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How to Travel Using an E-Bike or Scooter

Curious about those electric bikes, scooters and mopeds scattered across city centers these days? There’s been an explosion of electric vehicles-for-hire in cities worldwide, providing alternatives to public transport for getting around town.

These app-based options — most with one-word names like Lime and Bird — are largely designed to support locals in their day-to-day travels, but hopping on the e-transit wagon can be seamless for visitors, too.

The rapid adoption of these new vehicles hasn’t been without issue. Two years ago, three companies in San Francisco dumped 2,000 scooters on the city sidewalks with neither permits nor permission. Sidewalks were impassable, crosswalks blocked and wheelchairs couldn’t navigate ramps. The city quickly banned the operators and created regulations to better integrate e-scooters and bikes into the transportation infrastructure (Paris is dealing with similar issues after allowing 12 separate e-scooter companies to operate in the city simultaneously, and in New York City, the introduction of 1,000 Revel mopeds earlier this year in two boroughs has raised concerns over safety).

The companies’ universal promise — of an environmentally friendly transportation option — isn’t clear cut, either. A study published last month in the journal Environmental Research Letters found that the resources required to collect and charge scooters, and to manufacture them, aren’t necessarily offset by the “green-ness” of the ride itself (many companies buy carbon offsets to balance charging emissions). Still, while not a perfect option, these vehicles are markedly more environmentally sound than driving, and have become wildly popular with locals and tourists alike.

Considering e-bikes and scooters into your next trip? Here’s how to get started.

Find a Ride

Mobile-based apps make finding bikes, scooters and even motorbikes incredibly easy for riders 18 and older, without the hassle of finding a rental shop (and potentially negotiating rates in a foreign language). One of the major players in the space, perhaps unsurprisingly, is Uber, which runs Jump (bikes and scooters in 32 cities and 10 countries) and recently partnered with Lime (scooters in 100 cities and 25 countries). In the United States, the Uber competitor Lyft is also in the scooter game (20 cities) and operates city bike shares in eight cities.

Other common operators to look for include Bird (scooters in 100-plus cities), which recently acquired San Francisco-based company Scoot (scooters, bikes and motorbikes, in various combinations, in San Francisco, Barcelona and Santiago). Most of these companies have both a United States and international presence, and are growing fast — scope out availability through company websites before an upcoming trip, and download apps as needed. If you’re already an Uber or Lyft user, you’ll be able to access bikes and scooters through your existing account.

App interfaces differ slightly, but generally will show you where to find a vehicle, how to unlock it, the range on a device and the rates for your ride. The vast majority of bikes and scooters are dockless, meaning you don’t have to drop them at a specific site or docking station, but instead, you must leave them in designated zones (leaving your device outside of that zone will result in a fee). Most apps only allow you to rent one vehicle per account, save Lyft’s bike share partnerships (Lime is also currently testing a new Group Ride feature in Europe and Latin America).

Safety First

The apps will use images to demonstrate how to safely use your bike or scooter; many also offer maps and information specific to the city in which you’re renting. Scoot requires that you watch an orientation video before riding one of their motorbikes (you can go to their San Francisco headquarters for an in-person orientation if you’d like).

All operators recommend that, when first trying a vehicle, you do so in a less congested area. Stick to protected bike lanes when available (other than motorbikes, which should be ridden in car lanes). Be very aware of traffic.

“This is new technology, and there’s definitely a learning curve,” says Andrew Savage, Lime’s vice president of sustainability. “We are sharing the streets with cars, and these vehicles haven’t dealt with scooters until recently.”

While many e-bike or scooter companies will give away helmets around a launch, devices don’t come equipped with helmets (save Scoot’s motorbikes and Revel’s mopeds). You can seek out bike shops and rental services for helmets, but Morgan Lommele, director of state and local policy of the nonprofit PeopleForBikes, recommends traveling with your own — a growing number of collapsible options make this an increasingly more packable option.

Rules of the Road

Rules and rider culture can differ by city and country, as does the availability of bike lanes and routes. Ms. Lommele highly encourages riders to do some research beforehand.

“Do a little homework the same way you’d find a great restaurant or hotel or concert,” she says. “Slow down. Really pay attention to what’s going on around you.”

In addition to researching optimal routes, understanding a city’s rules is key. Preliminary research helps, but Michael Keating, founder and president of Scoot, has another good rule of thumb when he’s riding in a new place: do what the locals do.

“If locals are riding in bike lanes, parking their bikes in a certain place, do that! And don’t do your first ride at rush hour.”

City rules differ, but generally, you should not be riding bikes or scooters on the sidewalk.

Enjoy the Ride

One of benefits of getting around a new city on a bike, scooter or moto? It’s fun.

“When you’re on a scooter or a bike, you can see the sites, and you can actually stop and enjoy them easily,” says Rachel Holt, Uber’s head of new mobility.

Mr. Keating agrees.

“When you’re traveling, the journey is really the destination. You get this fun, rich way to see a place.”

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