The Mopeds Are Coming

Shared, electric motor scooters are racing to catch up with Bird, Lime, and other kick-scooter brands, as tech companies attempt to reinvent urban mobility. But can these vehicles ever find a place in America?

A Muving app-activated motor scooter in Atlanta (Ian Bogost)

When King Carlos III commissioned the Puerta de Alcalá in the 1770s, the city of Madrid was already almost a thousand years old. The gate, designed in the neoclassical style popular during that era, predates more well-known triumphal arches in Europe, like the Arc de Triomphe and the Brandenburg Gate. At the time, the gate connected to the city’s medieval walls, which still regulated passage to and from Madrid. Today, the Puerta de Alcalá still stands in central Madrid, a prominent landmark.

This legacy adorns the homepage of Muving, an electric-motor-scooter-rental start-up based in Spain. In front of an image of the Puerta de Alcalá, a strapping model casually leans against the company’s yellow motor scooter. He looks so European, you’d think I made him up: assiduously disheveled brown hair, aquiline nose, trimmed beard, wearing a gray hoodie under a blue windbreaker emblazoned with the make of the motorbike company that powers Muving’s service, Torrot. Even the brand name is too Mediterranean to glide easily off American tongues.

But it turns out that both the model and the motor scooter are unlikely, recent European exports to America—the model, Muving’s “brand ambassador,” is none other than Ricky Rubio, the Spanish point guard who plays basketball for the Utah Jazz. And a fleet of Torrot scooters recently landed in Atlanta, the first U.S. market for Muving’s service.

Muving’s motor scooters work like Bird electric scooters—you use an app to unlock them and ride for a metered fee. But the mopeds offer faster speeds, better range, and a more roadworthy experience compared to kick scooters.

Ivan Contreras is Muving’s founder and CEO, and the CEO of Muving Ecosystem, its parent company (which also owns Torrot and another motorbike manufacturer, a smart-helmet operation, and a smart-city traffic-management-technology outfit). When I meet up with him near Atlanta’s Piedmont Park, he’s wearing a bright-yellow, Muving-branded polo shirt, to match the nearby Torrot bike. We both immediately realize the folly of this arrangement, as we bake in the hot summer sun. There’s a café with outdoor seating just behind us, but the place is closed. We hike down the block to squat in a nearby coffee shop, which looks out over a lumpy, desiccated parking lot. Europe this is not.

And that’s the problem, maybe. If Spain can export professional basketball players to the United States, then perhaps it can make European motor-vehicle sensibility stick here, too. But it’s going to face an uphill climb in a car-oriented city like this one—or the dozens of others that compose the American urban landscape.

Our conversation was somewhat lost in translation—the Muving executives I met with are native Spanish speakers, and even though their English is excellent, my questions often failed to connect. When I asked how they use the data their scooters collect to reconfigure the fleet for optimal use, Bibiana Gago Caballero, Muving Ecosystem’s COO, walked me through how to use the Muving app’s map to find and reserve a moped instead. Eventually, we get to the answer: The moped’s electric batteries are swappable, and a crew of four visits them at night to provide service as needed. In some cases, that crew might also relocate the scooter to a more desirable location.

At first I’m charmed that the company’s solution is to simply find the vehicles on a map. Not to mention that it employs a trained maintenance crew instead of inventing a gig-economy market of scavenger mercenaries to locate, charge, and redistribute the things. Then I realize how disturbing it is that these attempts at clarity would seem quaint and surprising, and how any sniff of earnestness from a tech company can feel like a sign of deceit. I arrived expecting Muving to be prepping a siege of bright-yellow mopeds in my town, but instead the company seems to be taking a pleasure drive through the back roads of its North American dreams.

What good is a motor scooter in America? Contreras has a couple ideas, among them, “To move fast from point A to point B.” His sense of speed might be different from mine—the 49cc Torrot can reach speeds of 30 miles an hour. But in tight quarters or dense traffic, I can’t deny that a scooter can indeed move faster than a car. It is certainly faster than walking, or riding a Bird, which tops out at about 12 miles an hour. And like a Bird or a Lime, you pay to use a Muving by the minute, so you don’t have to own your own. Contreras imagines the cost savings could be even greater if you don’t have to own a private car, but it might be a stretch to suggest that residents of Atlanta, which boasts the fourth-worst traffic in the nation, are ready to give up their cars for a rental moped.

