Ride on: Electric moped-share company Revel returns to New York on Thursday with a slew of new safety protocols following a month-long suspension after three riders died in separate crashes in July.
Going forward, all 360,000 Revel users in New York City — new and old — will not be able to ride one of the company’s 3,000 mopeds before completing a 15- to 20-minute test on the rules of the road, watching a how-to tutorial, and snapping a selfie of themselves (and their partner if applicable) wearing a helmet. The Revel won’t start until the picture is successfully uploaded via the app.
“We are trying to change behavior,” said Revel CEO and co-founder Frank Reig, who said his company worked closely with the Department of Transportation. “We're totally separating the helmet from starting the vehicle. So now when you hit ‘Start Ride,’ the helmet case unlocks and then the next screen is ‘Take a Helmet Selfie.’ Prove to us that the helmet is on your head. If you click a second passenger you have to take two selfies. Once you do that then it turns on. This is New York State law — Revel rules — you need to wear the helmet.”
Service will also stop every night at midnight and not resume until 5 a.m.
Another new safety feature is an expansion of automatic suspensions — now, using GPS data, Revel will automatically boot riders from the app who ride the wrong way down one-way streets; ride on highways, bridges, and sidewalks; in bike lanes; or into off-limits green space like a park.
Each infraction comes with its own punishment — riding on a sidewalk and highway is an immediate indefinite suspension, while riding in the bike lane, the wrong way down a one-way street or over a bridge comes with a warning.
“We know about it, we know your GPS. What we’ve done now is automate that and add one-way streets. We’re gonna know about it immediately and will take appropriate action,” said Reig. “All of that is now automated in the back end. There’s no user-bias.”
The slate of new safety features come after Revel voluntarily shut down its service in New York City on July 28 — the same day that 32-year-old Jeremy Malave died after he crashed his Revel into a light pole in Queens. That fatality came just 10 days after CBS2 reporter Nina Kapur became the first New Yorker killed on a Revel after she was thrown from a scooter driven by a friend in Greenpoint. A third man, Francis Nunez, had crashed a Revel on July 25, but did not die until Aug. 4.
In announcing the suspension, Mayor de Blasio derided Revel as a “new technology” that had not yet proven it could be safe, yet dodged questions about why he is not similarly moved to action by the old technology of cars, whose drivers kill hundreds every year and injure tens of thousands.
That said, something was definitely going on with Revel during the COVID pandemic. Reig said his data team found that in the months leading up to the voluntary suspension, Revel users were riding more recklessly and hitting the gas without helmets more frequently than they were last year and in 2018, when Revel launched in the city — likely as a result of people fearful of putting a shared helmet on their head in the age of COVID.
“What we also saw was a real decrease in helmet compliance, a sort of significant decrease that we had not seen in 2018 and 2019. I think maybe coronavirus makes people a little more skittish,” said Reig, adding another possible factor: people feeling cooped up. “People [were] kind of being crammed in their apartment for eight, 12 weeks at a time. As they came back onto the streets ... rider behavior was not good.”
Reig said the scooters, including the helmets, are cleaned just about every day.
The new security measures come after an internal audit commissioned by Revel found that riders drove the scooters an average of 12.3 mph — about 18 mph slower than their maximum speed of 30 mph. The survey of 884,910 rides in 2019 found that only 155 crashes that ended in injury or property damage, which is a rate of one crash per 5,700 rides. Of those crashes, 30 percent were attributed to people who had used Revel five times or less, Streetsblog reported.
The report also recommended mandatory in-person lessons for new riders without motorcycle experience, or making the then-optional “how-to” videos mandatory for new riders.
In addition to the now-mandatory video and quiz, Revel is also expanding its in-person voluntary lessons from what were previously just available in Brooklyn to Queens, Manhattan, and the Bronx, seven days a week for free, said Reig.
Reig said he’s glad Revel is back up and running in the city, especially since the Brooklyn-based company saw 200,000 new users sign up across Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Manhattan since May, using the scooters for an average of four-mile rides, up a mile from last year — stats that highlight the desperate need for alternative and accessible modes of transportation to replace costly and environmentally unfriendly car trips.
"It’s clear that post-COVID there’s clearly a demand for alternative ways to get around," he said. "When you talk about this form of mobility and how it fits into a city like New York, it's really that mid-mile trip, we're really competing against personal car trips, we're taking those Uber and Lyft trips off the road."
But the only way to truly allow Revel to succeed is to give it the space it needs, and that means questioning and cutting into the car culture that has gripped the city for decades — often to the detriment of other vulnerable road users. In 2020 so far alone, more than 120 people have been killed and 19,667 people have been injured in motor vehicle crashes within the five boroughs.
“The best way to improve street safety for everybody, whether it’s pedestrians, cyclists, folks on a moped, in a car, bus, is to foster all modes of transit to make sure that there’s space and infrastructure, and everyone is being prioritized," said Reig. "And one of the best ways to make the streets safer is to reduce SUV trips, car trips, and one of the ways you do that is to replace them with a Revel trip or a bike trip, or anything else that is not a two-to-four-ton vehicle on four wheels.”
Earlier this month, Manhattan Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, who chairs the Council’s Transportation Committee, proposed even stricter regulations for shared e-moped companies like Revel, such as helmet requirements, mandatory training, and even a city-issued license or permit, before allowing them to resume operations.
Reig declined to speak directly to Rodriguez’s legislation, but said he and the DOT worked closely together in the month during its suspension before the city gave the green light to relaunch.
A spokesman for City Hall said the city will closely monitor the electric motorscooters to ensure everyone’s safety.
“New Yorkers deserve more mobility options, and we’ve focused on welcoming a safer, more accountable service to City streets. But dangerous operations will not be tolerated; we’re watching closely for reckless practices, and we won’t hesitate to suspend shared moped services the moment we see them. We’ve worked hard to make our streets safe, and we won’t turn back now,” said Mitch Schwartz.
Schwartz said the city will not apply the same scrutiny that it does to Revel's scooters to cars and SUVs, and similarly suspend drivers who operate the multi-ton machines dangerously, because drivers are regulated by the state's Department of Motor Vehicles.
"Driving a car is a heavily regulated activity. It’s not targeting or singling out future Revel riders to demand the kinds of safety measures we demanded," he said.