more like noped

Mopeds Are Coming for New York City

Photo: Mark Kauzlarich/Bloomberg via Getty Images

It takes all of 15 minutes riding a Revel moped through Brooklyn on a Tuesday morning for me to get clipped by car. I flick my ride’s turn signal to make a left and quickly realize there’s a car stopped in the middle of the crosswalk. Behind me, another car tries to drive around me on the left while I’m mid-turn. It all happens in slowish motion, but there’s a thunk and suddenly I’m propping the Revel up with one leg and the car is stopped alongside my moped. Audrey Hepburn made this look so easy, I think as I try to catch my breath while wheeling over to the nearest curb. Roman Holiday, you’re dead to me.

On the side of the street, I kick the kickstand and assess the situation. Me: fine, shaken, remembering many, many lectures from a childhood spent with parents who referred to motorcycles as “donorcycles” and made me promise I’d never get on anything resembling one. The moped: same. The car in question was an SUV, meaning it was so much taller than my Revel, thankfully, that it really only made contact with the tire. The other car: I assume it’s fine, too. The driver pulls 15 feet ahead and gets out and evaluates the body before driving away. I wave. It is not returned. I am sweating profusely, a combination of 90-degree New York July heat and waning adrenaline.

Revel mopeds, a fleet of a thousand, arrived in select parts of Brooklyn and Queens back in June. You’ve probably seen them. They’re black with bright-blue detailing and can be found on any street corner that allows public parking. The sell is that anybody with a license can grab one and hit the road. It costs $19 for Revel to run a check on your ID, making sure it’s valid and your driving history is up to par. After that, rides cost a base of $1 plus 25 cents per minute in motion. You can pause your ride for 10 cents a minute, in case you want to park the moped and run a quick errand.

The math on a shortish ride comes out more expensive than a single subway trip but cheaper than an Uber. I think about all the times I go places where the subway is just a little too far out of the way. Revel could be good for that. Even if I owned a car — I don’t — Revel seems like it would be useful for same-borough jaunts. The kinds of quick trips you don’t want to take your car out of your hard-won parking space for. It also seems like maybe the streets of New York — which are already overcrowded — aren’t ready for an inundation of unskilled moped riders adding to the existing and barely functional chaos of cars and trucks and bikers and e-bikers and pedestrians and that guy on an electric skateboard I ride past on Carroll Street.

It takes less than 15 minutes from uploading pictures of my license to the Revel app for my account to get approved. (A colleague of mine submitted an application with a recently expired license and was denied, which I found a little comforting.) Mopeds, unlike motorcycles, do not require special licensing because of their speed limitations. From there, the app shows me where Revel mopeds are currently parked for pickup. There’s a lot of them in Dumbo and plenty in my neighborhood, Brooklyn Heights. Revel doesn’t allow riding on major bridges or highways. Much of South Brooklyn is off-limits, as is Manhattan, and Revel will fine you for driving out of range. The limited driving area seems likely to be a limiting factor in folks’ using Revels for their daily commutes. The app also shows each moped’s current battery life in remaining miles so I can plan my trip accordingly. (Revel employers come swap out the batteries when they get too low.)

I select a Revel parked a few blocks from my apartment. I have a pristine driving record, but have never ridden anything like it before in my life. There was the time an electric-scooter start-up that shall remain nameless let me borrow one of their units — electric scooters are not legal in New York City — and do laps around my office in Tribeca for 15 minutes. But that doesn’t seem like a good parallel and isn’t doing much for my confidence.

The moped is right where the app says it’ll be. I walk up and, as per the app’s instructions, assess it to make sure there’s nothing damaged. One of the retractable foot pegs — for an added flat $1 charge, an additional rider can join you on the back seat, arms wrapped around your waist, Ghost pottery scene style — is popped out and won’t click back into place. Otherwise, things seem fine. (I guess? What do I know about mopeds, really?) I tap a button in the app to start my ride. The first minute is free and the app suggests I use this time to decide which helmet I want — every moped has two in a storage case, one large and one small — and adjust my mirrors.