Muving wants to lean into that challenge. “We were looking for a city where we can grow,” he explained, and Atlanta’s terrible traffic offers a worthy, if difficult, trial. For now, the operating area is relatively small, comprising the densest parts of the city center. A Muving rider could travel from downtown Atlanta to midtown, a few miles north, faster than by public transit and cheaper than by Uber or Zipcar. Because the bikes are dockless, you can take them door to door, leaving the Muving near your final destination without having to find a place to park. Midtown and downtown host major stops on Atlanta’s MARTA metro-rail line, and Muving anticipates last-mile trips by commuters connecting from the northern suburbs by rail. If it succeeds here, Muving hopes to expand to other cities in the Southeast, and to deploy a covered, three-wheel vehicle for northern cities with colder climates.

That’s great in theory, but this isn’t a medieval city of sparsely traveled, narrow side streets. Contreras brushes off the concern. “You’re not going to drive a moped on Interstate 85,” he reasons. True, but like many American cities, Atlanta’s major neighborhoods are connected by broad thoroughfares with speed limits over 35 miles an hour, on which traffic often travels much faster. Buzzing along on a moped is dangerous enough, and Muving’s don’t even buzz—they’re electric and travel silently.

But for Caballero, riding in Atlanta seems simple compared to Europe. “The roads are wide, it’s not very bumpy,” she told me. Muving has been operating in Barcelona, Madrid, and 10 other Spanish cities, where the same operation rents more powerful 125cc bikes. It’s true, I suppose, that American roads aren’t fashioned from medieval cobblestone, but my experience of the city is quite different from Caballero’s. Atlanta is fairly hilly, and its roads are in awful disrepair. But Cabellero is unmoved by my doubts. “They’re very easy to ride,” she kept insisting. “They are not heavy, easy to move, and very easy to ride.”

The whole matter seems a little murky, but not in a duplicitous way. Unlike some of its competitors, Muving appears to be trying hard to accommodate the City of Atlanta. Every time you load the Muving app, it displays a long reminder to park its scooters legally, a concession that city representatives told me Muving added on its own. This does not look or feel like a tech company swooping in and littering cities with bikes and scooters to gain market share before regulation arrives.

Muving isn’t the only company trying to bring moped-share to American cities. A start-up called Scoot has been offering a similar service in San Francisco since 2012. Even so, Scoot was caught flat-footed when Bird and Lime started enjoying success with stand-on scooter-sharing (Scoot introduced its own, similar offering this year). For Michael Keating, Scoot’s CEO, that’s not because the company had been thinking incorrectly about the future of personal transit in cities, but because it had been thinking too seriously about it.*

American cities really don’t make it easy to get around quickly without a car. Cars are loud and expensive, they pollute, and they take up public space. But until recently, the quiet, cheap, green alternative mostly amounted to bicycles. A motor scooter splits the difference between the two, offering some of the benefits of a car and some of those of a bike. Make it sharable, and you add some convenience and forgo the need to own and store anything. That seemed like a reasonable strategy, until the Bird scooters arrived and took up all the space, literally and figuratively, in the electric mobility-sharing world.

Keating argues it doesn’t make a lot of sense to have to choose between a car and a push scooter. Instead, different vehicle-shares should serve different purposes. An Uber is mostly for special occasions; it’s still too expensive to use all the time. A moped can get you somewhere fast and still be affordable enough to use a couple times a day. A push scooter is really a substitute for a long walk, but the cost can be worth the convenience.

Even so, Keating acknowledges that not everyone will ride a motorbike, even a simple one. “We started looking for how we could cover all forms of urban, electric mobility,” he explained to me. Like Contreras, Keating sees mopeds servicing people connecting by commuter rail or subway, offering both last-mile connectivity and midday convenience: “Our hope is that urbanites might not have to own a vehicle, but could use 100 percent electric transportation in many cities.”

