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The future of urban commuting has one wheel

Micromobility devices are a new way to get around — if you can keep your balance

By Glenn McDonald

In 1989’s Back to the Future Part II, Marty McFly flashes forward in time to the exotic future of 2015, where his favorite mode of transportation, the skateboard, has evolved into the levitating Mattel Hoverboard.

The real 2015 didn’t end up looking much like the movie, except for this one thing. Sort of. The 21st century has seen a rise of futuristic skateboards and self-balancing scooters that promise a new era for personal transportation. They fall under a broader designation of eco-friendly “micromobility” technology: low-speed, lightweight vehicles that run off human or battery power. Think electric mopeds, e-bikes, skateboards, bicycles, and scooters — any kind of short-range individual conveyance with zero emissions.

Among the many devices in this evolving category is the Onewheel, a single-wheel electric skateboard that has steadily developed a devoted user base since 2015. Essentially, it’s an oversized skateboard deck in which the rider straddles a single, giant wheel that rotates through the center of the board. With the pandemic triggering big changes to the way we get around, Onewheel creator Kyle Doerksen hopes his device can be part of a longer-term solution to urban transportation problems.

Unlike other micromobility options — the Segway, for instance — the Onewheel puts riders’ feet perpendicular to the wheel and direction of travel. That makes the Onewheel experience more akin to sports like surfing, skateboarding, and snowboarding.

“People are zooming around all over the place.”

Kyle Doerksen, Onewheel creator

Doerksen says this design has made Onewheel a hit with the serious board sports crowd. But the Onewheel has also been growing increasingly popular with a more adventurous subset of urban commuters. The price — $1,800 for the “XR” model, $950 for a smaller version called the Pint — suggests that Onewheels are competing in the market of legitimate commuter vehicles, and not just driveway gadgets for the kids.

“Our commuting side has grown in leaps and bounds,” Doerksen says. New York, San Francisco, and Seattle are hot spots, and usage is expanding steadily. “We have a lot of riders in Europe now.”

Recent microbial events are boosting micromobility in ways that some analysts predict will be permanent. As the pandemic has driven commuters away from public transportation and ridesharing services, those who still need to get around are exploring other options. Sales of bicycles have skyrocketed. Scooter-rental services are bouncing back after an initial plunge caused by sanitation concerns and municipal stay-at-home orders.

Another unexpected side effect of the pandemic is that, in some downtown areas, there is now a lot more room to ride. Several cities in the United States and Europe have been experimenting with restricting cars in downtown areas to make room for social distancing among and between pedestrians and riders.

“The streets were originally closed to create space [for social distancing], or because restaurants needed more outdoor seating,” Doerksen says. “But then, people started using those closed streets to make thoroughfares for bikes and scooters.”

Doerksen says that by opening up the streets to alternative modes of transportation, city planners are seeing the benefits of rethinking downtown areas: “It’s like a test run of what would it be like to devote more of our city real estate to this kind of thing.”

Environmental organizations have been trying to get this done for years in the U.S., says Joan Fitzgerald, professor of public policy and urban affairs at Northeastern University. Car-free streets are certainly more eco-friendly, and they improve air quality.

Fitzgerald says at least a dozen U.S. cities are now restricting cars in downtown areas, either by reducing car traffic to fewer lanes or removing automobiles entirely from certain streets. Oakland, California, took an early lead by closing down 74 total miles of city streets to automobile traffic. New York made some similar moves, and Seattle has decided to make some of their street closings permanent.

“Imagine if we just kept it this way,” Fitzgerald says. “We just zone the area and turn these streets over to pedestrian and non-fossil-fuel-based transportation.”

Fitzgerald notes, however, that conflicts can arise when micromobility vehicles — even the smaller ones — are forced to share space with pedestrians.

“I’m an avid walker and these riders sometimes can get going pretty fast,” she says. “I don’t want to get run over. But we already have ways to accommodate that. You just make separate lanes for pedestrians and for bikes or scooters.”

Naturally, Doerksen is on board, as it were. He notes that his device is particularly well-suited to tricky urban maneuvering. Using the included smartphone app, Onewheel riders can precisely customize their board’s balance and feel, tweaking the algorithms that control the interior gyroscopes and accelerometers.

“It’s like the digital equivalent of surfboard shaping, sanding down the board so that it rides just the way you want,” Doerksen says. “Electric bikes and electric scooters, they can be amazing, but those are really just familiar objects with power added to them. With Onewheel, it’s the software that creates the experience.”

Doerksen concedes that the Onewheel is not for everyone. Riding the board requires certain physical capabilities — it’s very much like skateboarding or snowboarding — and Doerksen acknowledges that the high price will keep many people away. But he’s fine with that.

“We don’t feel the need to achieve universality for it to be a successful part of the transportation mix,” he says. “With open streets, there are lots of new ways to get around. People are zooming around all over the place.”

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Glenn McDonald is a writer based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Photo by Ben Gabbe/Getty Images


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