Revels are designated as “Class-B limited-use motorcycles,” which means a helmet is legally required while riding. (I am surprised to learn that helmets are just recommended while riding Class C’s, which go up to 20 mph.) It’s obviously in the best interest of Revel’s business model to provide helmets — I’m not about to go out and buy myself a helmet for my first and possibly last ride on on a Revel — but it’s also an anomaly compared to other transit disruptors, like Citi Bike or Bird scooters, which do not offer helmets. When I reach for the helmet case, I notice that whoever painted it subtly wrote the word “HI!” on it in the same black paint. A hidden friendly greeting just for me.

I select the smaller helmet and strap it to my head. (Later, a friend who owns their own moped tells me these helmets are “shit” and if I ride again I should consider purchasing my own with more robust face and chin coverage. They also suggest long sleeves and pants and proper shoes.) Revel says it cleans the helmets every two to three days. I immediately think back to middle school and summer camp and head lice and shudder. The app warns me the moped throttle has a bit of a kick. It’s right. I’m grateful the street is devoid of moving cars as I get the feel of my Revel. Speed bumps, I quickly realize, are not my friend. Nor is State Street, which is in the process of getting resurfaced this summer and is currently a mess of bumps, potholes, and flyaway gravel.

Max speed — the mopeds are electric — is 30 mph. The fastest I go is 22 mph, and even that feels too quick for comfort. My ride is nearly silent as I whiz around, which is great for hearing traffic. It makes me a little nervous, though, that the traffic and pedestrians might not be able to hear me. (Revel’s turn signals are equipped with blinking lights and a loud beep that turns off after you complete your turn.) I try to steer clear of major streets but still find myself unable to avoid Atlantic Avenue. As trucks and cars buzz past me, I can’t shake the nagging feeling that it’s only a matter of time before somebody is seriously injured, or worse, on one of these. I feel I must be breaking some sort of law by driving one without any training, because my ability to drive a car certainly does not wholly translate.

I own a bike and, when the city isn’t the temperature of the surface of the sun, I like to use it to get around and commute to work. Biking, as evidenced by the alarming number of bike deaths in New York this summer alone, presents its own set of safety concerns and defensive-riding requirements. But I feel far safer riding my bicycle, something I’ve been doing for decades, in city traffic than I do on this moped. The 200-pound Revel does not feel like an extension of me and I don’t ever feel totally in control of it.

Revel does, in fact, offer free lessons six times a day in Gowanus for new riders. I looked into booking one but the next available dates were in September, which seemed antithetical to the “download AND GO” mantra printed on the side of each moped. (A 20-minute lesson was required during Revel’s trial run in Brooklyn in 2018 for anybody who had never ridden a moped.) At one point, I find myself at an intersection by a school with a crossing guard. “Traffic is bumper to bumper, but you could probably fit through,” she advises me. It’s in this moment that I see the appeal of the Revel for more than just a novelty ride. I do, in fact, fit just fine and maneuver around the idling cars around me.

On my way home, I stop by my bodega and pick up some toilet paper. I try to pop open the helmet-storage case, but the button is stuck and the lid won’t pop. There’s nowhere else on the Revel to store items and I don’t have a backpack, so I improvise, tying the plastic bag of toilet paper to my handlebars and letting it swing while I drive home. Audrey Hepburn would never.

I back the moped into a parking space after a bit of a hunt. Finding a space, while easier than parking a car in Brooklyn Heights on any given day of the week, is still a pain. I pull off my helmet, which is, frankly, gross at this point and soaked in my sweat. My sincere apologies to whoever got my moped after me. (Which somebody did; I watch it vanish from the app later in the day.) The app makes you confirm you have returned your helmet before you can end your ride. I call Revel’s customer service, the meter still running, to ask what I should do about the stuck case. After a minute on hold, a helpful customer-service representative, Lianne, asks me to confirm the license plate on my moped. It chirps and the case pops open. I ask if I did something wrong. Lianne says no, this just happens sometimes. Later, I get a $2 credit in the app for my trouble.

My total ride time, including several pauses, comes out to a nice 69 minutes. (I was aiming for an hour, but parking and chatting with Lianne added some extra time.) I covered 5.2 miles and the bill is $18.89. I untie the plastic bag and walk my toilet paper home.

Mopeds Are Coming for New York City