But what counts as “many cities”? Scoot operates in San Francisco, and it recently added Barcelona, where it joins Muving and other European providers. San Francisco is another dense, modern city spread out over a small peninsula. Muving’s current Atlanta operating area mostly covers similar types of urban space, where height and density is greater than elsewhere. That’s not where most people live, though. The entire city of Atlanta constitutes less than 10 percent of the metro area’s 5.8 million residents; San Francisco accounts for about 12 percent of the Bay Area’s 7 million. Outside the center city, the car still rules and train service is scarce.

When I question Keating on his narrow idea of who counts as urbanites worthy of service, he acknowledges that Scoot is focused on dense, transit-rich global cities—it’s the easiest early market for these kind of services. “We’re trying to pick the cities that are most ready to make this transition,” he hedges. That means looking for density, moderate climates, and existing multimodal transit systems.

He’s careful not to write off cities like Atlanta or Houston, where the private car still rules, but he characterizes those places as globally atypical. “Zooming out, Houston is kind of an exception, not a norm we’d factor into our grand theory of transportation change,” Keating says. On the one hand, he has a point. Compared to Paris, Berlin, or Bangkok, big American cities are unusual by global standards. But on the other hand, if companies like Scoot ignore or downplay the relevance of sprawling American cities, then what is the fate of the people who live there?

To be sure, those cities will change—they are already changing. It’s been slow, but rail development has expanded in cities like Houston, Dallas, Phoenix, and Los Angeles. Better walking and bicycle access have become hallmarks of urban redevelopment in these and similar cities. In Atlanta, the BeltLine, an abandoned rail corridor repurposed into bike and pedestrian paths, has underwritten a wave of new development in the heart of the city (along with the gentrification such efforts always bring). And other answers for the metro Atlantas and Houstons and Phoenixes are also possible, among them privately owned or fleet-based autonomous vehicles. But that’s a long way off, while electric scooter-shares are here today. If the answer to urban design in American cities is to wait until they catch up to Asian and European ones, then that might be tantamount to abandoning those cities entirely.

Scoot and Muving are counting on what Keating calls “mobivores”—people who mix and match different types of transportation, from trains to buses to mopeds to scooters, as its future market. That sounds great, but it also reeks of a kind of transit-policy elitism, like trying to reform nutrition by tending first to people willing and able to dine on kale and quinoa. All of the strategies for multimobility that Contreras and Keating describe appeal to modernist urbanism alone: Look for the dense parts of the cities, where parking is difficult, near transit, along busy corridors, where pedestrian and bike traffic already exists, and work from there. Both cite universities as good hubs, too. It’s not that these are bad ideas. It’s just, well, if you wanted to work up a perfect stereotype of American coastal urban elitism, you’d just need to throw in a gastropub with an attached craft brewery.

In fact, the motor scooter might be the least American vehicle possible. Examples date to the late-19th century, but Piaggio’s Vespa made the segment popular just after World War II. It exported efficient, easy urban transit to Europe and Asia, and romantic symbology, mostly, to North America. Jeffrey Schnapp, the CEO of Piaggio’s American research-and-development group, tells it to me straight: “Scooters were never sitting at the base of the motorized-mobility family tree somewhere between bicycles and cars, lurking as 49cc objects of desire for 15-year-olds whose dream was a muscle car,” he jibed. “They have always been niche vehicles for hipsters, Europhiles, or vacation/resort vehicles experienced in warm-climate cities like Miami Beach.” (Schnapp’s Piaggio division is building cargo droids for sidewalks instead.)

Because kick scooters and motor scooters haven’t been popular transportation choices before, cities are struggling with how to manage them. The kick-scooter invasion caused San Francisco to ban the things back in June, until the companies that operate them applied for proper permits. The fact that companies like Bird, Lime, and Spin rolled out their vehicles without city permission conforms to a tech-start-up stereotype to ask for forgiveness instead—and actually, not to ask for that either. Keating contends that San Francisco wouldn’t have dreamed up its own electric-scooter program, and thinks the start-ups should get credit for taking the initiative. But he also admits that there’s a difference between taking initiative and doing whatever you want. The software-company attitude—acquire as many users as fast as possible, no matter the cost—doesn’t really work for cities, which are actual communities in the material world. (One might observe that it didn’t work well for media and politics either, but those companies pressed on anyway.)

