Updated March, 2021
Many urban rapid transit systems have stations about a mile (1.6 km) apart. This leaves much of their service area a mile or more from the stations. Helping users to traverse this distance between the stations or bus stops and their homes or offices is termed the “Last Mile Problem”:
While a generally accepted rule-of-thumb is that people will walk 1/4 of a mile to a local bus stop, people are usually willing to walk up to a mile to a rapid transit station. Note that we cannot just draw a circle with a mile radius around a station and conclude that all locations within the circle are within walking distance, as non-contiguous street networks and cul-de-sacs may mean that while people may be within one mile of a station as the crow flies they are more than one mile in walking distance away from the station.
Some of this reluctance to walk is sheer laziness, but a lengthy outdoors hike in work attire may be impractical or uncomfortable in hot, cold, or wet weather. Having safe bike racks at the suburban transit station and bike sharing facilities downtown would allow users to ride their own bikes from home to the train or bus, then pick up another bike to get them to the office. A few cities in the U.S, and many more in Europe, make this option work.
An alternative would be to have some device to ride from home to the station, take on the train or bus with you, and then ride to the office. Some transit systems like New York’s will only allow you to take a bike aboard with you during off-peak hours, which doesn’t help you if you are commuting to work.
In a previous article, Fun Things to Ride: Stepper Bikes, Carving Scooters, Electric Unicycles, etc., we described a number of devices for recreational riding. These included bicycles where you stand upright, three-wheeled scooters powered by weight-shifting, stabilized electric unicycles, and the Onewheel skateboard which has a single large rubber electric-powered wheel in the middle
Of these devices discussed above, the Onewheel and the electric unicycles could reliably get you to the station and could be readily carried onto a train or bus. For the young, athletic folks who would be riding these devices, carrying their 25 pound (11 kg) weight down the stairs and onto the subway should not be a problem.
For the rest of us, a folding scooter or bike, perhaps with electric assist, is probably a more realistic solution. Kick scooters only weigh about 10 lb. Electric scooters are often over 30 lb. Folding bikes can weigh 25-32 lb, but sometimes can be rolled like a piece of luggage. Adding electric boost adds another several pounds.
Folding Standing Scooters
The cheapest, lightest device is an adult “urban” kick scooter. They fold readily, and have larger wheels (6”-8”) than children’s scooters. The A5 Razor, with 8” (200 mm) polyurethane wheels, is one of the lightest (8.5 lb) and cheapest ($80) models.
To soften the bumps, some of these scooters have softer tires or have springed suspensions. The Know-Ped (made by Go-Ped) is a popular urban scooter. It has wide, solid rubber tires, a footboard wide enough to place both feet side by side, and brakes on both front and rear wheels. The last two features help provide safe and comfortable rides down long and/or steep hills.
Here is the saga of one man’s quest to choose the best kick scooter for commuting around New York City. After trying a number of scooters, he settled on a Know-Ped.
In considering these products, New York-based NYCewheels (pronounced “NiceWheels”) is a good place to start. They have done a lot of selecting and testing to pick out the best solutions for urban users. Their site includes articles on how to choose scooters and bikes. They sell the “Kick-Ped” version of the Know-Ped, where the front brake is removed and the footboard is shaved narrower for easier kicking on level ground and to save weight.
NYCewheels carries several electric-powered, folding scooters that you stand on. At 24 lb, the E-Twow is the lightest model, and among the cheapest ($999). It has solid rubber tires and a springed suspension for a smooth ride. Its battery is on the small side, but the braking system helps to recharge the battery during braking. Its range is about 22 miles, which is probably more than adequate since reportedly it is tiresome to ride this type of narrow scooter (standing with one foot in front of the other) more than a few miles.
Earlier we described Trikke three-wheeled “carving” scooters, which you propel by leaning and turning. Trikke offers several electric-powered versions of these scooters. With their wide stance and their mechanism for tilting the wheels into a turn, these are comfortable and stable to stand on, even at higher speeds. They are also fun, since you can do as much as you want of the turning and leaning action to make it a workout. The Trikke Pon-e has lithium batteries and approximately 10 inch pneumatic tires, and folds to a very small package to take onto a bus or train. The 36V Lite version (shown below), with a range of 10-18 miles costs about $1500, and goes up to 13 mph. The 48 V Pon-e version ($2100) weighs 46 lb, and has a top speed of 16 mph, a range of 15-24 miles, and a more powerful motor for climbing hills.
Sit-Down Electric Scooters
For comparison, one of the least-expensive sit-down scooters is the Razor E300S (about $250). It uses lead-acid batteries instead of Li-ion cells. It looks like a crude but capable adult scooter, with 10” pneumatic tires. It goes about 15 mph (you flick it on or off, no speed control) on level ground. It weighs about 54 lb (24.5 kg) and does not fold, so you’d have to lock it in a bike rack or roll it onto the train with you, if that is allowed. The seat can be unbolted to give a slightly lighter stand-up version.
