What could possibly go wrong?
I’d watched everyone from Skrillex to J.R. Smith whizzing around on what looks like the Segway’s much cooler cousin. The scooters — sometimes called hoverboards, despite being 100 percent glued to the ground — seemed to be an effortless and blissful way to get around. Lean forward, go forward. Lean back, go back.
Given my job, I couldn’t help but wonder if the scooters could be a disruptive form of transportation. I started researching and found one model, the PhunkeeDuck, that claimed a top speed of 10 mph. (Most promise a top speed of 6 mph.) At 10 mph, you’re traveling faster than the average speed of a cab in Manhattan. For many trips in cities, maybe an electric scooter would be a perfect fit, I thought. Why sit in a car or bus, burning fossil fuels, when you could be having fun on a scooter? Goodbye, pollution and congestion. Hello, sustainable transportation nirvana.
Sure, Segways never caught on, but these scooters are smaller, cheaper and had earned positive buzz.
When I unpackaged the PhunkeeDuck, an excited crowd in the Washington Post newsroom surrounded me. I hopped on, and awkwardly stumbled around. For the rest of the afternoon, my curious co-workers took their own turns. Photos and videos flooded social media.
With some practice, anyone with an average sense of balance can master these scooters inside. Riding them is fun, especially with their ability to turn on a dime. They seem like a strong candidate to be the hot holiday toy of 2015. But the real drawback comes in what I was dreaming of — outdoor commuting.
The scooters aren’t built to handle sidewalk cracks, or uneven pavement. Grates and manhole covers are a nuisance. Uneven sidewalks, lifted by tree roots, are the worst. On my first day outside, my feet cramped up after a few blocks. I couldn’t help but tense up my muscles to try to stay on the board.
With practice, I got a lot better. Even so, sometimes I was forced to hop off the scooter, and relocate it to smooth ground. An experience that’s joyful inside can be the opposite outside.
It’s possible to learn to navigate most of the challenges the average city sidewalk will throw at you. But to do so means slowing to a crawl. You may as well be walking.
I considered taking the scooter into bikes lanes, but with an average speed of about 5 mph, it felt out of place and unsafe.
My typical commute to work takes 15 to 20 minutes on a bike. The first time I rode the PhunkeeDuck to The Post, it took a grueling 65 minutes. Of course, about 10 of those were lost to stopping and answering questions from onlookers.
We filmed my second day of commuting. I covered the 2.3-mile stretch in about 40 minutes. That’s roughly the time it would take me to walk to work. And I arrived drenched in even more sweat than if I’d been on foot, or on my bike.
Although I didn’t take a step on that commute, riding the scooter is a workout. You’re constantly maintaining your balance, which strains your legs and core muscles.
If there’s one unexpected thing I learned from the scooter, it’s the hell that celebrities go through. On a scooter, everyone wants a piece of you. Drivers pulled over to ask me questions. Some people took photos. Other just gawked.
It’s fun at first, but the novelty evaporated quickly. On one rushed trip to the grocery store, I found myself lugging the 22.8-pound scooter under my arm rather than riding it, in hopes of attracting less attention and fewer questions. (One guy still asked me where he could buy one.)
After a week with the PhunkeeDuck, I’m happily returning to my bike to get around D.C.
If you want to take the plunge and get one of the scooters, I recommend looking for a cheap deal on Alibaba or Amazon, where you can find them for a few hundred dollars. There’s a wide range of prices for these scooters, which all appear nearly identical. The PhunkeeDuck is at the high end, at $1,499.99.
I’m not totally giving up on scooters or other forms of transit to shake up how urbanites get around. These scooters have caught on without even having a proper or fitting name. And what would happen is a company with a great design tradition — say Apple — tried to elevate the form?
Razor, which made a name for itself selling sleek scooters to third-graders, is seeing fresh interest in older age groups. This year, Razor expects to sell 10 times as many A5 scooters — which are designed for adults — as it did in 2010.
“Electric mobility is on people’s minds,” said Razor USA President Carlton Calvin, who told me Razor is developing additional adult models. “I think it filters down from electric cars, and people getting used to plugging in their phones.”
Whatever that future may be, here’s to a better tomorrow.