Given the default behavior of start-ups, it’s encouraging that Scoot and Muving seem so committed to the long game—building urban infrastructure rather than burning cash toward a profitable exit. But the infrastructure itself might not gel with these and other companies’ plans. The City of Atlanta has been drafting an ordinance to regulate “sharable dockless mobility devices,” which include ride-on scooters like Bird’s and mopeds like Muving’s. Conteras tells me that Muving is committed to the process. “You need to develop a long-term relationship,” he says. “It’s good to understand the city, to be involved with the city if you want to change it.”

But involvement in long-term, urban planning with local municipalities also risks becoming a moot point, no matter how earnest its participants really are. The current state of the market is exerting torsion on future outcomes. This is already playing out for the future of cars. For one thing, ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft might actually be increasing traffic rather than reducing it, as those services had promised. And autonomous-car advocates have started speaking out against new investments in rail, warning municipalities that driverless cars will supersede major transit investments before they can get built (a dubious speculation). Ride-hail popularity, won through intense spending and regulatory arbitrage, has made citizens expect the services, so cities are left playing defense.

Bird scooters are doing something similar. Janide Sidifall, the director of the City of Atlanta Office of Mobility Planning, told me that the City’s concerns for regulating dockless vehicles included ensuring they wouldn’t be driven on the sidewalks or on the BeltLine, that they be parked upright in a way that doesn’t disturb the streetscape, and that riders be encouraged to use helmets and take other safety precautions. Makes sense. But those properties also represent many of the things that make Bird-style scooters desirable in the first place. People don’t want to risk driving them in the street. Bike lanes are scarce, and where they do exist cyclists are hostile toward electric vehicles. Helmets are inconvenient when the whole purpose of the device is to pick it up and go. And part of the appeal of kick scooters is being able to abandon them indiscriminately when you arrive.

Motor scooters like the ones Muving and Scoot offer might be easier to manage because they already operate more like road vehicles than kick scooters do. But they face a different problem in a city run by cars: A fleet of new motorbike riders puttering at a maximum of 30 miles and hour in electric scooters that make no sound issues new dangers to riders, drivers, and pedestrians alike. You don’t need a motorcycle license to ride a 50cc bike in most American states, but most people who do so now have to buy one, an investment that inspires the gravity of learning how to operate it. Muving (and Scoot, too) requires you to upload a license for validation, and both also offer some training opportunities. But it’s a whole lot of effort, and risk, to justify occasionally getting to lunch in a hurry without worrying about parking.

Some urbanists (not to mention environmentalists) will sneer at anyone who celebrates the private automobile—or even at those who don’t scorn it out of hand. The public right of way, and the valuable curb space at its edges, is often seen as a space wasted by private vehicles. But the cold truth is that America still runs on cars, and shutting one’s ears to that matter seems elitist at best and foolhardy at worst. It’s a nice idea to imagine that the American cities still reliant on the car will either transform into dense, modernist ones or succumb to the abyss of urban obsolescence. Maybe they will. But these cities deserve more than a techno-urbanist daydream for Barcelona or Bangkok in the meantime.

On the Muving USA website, Ricky Rubio still casually straddles the same yellow Torrot scooter as he did in Madrid. The background has been replaced, though. Instead of the Puerta de Alcalá, Rubio has been photoshopped in front of Skyview Atlanta, a 200-foot Ferris wheel in Centennial Olympic Park downtown. It’s a tourist trap, and not even an original one, let alone a structure worthy of symbolizing the Empire City of the South. The visual pitch summarizes the mismatch, at least for now, between moped-sharing and America. Not only do we not have the dense urban life of European cities, but we also don’t have the medieval and early modern history that evolved to host it.

Maybe that’s why Sidifall, Atlanta’s mobility director, doesn’t seem too concerned about regulating Muving’s motor scooters: She doesn’t perceive a lot of demand for them. “I’ve never seen anyone on those things,” she admitted to me. “Maybe they’re not a cultural thing for us here.”

* This article previously misidentified Michael Keating as a different Scoot employee.