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This weekend, Revel—an app-based moped-rental company—debuted its fleet of 400 electric mopeds in the District. The vehicles join a crowded market of app-based, shared personal transportation options, but according to co-founders Frank Reig and Paul Suhey, Revel is meant to fill a very different transportation need than the dockless scooters and bikes currently found across D.C.
“You want to think of yourself as another car, because that’s what you are: You’re a motor vehicle, you have a license plate,” Suhey, Revel’s COO, says. The mopeds aren’t allowed on sidewalks or bike lanes and are meant to move with the flow of traffic. “With this vehicle, there’s no gray area. It’s very clear how you can ride it and very clear what licensing you need,” he says.
Suhey and Reig also emphasize that this type of moped is extremely common in the rest of the world. “In Europe or in South America or Asia, you see this way of getting around everywhere. And you see it in a way where you have young people riding, old people riding, male, female,” Suhey says. “We don’t think there’s anything different in Americans’ DNA that makes them less capable of using this as a means of getting around.”
But even though you’re meant to drive a Revel on the street and with the attitude of a motorist, Suhey and Reig—Revel’s CEO—recognize that there’s a learning curve. In New York City, where the company first launched, Revel offers free moped lessons in multiple locations. In D.C., where the District Department of Transportation’s moped pilot program mandates that companies provide in-person instruction, free lessons are available seven days a week at the Revel warehouse in Takoma. (The team plans to offer them in other locations later.) On Sunday afternoon, I headed there to learn how to drive a Revel myself.
I’m a confident driver, and I’ve ridden bikes and scooters—but you won’t often find me in the street, especially because I don’t own a helmet. So I approached my Revel lesson with some healthy skepticism and fear. I’d never ridden a moped before, and while I’m still young, I’ve lost the spirit of invulnerability that accompanied my teen years. My goal was self-preservation first, and maybe a bit of fun second.
For the last year, Suhey and Reig have been teaching riders in New York themselves, so Suhey was my instructor; Revel is preparing a few other individuals to take over lessons in D.C. No one else showed up during my half-hour time slot—each lesson is limited to two riders because Revel tries to make sure everyone gets individual instruction, Suhey says.
Although the mopeds are built for two riders (unlike dockless scooters that ferry around erstwhile second passengers clinging to the first), driving around a friend isn’t advisable for beginners. “You should only add a second rider to your journey once you’ve gone on Revel at least 20 times [and] you feel super comfortable,” Suhey says.
Suhey started the lesson by rolling a Revel moped out from the warehouse and bringing it onto the streets around the building, which are typically pretty quiet, he says—an advantage, since it gives new riders space to learn. He then showed me how to put on the all-important mandatory helmet. Each Revel has a trunk in the back that holds two—one smaller, one larger—and optional hair nets, if you want an extra layer of protection between your head and whatever germs may lurk in the shared dome.
With my helmet on and clear visor down, we turned to the controls. Suhey demonstrated how to use the throttle and brake, and after teaching me how to turn the throttle on and off, had me drive down the street in a straight line a few times. On my first attempt, I was too gentle with the throttle, and I wobbled and weaved across the street for a few seconds. On my second attempt, I pulled back too generously and shot forward, though the only person I scared was myself. My wrist started to get a feel for it after a few misfires.
Then we worked on turning by pulling out into the lane of traffic from the typical Revel parking position (on the street, perpendicular to the flow of traffic, with the front wheel facing away from the curb). Suhey watched traffic for me as I pulled out from behind a truck. I was starting to get the hang of things, and I had to admit it was fun, even if all I could hear was my own breathing echoing off of the visor. Once I showed that I was comfortable bringing the moped up to its top speed of 30 miles per hour to match traffic, Suhey sent me around the block on my own. And apart from one hairpin turn (which no one saw, so technically I’m in the clear), it went well. I pulled up next to Suhey and parked triumphantly. The entire lesson only took about 15 minutes.
“You got it, girl. You’re ready for the Beltway,” shouted one man from his idling car. (Revels are not allowed on the Beltway or any other highways, but I appreciated the compliment.)
I knew I’d be able to balance my new ride, but I was pleasantly surprised by how naturally the vehicles balance themselves. Suhey assured me that as the moped picked up speed, I’d pick my feet up from the ground automatically. Once I was bold enough to really engage the throttle, I didn’t have to think about balancing or keeping a foot out to catch myself.
Altogether, learning wasn’t very stressful, and Reig and Suhey say that’s typical. “I think a lot of times, it’s almost like a confidence session, not even a lesson. Just like, ‘you can do this. You got it, relax, feet in once you start moving, feel that throttle,’” says Reig. But plenty of riders just jump right in—Reig says that on Saturday, Revel’s “first full day” in the District, riders took hundreds of trips on the mopeds.
That might be because anyone qualified to ride a Revel already knows how to drive. In order to use the service, the app makes riders (who must be 21 or older) photograph their driver’s license and themselves, then pay $19 for a background check. Any DUIs, a history of speeding tickets or reckless driving, or an invalid license are grounds for denial, and about one in 12 applicants are denied, Reig says. (I was approved in just a few minutes.)
But the mopeds are tricky if you’re coming in blind like I did. The center stand—which lifts the moped’s back wheel a few inches off the ground—takes a bit to master, and if I’d had to watch the video, I’d have been stumped. (For his part, Suhey said he used to spend a lot of time teaching people to use it before the company expanded to models with kickstands.) The most crucial and most dangerous part, the throttle, takes getting used to. I realized a few times when trying to slow down that I was still pulling back on it when I thought I’d released it entirely. Revel riders also need to drive defensively and, since the vehicle is so small, constantly think about making themselves visible to other cars on the road; unlike in Europe, Africa, or Asia, many motorists aren’t used to driving alongside mopeds. The first minute of any trip is free, giving riders time to adjust mirrors and get comfortable with the moped, but there are many buttons to familiarize yourself with.
In short, it’s a lot to take in at once—in one minute or in 15. I would never have ridden on the street without being shown the ropes for free first. And full disclosure: Even after the lesson, I took a Lyft home. I was a little worried about sunburn on such a sunny day, and I wasn’t quite ready to put my new skills to the test.