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Electrifying the commute : Motorized bikes and boards are increasingly popular as a mode of transportation as prices for diverse devices fall

June 12,2017
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A rider of a motorized scooter gets ready for a ride along the Han River. [JANG SEOK-JUN]
Walking, driving or even cycling to work may soon become a thing of the past now that more people are hopping on motorized scooters or two-wheel hoverboards.

Kim Dong-ho, a 34-year-old company worker commutes on a electric kickboard to get to his office in about 20 minutes. It is too short a distance to drive, he thought, so he bought a kickboard.

“I don’t need to worry about traffic jams or parking as I can just fold it up and take it into my home or office, so it’s very convenient,” he said. “It also comes in handy when you need to quickly go to the grocery store.”

More people are choosing single-person electric vehicles as their main mode of transportation. The global market for so-called personal mobility devices has grown, with annual sales exceeding 50 billion won ($44.5 million). According to social commerce company WeMakePrice, sales of electric unicycles skyrocketed 98 percent in May, year-on-year. The hike in sales is much bigger when it comes to motorized scooters and boards (both hoverboards and kickboards included), as the company saw a 163 percent increase in the sales of scooters and a 471 percent jump in the sales of motorized boards.

As more people like Kim purchase electric vehicles, prices are rapidly falling. These vehicles now cost around 1 million won, a sharp drop from the 10 million won or so customers paid for a Segway, the two-wheeled electric vehicle, about 16 years ago. Since then, more brands have entered the market, offering diverse options for consumers. Some hoverboards are even available for 300,000 won.

“Only companies have bought products like these before, but as they are getting cheaper, even individuals, especially the ones who live alone chooses to use it in their everyday life,” said Park Hyeong-woo of Inmotion Korea, one of the companies that manufacture personal mobility devices.

Another charm these personal vehicles have is that users can charge them at home, just like a mobile phone. It doesn’t come with a high electricity bill either, as one kilowatt of electricity can charge smaller motorized devices to run about 100 kilometers (62 miles), and the use of one of kilowatt of electricity costs just 100 won. As the devices have gotten easier to use and cheaper, more people have started riding. Heo Gyeong-gu, a 42-year-old company employee, rides a motorized unicycle to relieve stress.

“When the wind hits your body as you ride, it is a more thrilling experience than riding a bicycle,” said Heo.

For people just like Heo, who want to use motorized rides for fun, tourism hotspots like Jeonju Hanok Village in North Jeolla have them available to rent. The machines are easy to maneuver so even a first-timer can easily learn how to ride it and look around the historic places without worrying about their legs getting tired from walking. On these machines, users just need to stand still and find a balance.

Depending on whether the vehicles are used to commute or for leisure, users should consider which type is best.

“For leisure purposes, it is better to buy [an electric unicycle] as it is small and light for one to carry around,” said Han Chang-hee of iWheel, a company that makes these vehicles.

“For those looking for a personal vehicle to use on their commute, they should buy a kickboard or even a scooter, which will be more comfortable for longer rides.”

However, there are limitations. There always will be a limit on for how long the machines can go, and they need to be fully charged so that they don’t stop in the middle of the road. A full charge allows vehicles to travel as far as 45 kilometers.

“I bought an electric unicycle to go to school, and once I forgot to check the possible distance it can go, and it turned off on my way to school,” said Kim Jin-han, a college student.

Although the machines are becoming popular, there are not many legal measures for riders. The vehicles now are considered an automobile in Korea, so riders must have a valid drivers’ license to operate them. Additionally, it is illegal for these vehicles to be driven in bicycle lanes or on sidewalks.

It is necessary to have institutional measures modified as there are more transportation options available to make individuals’ life more convenient, said Park Seong-hee, a researcher for the Korea Trend Research Institute. “It is natural to see the development of personal mobility items as people live in a city where both their home and work are [closely] located.”

Below are some of the available options in the market with a brief explanation of the pros and cons.



Electric kickboard

It is an electric version of a kickboard, which is a popular ride among youngsters. Riders usually get atop the non-motorized one with one foot on a board and the other on land to kick, but riders of the electric ones can simply put both of their feet on the board.

It is easy to ride even in a narrow road, as the board is long to the direction going forward. Most of these machines have a folding handle so that riders can just fold their machine and carry it. This type of machines usually can operate for distances up to 60 kilometers, once fully charged.

Riders don’t need to worry too much about charging as long as they are ready to do some leg work. They can just kick to go forward. However, the machine has small wheels so riders may feel the road much on a bumpy street.



Electric unicycle

This looks almost like a unicycle. Riders put their feet on a flat board attached to both sides of a wheel, and then find balance as they go. When they lean forward, it speeds up. If they twist their body to the left or right, it changes direction. The wheel usually reaches an adult’s knee and it is small and light. There is a handle so that riders can easily carry their wheel while walking. However, if you don’t do well with finding balance, riding one isn’t easy. It takes about a week for the average adult to get used to riding it.



Hoverboard with a handle

The hoverboard with a handle is easier to maneuver than one without a handle, as changing directions is done with a handle than twisting the body to signal a direction change.

The wheels for this type usually are bigger so that riders don’t feel the road as much even when riding on a road with a rough surface. They also can ride over small barriers like stones and rocks without much of a struggle. However, this vehicle can be too big to carry around when you want to get off and use other public transportation. It can travel up to 35 kilometers, a shorter distance than others available on the market.



Hoverboard

Hoverboards without a handle come with an option of a seat for those who get tired from standing still during a ride. Since there is no handle, riders can use their hands freely.

The device is long and flat so it is easy to store in a car trunk. However, the flat board may give riders a hard time on a bumpy road, and they need to be careful not to fall. It goes at a steady pace but the general speed can be not as fast as others.



Electric scooter

Since the electric scooter seems almost like an ordinary scooter with a handle and a seat, it is relatively suitable for a longer ride. Hence, many prefer this type for commuting. There is a brake button that can stop the machine immediately, different from other machines that require riders to move forward and backward to stop. Usually this is big so it takes up a lot of space in storage when it is not in use. Also, most of these aren’t folded. In case you want to make it fit in your car or in a tighter space, you have to detach the wheels and handle, which can be difficult.


BY RA YE-JIN [summerlee@joongang.co.kr]