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What do you think of an electric bike or a moped? You might think of someone using these things for fun. But elsewhere in the world, from Mexico City to Shanghai, these smaller vehicles are actually vital forms of transportation. They're more affordable. They also help alleviate congestion. Well, now some West Coast startups think mopeds and scooters might present those same advantages here in the United States as well, as NPR's Sonari Glinton reports.
SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: About 10 years ago, electric bikes were having kind of a renaissance. This is from a story by my former NPR colleague John McChesney. For context, John is a baby boomer pedaling up a hill in San Francisco with the aid of an e-bike.
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JOHN MCCHESNEY: This is pretty extraordinary because I can tell you, on this hill, I would never, ever attempt it. But I'm still working out, as you can probably begin to hear. OK. Rest break.
GLINTON: As that story shows, an e-bike can help you up a steep hill in San Francisco. And they're an alternative to gas-powered motors. Now, some of those smaller gas-powered motors can be more polluting than cars, and that's why a number of startups in Oregon and Southern California have sprouted up to help the commuter who wants something clean and somewhere between a bike and a car.
We stand at the front of this tiny manufacturing shop in downtown Pasadena that has about half a dozen workers. You can imagine what Henry Ford or Ransom Olds first car assembly shops looked like - kind of like this. This startup is called URB-E. They make foldable scooters.
PETER LEE: As you can see, like station four or five is where it all kind of comes together a little bit more.
GLINTON: More than 80 percent of workers in the U.S. get to work alone in a car, truck or SUV. Now, environmentalists have long seen this as a problem, with a new wave of entrepreneurs sensing opportunity.
LEE: My name is Peter Lee. I'm the CEO and co-founder of URB-E. URB-E stands for urban electric. We exist to solve the pain points of living in cities.
GLINTON: Lee says the biggest pain point - traffic.
LEE: So using an Uber and Lyft is great and very convenient, but using a 3,000-pound car to move a 150, 180-pound body one or 2 miles doesn't seem very convenient or efficient to us.
GLINTON: Lee says these vehicles solved the problem of the last mile - you know, the trip to the grocery store or those eight blocks to the nearest bus or train. Now, these startups want to make those trips easier and cleaner.
RYAN RZPECKI: There needs to be a different class of vehicle. It could be scooters. It could be electric bikes. It could be kick scooters. It could be a lot of different things. But driving around in everybody's own personal automobile is not the way forward.
GLINTON: Ryan Rzpecki is CEO of JUMP Mobility. His company makes a shared electric bike.
RZPECKI: One, you're not going to get sweaty because you're not exerting yourself nearly as much. Two, you can go up the hills no problem. Three, you can wear normal clothes. And, four, it is cooler.
GLINTON: As cities around the globe look to ban cars in their central business districts and parking remains a premium, entrepreneurs say these small vehicles are there to fill in the gaps.
LEE: Both feet are on the ground right now. Your right hand is on our throttle, so go ahead and twist that throttle back a little bit slightly.
LEE: There you go.
GLINTON: Peter Lee with URB-E lets me go on a joy ride.
LEE: And as you go, you can just put your feet on the back pegs.
LEE: And both feet will come up, and there you go. And the right hand is the brake.
GLINTON: I think I scared that lady there. If I don't come back, Sonari Glinton, NPR News.
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