Discovering and embracing the power of two-wheeled vehicles, by Charlie Depman
A fond memory: the first time I rode my bicycle without training wheels. It was a warm spring day just before I turned 5 years old – I managed to get about 150 feet before I fell over. The feeling was exhilarating, like flying through the air under my own power. I got right back up and pedaled on, starting my lifelong love of two-wheeled vehicles.
I grew up riding bikes and kick-scooters for fun on the sidewalks, cul-de-sacs and dirt trails of suburban Connecticut. It wasn’t until I spent a gap year working in China after high school that I began to see the power of bikes and scooters as serious transportation tools.
Safety first! My parents showed me the joy of riding a bike early on.
While interning at Future Generations, an environmental NGO in Beijing, I commuted every day on a cheap single-speed step-thru bike, inserting myself into streams of hundreds of bikes, scooters, and mopeds that flowed around the bustling metropolis. I have great memories of the ubiquitous mobile bike repair stands that set up shop on curbs and under overpasses – they helped me with quick fixes when I got flats, or once when my pedal fell off, for only a couple dollars.
In college, I began building my own bikes out of dumpster and thrift shop frames, creating easy-to-maintain single-speed setups. In Montreal, where I attended McGill, I rode through the winters with metal-spike-studded snow tires. In Vancouver, where I attended UBC, I harvested parts from abandoned, dilapidated campus bikes and used their components and frames to construct new bikes for myself and friends.
My winter bike in Montreal with studded snow tires
Wrenching on abandoned campus bikes in Vancouver
While on a scholarship in Taiwan the summer before my senior year of college, I discovered the country’s wonderful bike infrastructure, particularly in Taipei, where well-maintained, dedicated bike lanes hug the sides of the many limbs of the Danshui river that branches throughout the city. My bike allowed me to go further afield, out to the ocean and into the mountains around the city. I also discovered that Taiwan is the source of many of the world’s bikes – producing many of the likes of Giant and Fuji and others.
Exploring the mountains outside of Taipei by bike
After college, I dropped out of a government scholarship in China, and worked at The New Life Foundation, a buddhist institute for mindful recovery located outside of Chiang Rai in northern Thailand. To help volunteers and residents get around the surrounding town and get some fun exercise, I built and maintained the foundation’s first shared bike library.
The shared bike library at The New Life Foundation in Thailand
Later, I traveled around Cambodia and Thailand with two guys I met in Laos – they taught me to ride 50cc gas-powered mopeds and a 150cc dirt bike. The scooters and dirt bikes allowed us the freedom to explore and hop from town to town on our own schedule and as quickly or as slowly as we wanted.
Learning to ride a dirt bike in Cambodia
While working at Waterkeeper Alliance, an environmental non-profit, I lived at West 107th street in Manhattan, almost in Harlem. I commuted every day for an hour on the 1-2-3 subway line down to Battery Park, but unwound frequently with bike rides along the West Side Highway and around Central Park. In the concrete jungle that is Manhattan, my Craigslist bike helped me exercise and reconnect with nature.
I found myself back in China in 2014, working at NYU Shanghai as a writing fellow, and bought another commuter bike to get from my apartment to campus. It also gave me the freedom to explore the city’s gardens and parks, go to sports events, and get dinner with friends. Since I had last been in China, the types of vehicles on the street had begun to change – a few people were riding electric mopeds and some electric bikes were popping up.
My commuter bike in the office at NYU Shanghai
In San Francisco, where I moved to get into tech startups, I used another trusty Craigslist bike to commute to Berkeley’s campus on BART to take a computer science course, to commute to downtown San Francisco to attend Hack Reactor, an intensive coding bootcamp, and to commute on Caltrain to attend tech conferences and incubator demo days. On the weekends, it allowed me to explore other parts of the beautiful Bay Area like the Marin Headlands, the Berkeley Hills, and the Peninsula’s reservoirs.
Commuting to Berkeley from SF on BART
The first time I rode an electric moped was on the day of my first interview at Scoot, and my 27th birthday. I had cold-emailed Scoot’s CTO and applied as a software engineer, and was enamored with their mission of getting people out of their cars and onto eco-friendly, fun, efficient electric mopeds. With the twist of a throttle, I could noiselessly cruise down the street, cutting through traffic with a smile on my face. No wonder I was beginning to see people all over the city using Scoots. I got the job and started working at their small garage office in the SOMA district of San Francisco.
Teaching my dad to ride an original Scoot e-moped
One of the perks at Scoot covered the fees of California’s Motorcycle Safety Training Course – I took it and got my M1 license and a 2005 650cc BMW motorcycle that I rode without incident for 4 years. The motorcycle opened up the Bay Area even more, and beyond, giving me ample opportunity to explore the coast along Highway 1 both north and south.
Packed up for a motorcycle adventure up Highway 1
While at Scoot, I helped with the process of testing and integrating the custom Scoot e-bike we launched in Barcelona, Spain. I lived in China for 1 month and Barcelona for 4 months, visiting factories such as Bafang (motors), Phylion (batteries), and Taioku (frame, assembly, testing), and testing the bikes on the streets of Barcelona while debugging firmware and IoT connectivity issues. The extensive bike lanes of Barcelona were a joy to use while exploring the city.
Debugging firmware on a Scoot e-bike in Barcelona
While working at Bird, I saw the power of electric kick scooters as approachable, easy-to-learn entry points for people from all walks of life into the world of light electric mobility. With the help of great hardware, software, operations and generous venture backing, Bird had spread its wings all over the world, giving millions of people a taste for these fast, fun, friendly vehicles.
Riding Bird e-scooters in Lisbon, Portugal
At Burning Man 2019, I helped take on the responsibility of restoring, maintaining, and cataloguing my camp’s fleet of bikes as they succumbed to flat tires, corrosive alkaline playa dust, and general wear and tear. Pedal bikes, and increasingly e-bikes, remain the preferred mode of desert transportation at Burning Man.
Wrenching on a dusty pedal bike at Burning Man
I sold my motorcycle in late 2019 and got a 150cc Vespa. Much lighter, nimbler, more comfortable, and more practical for short city trips, the Vespa was the perfect vehicle for visiting friends, grocery shopping, or going to the park for a run.
My trusty vespa in San Francisco
I sold the Vespa when I moved to Santa Monica and got a trusty Trek commuter bike from Helen’s, a local bike shop, and that remains my choice pedal bike to this day.
Getting groceries on my Trek commuter in Santa Monica
Now that I’m working on Ridepanda, I am further immersing myself in the world of e-bikes, e-scooters, and e-mopeds. I currently ride an Espin Nero and enjoy its huge tires and step-thru frame for a comfy ride over almost any terrain. I ride it into San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge from Mill Valley in 40 minutes without breaking a sweat. I still find some time to rescue and restore old pedal bikes at Ridepanda’s shop.
Wrenching on an abandoned pedal bike at the Ridepanda shop
I love two-wheelers and am grateful for all the fun, exercise and utility they’ve given me over the past several decades. I am also excited by the power and potential that electric two-wheelers have to replace car trips, especially in the US where 60% of car trips are less than 6 miles – they are more space efficient, more environmentally friendly, and more fun. If you haven’t tried an e-scooter, e-moped or e-bike yet, I highly recommend taking one for a spin. You might just fall in love!