The thing that takes getting used to is that you’re going to get looks.
Cruising down the reddish protected bike lane of downtown Austin’s 3rd Street on a near-soundless set of wheels at speeds of up to 20 mph, bypassing sloggy traffic, the glances from pedestrians are inevitable.
It might be that they haven’t seen a foldable bike such as the compact URB-E before, or that they’re simply admiring the good-time aesthetics of the Hardcore Mini Bike, which is like a lowrider, fat-tired scooter with the guttural motor sounds muted.
“FAT TIRE!” someone once yelled as I rolled by on a Mini Bike during South by Southwest this month near the Lady Bird Lake bridge on Congress Avenue. They’re novel. They turn heads.
In the tech world, there’s a term, “Last mile,” used to describe the way a utility such as Internet service is distributed from a provider to actual homes. But lately, I’ve been thinking about the last mile for commuters like myself -- the challenge of enjoying what downtown Austin has to offer when you have to consider traffic and parking fees, particularly during big festival weekends or really any Friday night.
It’s a challenge that has kept friends of a certain age from venturing downtown at all during peak periods, leaving it to those with lots of disposable cash for $20 parking or people who live close enough to make ride-hailing costs palatable.
During SXSW this year, I wondered why more people aren’t going gaga over electric bikes and scooters, which seem to offer a lot of advantages over driving downtown without the sweat of a traditional bicycle or even walking when it’s humid and blazing hot in Austin.
Last year, I motored around the festival on a Hardcore Mini Bike, on loan for the week from the Austin company, which at the time was focused on sales of its electric bikes but has since shifted to offer tandem, guided tours of the city. I used a Mini Bike again for several days of SXSW this year, and also got to try out on loan the URB-E Pro, one of four models of foldable bikes from Pasadena, California-based Urban626.
URB-E sold its entire SXSW stock of bikes at this year’s show and was doing demos downtown for curious riders. Electric bikes appear to be having an aspirational moment; they’re the subject of many crowdfunding campaigns on Indiegogo and Kickstarter. Austin Energy even offers a rebate for buyers of e-bikes and electric scooters, mopeds and motorcycles. And they’re not the only mode of travel going electric: Austin has been outfitting pedicabs with electric motors, too.
I also had a chance to briefly try out LimeBike’s electric scooters, which the company previewed during SXSW in advance of bringing its bike- and scooter-sharing service to Austin. You can read more about that in a recent write-up by Pamela Leblanc.
But for the purposes of this story, let’s focus on the two electric bikes, which use the same basic technology to take very different approaches to getting you around. Take a ride with me, won’t you? And don’t forget to wear a helmet.
The first thing you notice when someone rides by on an URB-E electric bike is that the posture it creates for the rider makes it look as if they’re riding a unicycle, especially if you look at it from the front.
It’s a funky-looking ride, despite being designed by a former lead engineer at Porsche. It looks like two wheels holding up curvy Eiffel Towers with the handlebars of a Razor scooter and a generous seat jutting out the back.
The electric bike has a set of pegs to rest your feet on as you ride near the rear wheel and a second set of pegs on the front if you want to lean back, but your feet will move along with the steering if you do that and it gets a little awkward and scary until you’re used to that position.
Once on the bike, you’ll find a very easy control scheme: a unique key to turn the bike’s power on and off, a red button to turn on the motor with three indicator lights for battery power (red, yellow, green) and a throttle and brake on the right handlebar.
There are four models of URB-E, ranging in price from $899 to $1,999. I tried the second-to-top-tier URB-E Pro, which runs $1,699. The models differ in range, colors, handling and weight; the Pro has a battery range of about 20 miles, weighs 35 pounds, has a top speed of 18 mph and uses pneumatic tires. (Some of the smaller models have solid rubber tires.) The URB-E Pro also has a USB port that can charge a phone or power a light attachment for night riding.
