As a native New Yorker and a parent of two kids, I’ve tried out pretty much every way imaginable to navigate the Big Apple. My car is certainly my most powerful tool, but there are lots of trips when it’s also my worst option. Between gas, traffic, and parking, it can turn a relatively short distance into a nightmarish odyssey. And while I think our subway system is second to none, I also dread standing shoulder to shoulder with an unwashed stranger, stranded between stations by a signal problem.
I use my bicycle on the weekends and for short errands near my house, but I don’t ride it to work because I hate showing up at the office a sweaty mess. My ideal urban transport is powered, at least as fast and nimble as a bicycle, and small and light enough to fit on a crowded subway car if it starts to rain. It needs to feel safe when riding next to cars and trucks and also not pose a threat to pedestrians if I take it up onto the sidewalk. It has to be able to handle tough terrain, from potholes to cobblestones. And, of course, it should be comfortable and fun to ride.
So when my next-door neighbor rolled up on an URB-E electric scooter last month, I was intrigued. I had tried out an early prototype of the URB-E at CES back in 2014; that vehicle was fun, but too slow and slight to be really useful on rugged streets. The final version, now available to consumers starting at $1,500, proved to be a big leap forward. I spent a couple days using it around Brooklyn and Manhattan and came away very impressed.
The URB-E weights 35 pounds and tops out at 15 miles per hour. When folded up, it’s light enough for me to easily carry up a couple flights of stairs, although the design doesn’t present any comfortable ways to grip or shoulder it. I could slide it under my desk or hold it between my legs on a crowded subway, and transforming it between folded and ready-to-ride was a snap.
Powering the URB-E is a 250-watt brushless motor and a 36-volt lithium-ion battery. You can get to a full charge in four hours and drive for 20 miles before you need to charge again. I tested the URB-E for my commute from downtown Brooklyn to Midtown Manhattan and found the range very robust and reliable. My only complaint was that you get just three battery indicators — full, half, and empty — which wasn’t quite enough granular detail for my liking.
The steering is jumpy but easy to master
I could ride the URB-E immediately on my first try and never had an accident, but there is definitely a learning curve in terms of comfort and control. It’s front-wheel drive, with a disc brake on the rear wheel. That’s unusual for a two-wheel vehicle, and it makes the handling a little jumpy. Both myself and a cameraman riding an URB-E alongside me found it tough to ride with our feet on the front set of pegs. With our feet on the back set, the URB-E was much easier to control, but still felt unsafe when I took one hand off the controls.
The URB-E is just 35 inches tall and the seat sits 28 inches above the ground, meaning you can always put your feet on the ground to steady yourself. The compact frame and ability to steer with your feet, like a BMX bike, meant the URB-E was extremely agile. I weaved from the street to the sidewalk with ease, and darted between obstacles with quick stops and starts. The top speed of 15 mph meant I got passed by bikes on the straightaways, but its rapid acceleration made up for that limitation in stop-and-go traffic. Overall I made my commute from home to work in about equal time on a bike versus the URB-E. And when there was a car parked in the bike lane, as there so often is, switching to the sidewalk was way less of a headache.
It's unclear if the Urb-e is legal in NYC
It’s not entirely clear to me if riding the URB-E on the sidewalk is legal, though. The company picked 15 miles per hour as the top speed because that ensures the URB-E qualifies as the same class of vehicle as a bicycle and won’t require a license in most parts of the US. Because it’s stable at slow speeds and I could put my feet down on the ground, the URB-E felt like a much safer option than a bicycle when weaving through pedestrians. But whether it’s legally more of a bike or a scooter is still an open question. "Hoverboards" were recently banned, but the administrative code laying out local laws seem to allow electric scooters with a maximum speed below 15 miles. I certainly got fewer dirty looks than when I ride my bicycle on the sidewalk.
This dynamic really stood out on the Brooklyn Bridge, which is always crowded with tourists snapping selfies in the middle of the bike lane. It can be a nightmare of stops and starts if you’re on a bicycle, but with the URB-E, I could negotiate it with minimal effort, weaving between pedestrians. The vehicle’s agility and flexibility really impressed me on this leg of the trip.
Once I got into Manhattan, I spent some time weaving in and out of traffic on major thoroughfares like Broadway and Sixth Avenue. You sit far too low on the URB-E to be seen from a bus or truck — hell, even most large SUVs probably wouldn’t spot you in their mirrors. But I actually felt as safe, if not safer, than I do when working my way through similar traffic on a bicycle, because the URB-E is much nimbler and faster to accelerate, and because I can always use my feet to make quick adjustments. It’s also smooth enough to handle an iced coffee in its cup holder and can charge my iPhone with its battery while I ride.
There were times when I longed for more speed from the URB-E, especially on long flats or up hills. An extra 5 mph of top speed would put this thing on par with most bicycle riders. But over time, I came to feel that the 15 mile per hour max was the right choice in terms of making the URB-E safe on both the street and the sidewalk.
Aesthetically the Urb-e is still sort of... comical
When viewed against other electric scooters, like the Inu we recently tested, the URB-E is a great deal: $2,500 cheaper and 5-6 mph faster. Of course, when it comes to style, the URB-E isn’t winning any contests. Aesthetically, it’s sort of… comical. It isn’t a tricycle anymore, like it was when we first saw it at CES, but it still has the look and feel of something you could ride around a circus ring. That said, the response from people on the street was so overwhelmingly positive and excited that after a couple days, I started to feel cool riding it.
Overall, the URB-E felt like a really awesome addition to my urban transportation arsenal. $1,500 is a lot to shell out, but the company just partnered with Wells Fargo to offer financing plans. You can pay for the URB-E in installments of $1.75 a day or $50 a month, making it far more approachable to the numerous teenagers who stopped me on the street to ask about it.
The URB-E is a great alternative when a bike won’t do but you don’t want to upgrade to a Vespa or a full-on motorcycle, which are more expensive, have more overhead, and can’t be carried around. The range, handling, and flexibility are something I am really going to appreciate on my frequent treks to Manhattan’s financial district. I can reach that area by subway or ferry, but not without a 15- to 20-minute walk on both ends the ride — the "last mile" that makes urban commuting so frustrating. With the URB-E, I can accomplish the entire trip in 20 minutes, iced coffee in hand, phone fully charged, not breaking a sweat.