Could joining an electric vehicle squad make me give up my bike?
On Saturday afternoon at Pier 15 a squad of 35 electric vehicle riders whiz past a pair of women enjoying the waterfront. "What is this, a flash mob?" they ask in disbelief. Kevin Grandon, riding an electric unicycle in padding that makes him look like a futuristic soldier, replies with a smile: "We're electric nerds!"
For a day, I became one of those nerds, joining the Bay Area Esk8 group on their Saturday social ride.
As an urban cyclist, electric skateboards, scooters, and unicycles zoom past me in the bike lane at speeds that would earn them a ticket in a school zone. I envy the power of their vehicles, but like many people, I have a knee-jerk distaste for Boosted Boards and the sci-fi one-wheelers. On my morning commute I've seen unicyclists and e-skateboarders on their phones, eating croissants, and with their hands in their pockets, making them a danger to not just themselves, but cyclists.
Still, the speed and convenience of these vehicles tempts me. Should I convert? I hoped an afternoon joyride would help me find out.
The Esk8 group hosts full unicycle training sessions, but I opted for a crash course (figuratively and literally). Spoiler alert: Unicycling requires more than 10 minutes to learn. I barely made it 10 feet. So instead, I borrowed a Dualtron Thunder scooter.
Little did I know that this was like learning to drive in a Ferrari. Imagine a Bird scooter, but with shock-absorbing suspension and three times the speed. I maxed out at 31mph, but with the second motor engaged, it's capable of hitting 50. I sliced through the foggy afternoon, swerving past cars along the Marina with unearned confidence, and even followed Grandon off-road onto a dirt path through the Great Meadow Park at Fort Mason.
The group traveled as a revelatory pack, unicyclists dancing in stride and skateboarders carving between lanes. They preach safety and require helmets, but stop signs were optional at best. "We try to be as law-abiding as possible, but when you've got 40 people, it's like trying to herd cats," says Sophia Tung, who founded the group with a few friends and surprisingly saw it boom to 1,800 members.
Most pedestrians reacted like those gawking ladies on the pier, in awe of the future tech and impressed enough to stop to take phone videos, but there were also plenty of hecklers. "Normal skateboarders hate us for some reason, we get a lot of backlash. But we're just out here having a good time," says electric skateboarder Jeremy Neal. Tung accounts the negativity to the association of electric vehicles with gentrification, but praises the diversity of the group (and the fact that one of the founding members is a native of The Mission).
I hate to say it, because the riders welcomed me with open arms, but I can see why electric nerds make for easy targets. When we stopped for snacks at a bar, the group sprawled their gear everywhere, unicycles and skateboards plugged into every outlet (they've tripped the breaker before). The place looked like a Fry's tent sale. I felt like I was listening to a different language as riders geeked over tech specs. Some even build their own DIY vehicles from raw components.
The most common topic of conversation by far was battery life. This isn't a concern for thigh-powered vehicles. It made me realize my favorite part of traditional cycling is self-reliance. Traversing a city with nothing more than the power of your legs gives a joy that speeding uphill at 20mph can't replicate. Furthermore, this led me to understand why I've always thought people riding electric vehicles look a bit lame. Aesthetically most of the vehicles look more sci-fi than San Francisco cool, other than the Rick and Morty skate deck (Pickle Rick!), but the more conceptual reason is because cyclists and skateboarders are working hard, and people exerting themselves look like badasses, while motorized riders just look like cheaters.
Is cheating fun? Sure: I didn't not like bombing hills, speeding through parks, and engaging my scooter's second turbo motor to speed up Twin Peaks through the fog at 20mph. And while I smiled ear to ear all day, the lingering takeaway is that these vehicles are for a very specific type of person. And that's not me.
It'd be worthwhile for any car driver to hop on one of these just to teach them how vulnerable riders are, but the fear factor riding inches from rear view mirrors will likely be a deal-breaker. Environmentally, there's no question e-vehicles are a net positive, but traditional bikes and skateboarders don't drain electricity.
You can certainly find an electric vehicle on the cheap, but the sticker shock is real (my Dualtron retails for $4k). Gear nerds and DIYers will love the customization and the cutting edge tech, but casual commuters will feel overwhelmed (although plenty of companies aim to change that). And the learning curve on the unicycles will weed out most people who don't want to treat their transportation like an action sport.
Maybe I also see electric vehicles as a threat. Cyclists already face condescension and disrespect from drivers, and while these esk8ers were courteous to everyone we passed, that's not always the case. More than once, I've been passed close enough so that if I leaned to the left to dodge a pothole, I'd be hit. Plus, cyclists rarely wear the same heavy padding as serious electric riders, meaning that in an accident, we'd be the ones paying the price. Plus, it just makes me sad to see technology making skateboarding and biking seem obsolete.
But when I brought up this last point with Tung, she quickly shut me down.
"If you're looking at it that way, you might as well say we should be sticking to horses."