Like a lot of electric bikes, this is basically a big battery, about the size of an old laptop power brick, powering a distributed motor to wheels. But it’s surprisingly zippy for being so compact. Whether you’re going uphill or downhill, the acceleration feels good. There’s maybe a moment or two where the motor is catching up with your need for speed, but for the most part the power is enough to get you where you’re going without any effort.
What takes getting used to is the handling. Even after a week of riding an URB-E, I still had a few shaky moments on takeoff, in attempting turns that were too tight, or braking, which felt a little too abrupt at times.
The URB-E’s biggest feature is that it’s foldable. You can pull up the seat and the frame comes together, snapping in place. The seat then goes down, making for a vertical package. But it’s heavy and bulky, not the kind of thing you can carry around with you like a suitcase; it’s more like something you can easily throw in the trunk of your car or stash in a corner of a room to charge when it’s not in use.
I used the URB-E in downtown Austin as well as in neighborhoods, mostly sticking to sidewalks and bike lanes. It’s as street legal as any bicycle, but I didn’t always feel comfortable riding the URB-E in traffic; it felt too small and low to the ground to compete for street space with the giant trucks and 18-wheelers common to Texas roads.
Other models of URB-E might feel more stable on bigger roads, but the Pro seems best as a bike-to-work alternative or for someone who is not planning on covering long distances on bike-unfriendly streets. It can be secured to any bike rack with a standard bike lock.
Hardcore Mini Bikes
URB-E might have taken a hit in my estimation due to my falling hard for Hardcore’s bikes last year.
If you’re a sucker for aesthetics, it’s hard to resist the casual-biker lines, the big light in the front, the super-wide tires and the neat trick of being designed for two riders without seeming any bulkier than a bike for one.
But what really made me a fan was how smooth, stable and safe the Mini Bike feels. Acceleration never stalled on me at any time in my two test rides, making me increasingly confident even in the middle of a Friday traffic jam downtown. It’s big enough to make you feel that you’re being seen by vehicles, beautiful enough to draw curious stares and sleek enough to park practically anywhere. At 200 pounds and with a built-in alarm siren, it’s more like a motorcycle; it’s unlikely someone is going to walk off with it as they might an an unlocked bicycle. And because it’s not registered like a motorcycle, you’re not getting a ticket for parking it next to a set of full bike racks.
Looks and ease of parking only get you so far, though. What drew me back to Hardcore this year was that the bikes are just fun to drive. When I wasn’t on the bike, I missed it, and I found myself using any excuse to get from place to place and take it for another spin.
The battery held up well; I never got below 50 percent power and I didn’t need to charge it every night. An indicator on the handlebar tells you how much juice is left, though it can fluctuate when you’re in motion.
The URB-E I tried didn’t have a basket attachment, but both the URB-E Pro and Hardcore’s bikes have ways to carry bags and other items.
The biggest drawbacks to the Hardcores are their size and weight. It’s too heavy and bulky to stick in your car for transport without some major effort and it’s not compact enough to keep in the corner of a room if you want it indoors at night (not that it wouldn’t look great there).
Due to how well it handles on regular roads, the Hardcore Mini Bike seems best suited to short-range commuters, people who live less than five or 10 miles from work and want to be able to get around without bringing a car with them.
And, of course, it’s built for the leisure tours that Hardcore offers through YourBikerGang.com and at its physical location on E. 5th Street. The tours cost $59 to $64 per bike and last about two hours.
Though there are some signs you’ll find downtown that say motorized vehicles are off limits in some areas, for the most part laws for bikes apply to these gadgets and it’s fine to use bike lanes and bike racks for them.
With traffic and parking getting worse in downtown Austin all the time, it might be time to think about ditching the car entirely and looking at more portable options.
Cover photo: The URB-E Pro is one of four foldable electric bike models available from Pasadena, California-based Urban626, LLC. The company gave demos and sold its products at South by Southwest this year. Contributed / URBAN626, LLC