The only really small, foldable sit-down electric scooters I am aware of are models that are not yet for sale, but should become available later in 2015 as inventors’ concepts get turned into production units. The Urb-E goes up to 15 mph, with a range of 20 miles. Weighing only 27 lb and folding to 16″x16″x 36″, it is easy to roll or carry onto a bus or train. The cost is $1600. (Early supporters of the Urb-E development on the crowdsourcing site Indigogo will get their scooters for less.) I’m guessing the cost will later come down if production is eventually shifted from the U.S. to China. The designers of the Urb-E tried to make it large enough to be a primary urban transportation vehicle (i.e. car replacement) as well as a carry-on device. It looks great for riding on sidewalks and empty residential streets, but with the short wheelbase and smallish tires I am not sure I’d be comfortable on this sharing the road with automobiles.
A competing folding scooter is the Stigo. This was designed by a team of young Estonians, and is starting production by a French bicycle company. It is supposed to go on sale in 2015 for 2000 euros (about $2300). It goes up to 25 km/h (15 mph), with a range of 20-40 km (12-24 mi), depending on battery option. It weighs 30 lb (13.5 kg). It folds in seconds to about the size of a wheeled golfbag, so it can easily go on a bus or train, or roll into the restaurant or office with you. It has a longer wheelbase and bigger wheels (12”) than the Urb-E. It looks like it is just large enough to go where most bicycles go, including traveling beside automobiles in city traffic.
As of November, 2015, the Stigo website offers a chance to sign up for delivery of a scooter in the spring of 2016. If you can’t wait that long, a Chinese company offers what seems like a larger, heavier version of the Stigo. The folding E.T. Scooter was originally offered with sturdy aluminum construction and fat tires, weighing a hefty 30 kg (66 lb). The range is 35 km (22 miles) per two-hour charge. The newer version, the E.T. Smart scooter, has slimmer tires, a polymer frame, waterproof Bluetooth speakers, and weighs in at 18 kg (40 lb). Both models are currently for sale at $ 1390.
Most folks are accustomed to riding bicycles on sidewalks, in roadways, and on dirt trails. Folding bicycles are available which collapse small enough to be carried or rolled onto a train or bus. Again, NYCewheels offers a high-quality selection. Here is their comparison of the major brands.
The Brompton is generally acknowledged as the premier small folding bike. Hand-made in London, it rides well and weighs about 24 lb. It double-folds into an amazingly small package with all the greasy parts inside, making it the most convenient folding bike to carry around or put in a suitcase. Because it has only 16” wheels, it looks a little spindly. For longer rides or rougher terrain, many cyclists prefer folding bikes with 20” wheels. Nevertheless, this user demonstrated that one can ride 150 mi (250 km) from New York to Philadelphia in a day on a Brompton.
For riding more than a few miles or going up hills while commuting to a professional job, many users desire electric assist on their bicycle so as not to arrive sweaty. Essentially any bike can be modified for electric power by installing a front or rear wheel with a motor built into the hub. Conversion kits are available to do it yourself. Pro shops can modify your bike or provide you with a new folding bike with electric drive installed. The conversion kits sold on Amazon cost only around $250, but this does not include the battery.
As an example, for about $1300 NYCeWheels provides Li-ion battery conversion kits for the Brompton and also for generic 20” wheel folding bikes. They also sell the Brompton with electric drive already installed for $2800. This is one of the most versatile transportation packages available, since (as a bike) it goes anywhere, yet folds to a package roughly 1 ft x 2 ft x 2 ft in size. It goes up to 18 mph for 10-20 miles, depending on battery choice. The top speed of electric bikes is limited to keep them classified as bicycles as opposed to motorcycles, which need to be licensed and follow a different set of rules. The electric Brompton weighs 45 lb, which is hefty, but is still light for an electric folding bicycle. Electrified bikes have an advantage over plain electric scooters in that, if the battery dies or something else goes wrong with the power drive, the human legs can always take over and propel the vehicle with reasonable speed.
The EB Commuter folding electric bike ($1199) has 20 inch (50 cm) tires and weighs 40 lb. It has a range of 35 miles.
The Velomini ($1050) is a tiny but fully-functional electric bicycle, with scooter-sized wheels. It weighs 36 lb (17 kg) and folds to about the size of a guitar to fit into a carrying case to sling over your shoulder. The range is about 10 miles (16 km) using no pedal assist.
