Commuting is bullshit. Trains are bad and buses are worse, and riding a bike is Actual Hard Work. That's why electric bikes are convenient — all the usefulness of a bicycle, with electric power to get you up hills. But that's cold comfort if you don't have anywhere to store your bike when you're in the office. Enter the URB-E, a compact electric scooter that folds up out of the way to hide under a desk, but that can also zip around the city without requiring any human effort.
What Is It?
The URB-E is a foldable electric scooter, built from lightweight aluminium, designed for city-dwellers to commute short distances on daily — whether that's between home and office, home and gym, or anywhere in between. Built in the US, the URB-E is only 16kg, making it significantly lighter than a full-size electric bike or folding bike, and it's that light weight and compact folding size that means the URB-E is portable even when you're not riding it. The company's intention is for you to ride the URB-E to your office or apartment and then store it away in a closet or near your desk — anywhere that you can charge it for the next ride.
Two points of articulation at the top of the URB-E's aluminium body let it concertina from its full, unfolded form — with an upright seat and A-shaped frame — into a much more compact, but still With a 20 mile — around about 35 kilometre — rated range, and a top speed of 15 miles per hour — just under 25km/h — from its 250 Watt motor, the URB-E fits into Australia's strict design rules for electrically powered transport. Its 36V battery charges from empty to full in four hours, and you can use that exact same battery pack to charge your smartphone while you're travelling, or to connect a forward-facing bike light, using the URB-E's integrated USB port.
An URB-E will cost you around $US1669, or $2250, but you'll also have to pay some pretty significant shipping costs in the order of $500 to get the foldable scooter and its sizeable lithium-ion battery landed in Australia. That means it'll cost around about the same price that you'd pay for a full-size electric bike assembled and sold down under; the question of which makes more sense for you to buy and use comes down to how you'll use it and what you want to do. The company offers a range of different variants and a bunch of accessories, like a kickstand and a grocery basket, that increase its utility depending on your needs.
What's It Good At?
The little URB-E is actually a hell of a lot of fun to ride, despite its small wheels and the slightly weird, Donkey-Kong-in-Mario-Kart shape that you have to contort your body into to sit on the scooter's seat, brace your legs against the foot pedals and your hands on the handlebars to actually use it. It's quick and zippy — and unlike an electric bike, there are no pedals, so you just twist the URB-E's throttle and you're away. All the way up to its maximum 25km/h cruising speed, the URB-E accelerates happily even on slight hills and doesn't really ever feel short of power.
The URB-E sits in a strange size class — it's not quite a bike, not quite a Razor scooter — that means wherever you ride it, it sort of just fits in. To be honest, I was a little hazy on the traffic laws around NYC in my couple of days with the URB-E, but its middle-of-the-road size meant I was happy switching between bike lane, footpath and (occasionally) road without any noticeable hassles from the pedestrian public or any of the city's famously grumpy drivers. Similarly, I didn't even feel especially dorky when I folded it up outside my hotel and walked in to the lobby before jumping into a lift up to my room. When in the room, I just left it in a corner and didn't find it imposing — even in a small Manhattan hotel.
The fact that the URB-E is foldable kind of represents everything about this electric scooter. It's surprisingly compact when you don't need it, but when you do, it's big enough to be usable enough for the range that it will cover. I got through barely one full charge in my four short days and afternoons with the URB-E, but it was simple enough to charge overnight that I didn't ever worry about running out of juice in the middle of a journey. It's worth mentioning, though, that unlike an electric bike, when you're out of URB-E power you don't have any backup method of locomotion — you're walking home with the scooter in tow.
What's It Not Good At?
If you're tall, an URB-E is not for you. With the handlebars barely 90 centimetres off the tarmac and a seat that only sits 70 centimetres from the ground, it would start to feel a little cramped for any rider with a height significantly over six feet. There's no adjustability in the frame too, apart from in the seat. The learning curve to get an URB-E up and going is reasonably small, to be honest — just twist the throttle and you're off — but it takes a lot more practice to actually master to the point of being comfortable weaving through traffic and pedestrians. I drove URB-E in New York City, and the first day was... dangerous.
Because the URB-E's electric motor is in its front wheel, it can sometimes feel like you're dragging the rear around behind you, where most electric bike competitors are rear-wheel-driven and feel a little more traditional. Similarly, the scooter's sole disc brake is on the rear wheel, which the opposite tro what I'm used to on my beat-up fixie. This contributes quite a bit to making the URB-E difficult to control smoothly at first — you'll have to do some training laps to get used to applying brake and rolling off the throttle smoothly to get comfortable to the point that you'll be competent on the URB-E in a built-up area.
It's expensive, too. A lot of that is Australia Tax — not an additional cost tacked on for us just for the privilege of being Australian, but just the cost of shipping the scooter and its batteries across the oceans to our fair shores. That's unavoidable, but it's an extra financial obstacle for Aussies to overcome when it comes to actually getting hold of an URB-E. I hope URB-E can drive that cost of shipping down in the future, especially if it becomes popular enough to send across in bulk. There is a cheaper $US1499 variant, but I wouldn't want something with less power than the $US1699 Black Label model that I tested out.
Should You Buy It?
If you live in a sub-35-kilometre journey from your home to your office, then the URB-E will get you there, day in and day out. It charges fast enough that you can (almost) deplete it on your morning commute in, and then (almost) deplete it again on your way home. It's the kind of electric vehicle that makes so much sense for city living, moreso than a full-size bicycle or even a folding bike. It has almost all of the size and weight advantages of a step-through scooter, but with the addition of some seriously zippy battery-powered electrics as well. It's quick enough that you won't hold up traffic — until you top out at 25km/h, at least.
I still haven't decided whether the URB-E looks dorky or cool. I think when I had it and was riding around New York, I felt dorky when sitting at traffic lights and stop signs with cars and proper bikes around me — but considered in abstract the URB-E is a really smart piece of design. It's light enough to carry around, powerful enough to actually use as a mode of powered transport. If you don't really care what other people think of you, then go ahead — the URB-E's function far outweighs its form. If you do, then just get yourself a fancy bike helmet and call the whole thing a fashion statement.
At the URB-E's landed price in Oz, it comes down to a pretty direct comparison between this lightweight foldable electric scooter and a full-sized electric bike. Does your commute have a lot of hills and bumps and rough bits? You'll probably want a proper bike. Can you use bike lanes and paved pathways? Then the URB-E makes a lot more sense. Do you have bike parking at work? Then you can use a bike? If you don't, then the URB-E will happily tuck away underneath your office desk, charging for the next time you need it. On the balance of these questions, I know I want an URB-E for my daily trip between home and office.