The Segway tour was gawking.
Alongside the group rolling in the bike lane on Pennsylvania Avenue were Lia Seremetis, the founder of D.C. Bike Party, and her boyfriend, Zach Goodwin, banging around on borrowed black bikes that looked standard issue in almost every way.
Seremetis’s high-heeled, bootie-clad feet, however, never moved as the couple flew past.
“How fast can the Segways go?” a reporter asked the tour leader. “Ten miles per hour,” he responded.
Seremetis and Goodwin, if they wanted to, could hit 20 mph, the reporter informed the leader. Behind him, the Segway tourists murmured their approval.
More than a decade ago, Segways were supposed to change the way the world wheeled from place to place. They would replace cars and makes lives easier for those who couldn’t walk long distances. Until, that is, they became the vehicle of choice for meter enforcers and mall cops.
Now, a new generation of entrepreneurs is banking on devices that have, surprisingly, a lot in common with that albatross of transportation history. Will electric bikes do what the Segway couldn’t?
Despite its motor, a Riide bike doesn’t make a sound. And with its fat tires and husky frame, the matte-black bicycle doesn’t look like anything special, either. Mostly, it seems like a Capital Bikeshare bike gone rogue.
In some ways, it acts like one, too. On 15th Street NW, just at the edge of Meridian Hill Park, Seremetis and Goodwin gunned it — or rather, they twisted a mechanism in the handlebar that triggers the motor — and glided up a slope that’s one of the District’s hardest to climb. As another cyclist huffed and puffed her way up the incline, Seremetis hollered, “I didn’t even have to pedal!”
That heart-rate-ratcheting gruntwork of cycling soon could be something we do only in spin class, if the growing ranks of electric-bike manufacturers have their way.
North America has yet to adopt e-bikes on a large scale, perhaps because of the price, which hovers near $2,000. But in other parts of the world, bikes equipped with the surge of motorized power are commonplace.
There are 200 million e-bikes weaving through traffic in China. Hundreds of thousands of Germans have embraced them. Londoners, who for more than a decade have been slapped with a congestion charge for driving into the heart of their city, finally seem ready to wean themselves off cars and try electric bikes. Court Rye, a technical journalist who has reviewed more than 400 electric bikes on the Web site Electric Bike Review, said that much of his Web traffic comes from London’s e-bike curious.
Cycle manufacturer Raleigh built a line that includes the cute Sprite, an aluminum road bicycle with its own LCD screen and motor. Samsung is developing lithium batteries to improve the bikes’ range. Even Ford Motor Co. is testing an e-bike prototype that comes apart to fit into the trunks of the cars it assumes people will still want to drive.
Riide, a District-born start-up, is one of a slew of companies developing electric bikes in the hopes that they will be the commuter vehicle of the future: bikes 2.0, aimed at people who don’t consider themselves cyclists.
Riide’s founders, Amber Wason and Jeff Stefanis, are that type. “I’m not somebody who’s going to dress up in spandex and ride 100 miles on the weekend,” Stefanis saida Georgetown grad whose background is in entrepreneurship and energy.
To them, Washington is an ideal place to test whether Americans will adopt the electric bike. By the end of last year, the District had just shy of 70 miles of bike lanes, and nearly 40 percent of its residents are carless. It’s a city receptive to new options, but “it’s not a city of early adopters,” Stefanis said. Which means that if Washingtonians are willing to buy, then perhaps others will be, too.
Last year, the District gave Riide a nearly $175,000 grant to plant roots here and start cranking out e-bikes. A Kickstarter campaign brought in an additional $117,000, which Wason, 32, and Stefanis, 24, added to a sum they had raised from local investors.
Last month, they launched a rental program that offers bikes at $79 a month, with a year-long commitment. The initial release of 100 bikes was snapped up, and they’re now taking names for the next production run. That’s in addition to the 150 bikes they’ve sold outright.
Recently, Riide took a fairly noncommittal lease on a scruffy warehouse near Union Market, where the lean staff finishes assembling the frames manufactured in Canada and Taiwan, an island that’s a model for the way Wason and Stefanis want Americans to use their zippy bicycles.