Adding Power To Bikes with the ShareRoller
Another means of adding electric power to a bike is the ShareRoller. The base model is a small (8″x 8″x2.7″) box, weighing 5.5 lb and costing $1250. This box contains batteries. Out of it folds a motor connected to a polyurethane roller. The box attaches to a bracket below the handlebars. The roller presses down on the front wheel of the bike and drives it. It will propel a bike up to 20 mph, with a 12 mile range. A larger box (7.25 lb, $1550) is available with extended range (20 miles).
It was originally developed, using Kickstarter crowdsourcing, as a means to give electric assist to the heavy, clunky commercial rideshare bikes. These bikes have a triangular bracket in front, used for locking into a rack. You can quickly clamp a ShareRoller onto this bracket, use it to power your ride, then detach it when you return the share bike. The developer then realized that he could use 3D printing technology to produce similar triangular brackets which would attach to other bikes to allow the ShareRoller box to clamp onto them as well.
First up for this treatment was the Brompton:
This gives the lightest available electric assist to the Brompton: the bike plus ShareRoller weighs only about 31 pounds (14 kg), compared to 45 lb for the electrified Brompton discussed above. After you pop the main box off, the Bromption can fold as usual. ShareRoller can adapt to most of the leading folding bike models, so you may able to use your existing folding bike.
A nice feature of ShareRoller is that you can move one unit around to use on different bikes, and even on kick scooters. For instance, below are shown two Hudora scooters with 8” pneumatic tires, each with a ShareRoller. Note the built-in LED headlights in the ShareRoller. The combined weight of the scooter (8 lb) and ShareRoller is less than 14 lb, making this by far the lightest approach for an adult electric scooter.
This all seems to point to ShareRoller as a strong contender in the electric scooter/electric bike field. The only small reservation I have about it is that on all the videos there seems to be a significant electromechanical noise in use. I don’t know how annoying this would be in practice, but it seems noisier than the electric bikes with motors in the wheel hubs.
Descriptions of other devices which bolt onto your existing bike to give it electric drive are found on links on this web page.
Update 2020: Shareroller has been rebranded as OneMotor , with improved hardware and software (2019 user review here). The base model is still $1250. A new competitor for friction drive add-on power is Alizeti. Their 300C model starts at $900 ($500 for main unit plus $400 for removable battery). It mounts over the rear wheel, where a bike rack would go. A positive user review notes that the Alizeti system succeeded in maintaining optimal friction even in the rain.
And here is a 2021 review of some folding electric bikes: 7 Best Folding Electric Bikes in 2021 (Review)
Reality Check on Riding the Last Mile
Traversing a mile takes about 20 minutes walking at 3 mph, about 6 minutes on a kick or small electric scooter at 10 mph, and 4 minutes on a pedal or electric bike at 15 mph. These time and effort savings for a daily commute start to become appreciable when the combined walking distance from house to train and from train to office is more than about 2 miles for a daily round trip.
It seems that many of the devices discussed above could be effective in reducing this travel time, thereby making mass transit a more attractive alternative to driving into the city in a personal automobile. I don’t have data on this, but my concern is that most of these alternative vehicles will, realistically, be ridden only by people younger than about 30 years old. I am trying not to stereotype, but I have simply not observed many females older than 15 or males older than 30 standing on small scooters, even in casual clothes on weekends. When we focus on commuting into a professional job while wearing a suit, this becomes even more improbable. Scootering can involve exertion and physical hazard. This thread on the subject of adults commuting on kick scooters includes personal accounts of various injuries.
I am guessing that only a stable sit-down electric vehicle has a chance of appealing to many men and women above certain ages. Electrified bicycles probably fit this need the best: everyone remembers riding bicycles in their youth, so there is little familiarization required. Among all the vehicles discussed here, bikes probably feel the safest if one has to venture on the road next to moving cars. There is already a culture of adult bicycle usage in some European countries. I expect this to slowly spread in North American cities as a new generation of young adults takes up urban living with a heightened eco-ethic and less love of cars.
Dockless scooter shares, including Lime, Bird and Spin, have appeared in various American cities recently. Riders can unlock a scooter with an app (which allows the riders to be billed for usage) and complete the last mile of their commute to or from the train or bus station. When riders finish with a dockless scooter, they can park them almost anywhere, rather than check them back into a designated rack like a shared bike. Paid workers collect the scooters at the end of the day and charge them.
Weather conditions can discourage the use of scooters or bikes, even by intrepid twenty-somethings. Some areas of the world like southern California have a high percentage of dry, temperate days. Other places have a lot of steamy, cold, or wet weather. Breathable waterproof raingear can help with riding in the rain, but it is still not fun. In a downpour I’d rather walk a mile under a large umbrella than ride a bike wearing high-tech raingear. Driving, or being driven, to a transit station in an automobile will seem very attractive on days of inclement weather, so there will likely be an ongoing role for ridesharing and taxi-type services like Uber to travel that last mile.