I was at a red light, sitting on quietly humming Chinese muscle, when a city bus driver rolled down his window mid-turn to ask me about the moped.
“You rent those?” the driver asked.
Yes, I told him. With an app.
“Oh, that’s cool,” he said.
Like with many ideas that can go horribly wrong, I first got inspiration to ride a moped from Twitter.
On Saturday, a friend posted a picture of a rentable moped in Washington, one of 400 black-and-blue, all-electric Revel vehicles that were unloaded across D.C. last week and activated Friday afternoon. I had never driven a moped and don’t have the salmon-pink shorts required to become a scooter bro.
But a moped?
How it works
I downloaded the Revel app Sunday, took a few practice laps and, with my girlfriend on the back seat, ignored Revel’s warning and almost followed GPS directions to a highway on-ramp.
Don’t do that, the website and instructions said. The mopeds, manufactured in China, can go from 0 to 29 mph in about 15 seconds. Then they won’t go any faster, making them unsuitable for highways, though a downhill stretch can help you tick the speedometer past 30.
Cheaper than Uber and far less embarrassing than electric scooters, Revel mopeds are part of a four-month pilot program with the District to “create equitable transportation access” and take cars off the road, the city said. It’s an effort to relieve pressure on congested streets and frustrated commuters, who are abandoning public transit in droves.
Part of the solution has been a dizzying number of app rental options: thousands of docked and dockless bikes and e-scooters that have turned sidewalks into a techno wasteland that is occasionally on fire.
Enter Revel, which put 1,000 mopeds in Brooklyn and Queens in May before landing the first permit to operate the vehicles in Washington. Revel said it would ensure that mopeds are available in all eight wards, said Haley Rubinson, the company’s director of business development. And you must end your ride within the District.
Revel calls the vehicles ‘mopeds,’ though the term in the past has applied to motorized bikes with pedals. However, modern day definitions have classified mopeds as motor-driven cycles with moderate speeds and smaller motors, with or without pedals.
It’s fairly straightforward to start if you’re older than 21. Users download the app, enter a credit card number and take photos of their driver’s licenses, along with a selfie to match up with the photo. The “generally computer automated” system checks that you are not a reckless driver, the company said.
One in a dozen users fail the checks, Rubinson said, but she did not elaborate on the process in her email. After you cough up a one-time $19 for the registration fee, you find a bike on a Google Maps-like interface, follow instructions to unlock a helmet for yourself and up to one passenger and start your journey that’ll cost you $1 per ride, plus 25 cents per minute
A modest speed run around D.C.
On Monday, fresh off my brush with a highway on-ramp, I took a Revel to work, then jumped on the same one outside The Washington Post newsroom on a scorching August day to begin a 16-mile, lopsided figure-eight loop.
I scooted up 14th Street NW, blazed by the National Zoo and zoomed to Georgetown, a neighborhood famously without a Metro stop and accessible by just a few bus lines. Some Revels clustered around M Street alongside e-scooters turned obstacles for pedestrians on the sidewalk.
I discovered what many people worldwide already know: It’s pretty fun to zip around the city on a compromise between a bicycle and a motorcycle, tugging on the sensitive throttle and weaving through the impressively bleak array of potholes, metal plates and torn-up asphalt.
Just like a bicycle, the moped unlocks a layer of the city you can’t feel in a car blaring Spotify. The whoosh from a passing truck cascades over your face. You can hear parents gently scold kids at intersections. Cyclists become friends for the span of a red light. The city feels bigger and smaller to you all at once.
Training on various arcade games as a kid already taught me that shifting your weight can produce a delightful drift through the streets. But even then, it takes only a few minutes to understand the handling on a couple of side streets and alleys. That was a relief to a woman who stopped by to ask what exactly I was sitting on.
“I really want to learn how to do it. It looks great,” she said. Revel gives free lessons, too.
The woman’s reaction was a common theme along my two-day test drive: What is that thing? Is that the app-based moped on the news? Drivers rolled down their windows to ask where it came from. Some passengers took selfies. One moped driver in an orange helmet and a matching shirt lamented that his gas-powered scooter wasn’t as quiet as the electric motor powering the Revel vehicle.
Meanwhile, friends warned of anecdotal dangers. Moped drivers are injured and killed alongside other motorists, to be sure. And on Sunday, two days after the D.C. launch, a rider in Logan Circle struck a pothole and broke his collarbone in a fall, FOX 5 reported.
Rubinson confirmed the incident but declined to say how many accidents have involved Revel drivers, but she did say that out of 400,000 rides since launch, “99.99% have been without incident.”
A final test: Dave Thomas Circle
Hanging with cars through Rock Creek Parkway gave me the confidence I needed to tackle one of D.C.’s most confounding enigmas — “Dave Thomas Circle,” the name given to a Wendy’s that sits in a Bermuda Triangle of baffled drivers between Florida Avenue, New York Avenue and First Street NE.
I had never driven through it, so I went in cold.
A panhandler approached me at a red light holding a faded McDonald’s cup. But he was more interested in the moped.
“What’s 64?” he asked. It was the battery life left, I explained. “Oh, it’s electric?” he asked. He walked off without asking for change.
There isn’t a huge moped community in D.C., but there are die-hards who swear by the great gas mileage, easy parking and cheap cost, compared with the headache of owning a car.
Their advice to new moped riders: Be vigilant, and don’t think drivers will size you up more than they would a cyclist.
“Don’t be afraid to beep your tiny horn,” said one moped driver, who declined to provide his name because his vehicle is unregistered within the District.
But still remember to have fun “scooting to a place” that seemed too far to pedal toward on a hot summer day, he said.
In all, I scooted about 33 miles across five trips, spending $61.49. That’s less than $2 a mile, even including the practice runs.
But after I triumphed over Dave Thomas Circle, the moped battery seemed to deplete faster. So did my iPhone’s. There is no charging cord for smartphones, and mine was running on fumes after some serious GPS use.
Before you start a ride, the app gives an estimate of remaining mileage — but while you’re driving, it’s not very apparent how far you can go before the motor will die.
So what to do in that event?
I had limited options a couple of miles from work. The best solution, if all that modern tech became useless, was to stick the moped in a parking spot, wave down a taxi and let a 20th-century solution guide me back.