens, where car ownership is low but public transit remains stubbornly inadequate. In their first 60 days of operation, the company says, the scooters clocked more than 300,000 rides—meaning the service had obtained, overnight, almost half the daily 2018 ridership of New York’s inter-borough ferry system, which receives hundreds of millions in public subsidies. When we spoke earlier this month, Reig said that more than 500 new users were joining every day and that each bike is used more than six times a day. Revel expanded to Washington with 400 mopeds earlier this month.

So are rentable mopeds the future of urban transportation? Don’t listen to me. In 2017, I wrote about the promise of dock-less bicycles—those cheaply manufactured, aluminum-and-plastic bicycles that could be unlocked with the scan of a QR code and pedaled for pennies on the mile. Those bicycles, I declared, “promise to permanently alter the way people move around the American city.” A year and a half later, the bikes are all gone, and the companies bankrupt.

But the need remains: More than 35 percent of car trips in the U.S. are two miles or less. The share is higher in urban areas where congestion is constant and car ownership is expensive. And the search for an alternative has continued. In the footsteps of those shoddy bikes, an even more unlikely invention emerged: electric scooters, which have become an unmissable part of the mix in many U.S. cities. Now the biggest scooter company, Bird, is introducing its own electric moped-bicycle hybrid. Like Revel’s product, it will be able to comfortably carry two people.

In short, small, flexible vehicles that are better suited to the city errand than our 4,000-pound metal boxes are still in their early stages of evolution. The Revel is just the latest mutation.

And, yes, it’s a shit ton of fun. I’ve tried the Revel several times this summer, and each whiz up and down Brooklyn’s little hills delivered the delightful sensory rush of a good bike ride: the smell of food and flowers (and, on occasion, worse), the sounds of voices and music, the open-air head-swiveling at each stoplight to take in the surroundings. But without the slightest effort. With its jerky acceleration, braking, turning, and weight distribution, the moped reminded me most of a small motorcycle—and it will be a familiar experience to anyone who has ridden one. Those who haven’t, I think, will find the Revel intuitive, but first-timers might want to practice on a quiet side street before hitting a major thoroughfare. The company also offers free lessons.

One interesting thing about the Revel is that its model hews more closely to existing car culture than the weirder locomotion startups that preceded it. Signing up for Revel requires a driver’s license; users are responsible for traffic violations they commit while riding. Having a license plate means you can’t drive drunk, as you might on a rented bicycle or scooter, without facing serious consequences if stopped. No running red lights. No riding on the sidewalks. No riding without a helmet (two are provided in a compartment behind the seat, and cleaned every two days, I’m told). And, again, because the mopeds are motor vehicles, they use parking spots.

Grafting onto car culture is smart. But also, some of the barriers that were issues in the early days of the car share—cost, parking, liability—just aren’t as big a deal as they used to be. Commuters are now accustomed to trying new things to get where they want to go.

So what are people using Revels for? The company’s surveys claim that its trips are mostly battery-powered replacements for Uber rides. For that reason, Reig thinks Revel can succeed in U.S. cities beyond New York and Washington, which have recently ranked first and second among big U.S. cities for noncar commuting. “In cities like L.A. or Miami, literally everyone is using Uber and Lyft,” Reig says. And he thinks he can convert them.

That’s another way that Revel follows the first generation of ride-share vehicles—by aiming at the customer bases they’ve already unlocked. According to a recent study commissioned by the ride-hail giants, Uber and Lyft usage in high-adoption cities like Washington and San Francisco amounts to 7 and 13 percent of total driving mileage, respectively. Some of that is on highways, of course, and to airports. Still, that’s a lot of gas-powered miles that could potentially be replaced with trips on bikes, scooters, or mopeds. It’s cheaper and it’s more fun.

As for safety, Revel has data about any crashes that involve insurance, but Reig wouldn’t say how the collision rate compared with the city’s vehicles at large. Then again, what he’s proposing is hardly revolutionary: The rest of the world has recognized the comfort, speed, and convenience of mopeds in urban areas for decades. In Paris, for example, mopeds account for around 300,000 trips per day. In U.S. cities, in other words, there’s room for growth.