Wet, windy, Wheels: Test ride in miserable Seattle weather makes this sit-down scooter stand out
It was either the worst possible day to test ride an electric scooter, or the best Seattle day.
If the goal was to assess the performance of the new Wheels sit-down scooter in a truly miserable downpour this week, consider that achievement unlocked.
Wheels started deploying its fleet on Monday as part of the City of Seattle’s Scooter Share Program, in which the California-based company will share Seattle’s streets with two other micro-mobility companies which have also been granted permits — Lime and LINK.
Wheels differentiates itself with a seated model that looks like a small electric bicycle, rather than the traditional stand-up option of the other two. Chosen by the Seattle Department of Transportation as the most accessible model, to accommodate more riders of varying sizes and ages, Wheels says it attracts a broader demographic of riders, including half who are women and a third who are over the age of 35.
Here are few highlights from my pre-ride once-over of the scooter that I rode in the Ballard neighborhood on Tuesday:
- The scooter is short but sturdy, weighing about 40 pounds. Easy to move off the sidewalk, which you should always do, and hopefully not light enough to toss in a lake, which is just a dumb way to protest alternative modes of transportation.
- The 14-inch wheels and wide tires are a noticeable distinction compared to the much smaller wheels on stand-up competitors.
- There are disc brakes on the front and rear.
- The battery is hidden in the post below the seat to deter theft. And unlike other models, the battery can be swapped out for a fresh one rather than requiring the scooter to return to a hub to be charged.
- The throttle works with a simple twist of the right hand grip. The left grip twists to ring a bell.
- There’s a small digital display between the handlebar grips which shows how fast you’re going.
- Seated on the thing like a electric bicycle, it feels like there should be pedals, but instead you rest your feet on pegs.
- The scooter has Bluetooth connectivity and a rider can play music or map directions, emitted through a speaker in the frame.
- Front and rear lights come on when the scooter is unlocked, as well as a stripe of blue LED lights which run along the side of the frame.
- The seat is wide and comfortable.
The model I tested came with a helmet, stored in a compartment over the rear wheel. Unlocking the scooter in the Wheels app (Google Play and App Store) the rider is given the option of also unlocking the helmet. The helmet was lined with a removable, biodegradable liner to assure sanitary use from one rider to the next.
I couldn’t get the helmet to adjust large enough to fit my big head. Wheels says the poor fit was unusual and the company strongly believes that having an integrated helmet is a smart solution that all micro-mobility devices should practice.
But I brought my own helmet and used that — and Wheels figures many people in bike-friendly Seattle will do the same. About 20% of the scooter fleet will come with helmets at the start in Seattle.
As part of a safety requirement from the City of Seattle, along with reflective tape and information stickers on the frame, a rider’s first use of a Wheels scooter comes with a top speed of 8 mph. This is intended to allow a user to get familiar with how to operate the thing. I quickly graduated to the top-speed of 15 mph and took off for a ride on the Burke Gilman Trail.
While the seat is not adjustable, riding in a windy rainstorm I was glad to have my center of gravity lower to the ground. Purposefully weaving on the wet pathway, and negotiating some tight turns, I felt confident that the scooter wasn’t going to slide out from beneath me — and if it did, a fall to my hip seemed like it would be less horrible than a stand-up fall down to my outstretched arms.
The little scooter reminded me of riding a kid’s BMX bike, and I felt a strong urge to jump off some low steps near the National Nordic Museum, but skipped that move in front of two representatives from Wheels. I did take the scooter over a rather rugged section of train tracks to test the tires, and came away unscathed.
The scooter lagged slightly on a small hill and is probably not something I would attempt to ride up super steep terrain.
After 12 minutes and 21 seconds of riding, I parked the scooter and initiated the locking process through the app. I needed to prove that I parked in a responsible manner by clicking a few boxes and I even took a picture of where I parked through the app, for fear of incurring a $5 fee for a poorly parked scooter. My cost at the end of the ride was $5.68 — $1 to unlock and 36 cents per minute to ride.
Wheels was founded by brothers Jonathan and Joshua Viner, who also founded the dog-walking startup Wag. The company has operated in close to 20 cities across the U.S. and Europe including Los Angeles, San Diego, Dallas, Orlando, Vienna, and Brussels, deploying nearly 10,000 scooters.
The three companies in the Scooter Share Program are allowed to operate up to 500 scooters each at the outset, and Wheels plans to scale to that number over the first month of operations.
Late fall and winter in Seattle might seem like a strange time to deploy a fleet of scooters, but the company is banking on its seat and larger wheels to add stability and make the devices better suited for rainy weather. That all seemed to play out as intended during my ride.
“Given the challenges of public transportation and car ride-sharing in the wake of COVID-19, a safe, affordable, and socially distant transportation option like Wheels has actually never been more important than now,” said Todd Maron, chief legal officer for Wheels.