All trails have led us to the electric bike: The gas prices that spiked last decade. The bike lanes proliferating in many cities. Bike sharing. The realization that lots of people, from millennials to boomers, want to chuck the trappings of suburban life — ewww, car insurance — and live like New Yorkers, in urbane apartment buildings within walking distance of Trader Joe’s.
In this world, the great thinkers are occupied with the subject of “mobility,” the new term for what we used to call commuting.
To be mobile is to have at your fingertips a million ways to get from Point A to Point B. No longer does one just merge, defeated, onto Interstate 66. Now, we get around using some combination of walking, biking, waiting for the next Orange Line train and occupying the back seat of an Uber driver’s Prius.
In the United States, the appeal of electric bikes may lie with older, well-heeled (and high-heeled) riders. Manufacturers such as Riide — whose model can go 25 miles on the battery, more if you decide to pedal part of the way, and requires no gas or special parking — often bring up sweat and the avoidance of it as their raison d’être. (But we also can’t discount the effect of seeing your Volkswagen dinged every time you parallel-park it.)
“Ten, 15 years ago, there were pretty much two types of bicyclists: the recreational rider — you know, the weekend warrior — and then there was the commuter, somebody who uses a bike because it’s their only way of getting around,” said Garrett Hennigan, a community organizer for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. Now, he said, there’s everything in between, including bike sharers, spin-class enthusiasts and drivers who keep bikes locked on their porches for short jaunts to the farmers market and a beat-up car on the street for the rare Home Depot trip.
And soon, perhaps, there will be e-bikers. The District’s bike lanes are restricted to two-wheelers that don’t tip the 20-mph mark. Riide’s bikes fall firmly within the acceptable range. But what will the old-school cyclists, the ones in the neon-yellow sweat-wicking Lycra bike shorts, make of their pedal-forgoing compatriots?
“I absolutely think we can all get along,” Hennigan said.
The first patent for an e-bike is credited to an Ohioan named Ogden Bolton Jr., who in 1895 submitted a design for a cycle with a back wheel enclosing a motor, and an axle that hid the wiring. Bolton didn’t invent the e-bike (he called his design “an improvement in electric bicycles”), but his sketch demonstrated how electric bikes might be built for generations to come. Riide’s cruiserlike frame looks a lot like Bolton’s.
But if speedy cycles have been around for 120 years or so, why aren’t more of us riding them?
Because history is littered with personal transportation devices that were good ideas theoretically but didn’t address any actual needs. The DeLorean, for example.
Most recently, it’s the hoverboard — a sort of motorized skateboard that, for the record, doesn’t hover. It rolls along at about 10 mph. Favored mostly by rappers and pop stars, it has a better chance of being remembered as this year’s pogo stick than for getting you anywhere on time.
Also firmly in the great junk drawer of transportation history: the Segway. If there’s any vehicle with a hype trajectory like the e-bike’s, it’s the Segway, which was unveiled to the world in 2001 as the panacea for all our car-related woes. It was powered by a rechargeable battery and didn’t require insurance, oil changes or pricey gasoline. It could go up to 17 mph.
It was also almost impossible to ride one without looking like a dweeb.
And was there a better symbol for American laziness and the world’s widest behinds? The Segway couldn’t be the solution, because it was the problem.
If there’s anything to be learned from Segway’s failure, it’s that design is crucial.
Riide, Stefanis said, developed bikes that “are virtually silent when you’re riding. Going in, the design was to try to make this look as much and act as much like a bike as possible.”
In fact, as Seremetis and Goodwin traversed the streets of the District, hardly anyone noticed anything different about their bikes. Well, except for a groundsman at the National Gallery of Art. After he took the bike for a quick spin, John Love of Fort Washington, Md., declared that while he’d gotten a kick out of the ride, it felt like “cheating. You think of a bike, a bike means pedal.”
Although Goodwin, too, enjoyed his turn on the bike, he confessed that he’s not sure he’d buy one. “I can imagine renting it. It was super pleasant. It has great pickup,” he said.
“I see it as, like, commuting,” Seremetis said. “You wouldn’t ask your friends to go on a bike ride and take out one of these.”
That, after all, would be cheating.