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Scooter-share startup Revel faces questions after first death in NYC

Revel, the scooter-sharing startup whose electric moped was involved in a fatal accident in New York City last weekend, suspended its optional safety classes for new users even as the company expanded its service amid the spreading coronavirus.

In late March, Revel began offering short-term moped rentals in Manhattan, adding to its growing business in the New York City boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens that it started in 2018. The company told the New York Post earlier this month that local riders took nearly 9,000 trips per day in the second half of May — roughly double the number of rides in the first two weeks of March before the city went into lockdown due to the pandemic. 

The company in June also said it was increasing its fleet of mopeds in Washington, D.C., by 50% to 600, with CEO Frank Reig noting in a news release about the expansion that Revel was "seeing demand from every corner" of the capital city.

During the pandemic, Revel has touted its mopeds that can reach speeds of 30 mph as a "socially distant" alternative to public transportation. It offered free memberships and reduced rates to health care workers. 

To comply with social distancing guidelines, Revel in March suspended the safety classes it had offered as a customer option, but continued outreach to new customers in the following months. Critics say that combination — not offering training classes at the same time it was expanding its market — was a recipe for disaster. 

The July 18 accident reportedly involving a Revel moped, which if confirmed would be its first fatal incident, the company said, killed CBS News New York reporter Nina Kapur, who was riding as a passenger. Revel declined to provide further details about the crash, which remains under investigation. It also declined to discuss the driving experience of the driver of the moped. Police said neither Kapur nor the driver, who sustained minor injuries, was wearing helmets, the Wall Street Journal reported.

CBS New York remembers reporter Nina Kapur 03:04

A company spokesperson said Revel "extends deepest sympathies to Nina Kapur's family and loved ones for their loss." 

In early July, prior to Kapur's accident, Revel sent an email to customers in New York reminding them to wear helmets and follow traffic rules. Revel said in the email it recently had to suspend more than 1,000 accounts for bad behavior. The New York Police Department told CBS New York that as of July 5, there had been 25 accidents involving Revel mopeds throughout the city so far this year.

"People do not understand that these are not bicycles," said Brooklyn personal injury attorney Daniel Flanzig, who has brought four lawsuits against Revel on behalf of clients he said were hurt in accidents involving the company's mopeds. "They do not operate the way you would expect. Irresponsible operators are a problem, but the big issue for Revel is whether they are giving their customers adequate access to training. What they are offering doesn't seem to be effective enough."

Easy riding

Revel declined to comment about the lawsuits brought against the company. It was founded just over two years ago and has expanded rapidly from nearly 70 mopeds in Brooklyn when it launched in the summer of 2018 to thousands of scooters in five cities today. The company remains in growth mode — its website promises that service will soon be available in San Francisco. 

Revel has raised $32 million from investors, according to startup-tracking website Crunchbase. One of its biggest backers is Ibex Investors, a Denver-based investment firm headed by former Bear Stearns banker Justin Borus. The company also has gotten money from a venture capital arm of Japanese car giant Toyota. 

According to data from the U.S. Small Business Administration, Revel also received as much as $2 million on April 28 from the Paycheck Protection Program, the government-backed coronavirus relief effort meant to help small businesses during the pandemic.

After customers pay an initial $5 processing fee, Revel charges them $1 to unlock one of its signature blue mopeds and 35 cents a minute to use them. Customers reserve the two-wheelers online, with rentals including two helmets. Only a valid driver's license is require to rent a scooter. 

CBS2 Examining Revel Scooter Safety In Wake Of Reporter Nina Kapur's Death by CBS New York on YouTube

Before the pandemic, the company regularly offered as an option for customers free, in-person, on-road training and safety lessons for three to four riders at a time. Revel said the 45-minute sessions are "designed to help riders get comfortable with the techniques needed to operate our mopeds and to promote responsible riding practices."

There is no requirement to take the lessons before hopping on one of the electric-motor bikes, which are much quieter than traditional mopeds or motorcycles. The company does send a three-minute YouTube instructional video to new users, which is also optional to watch. The video explains how to book a ride on the company's app and how to inspect the moped before you start your ride. It also gives such basics as how to start the moped and how to stop. 

The video tells riders the moped rental comes with two helmets inside a trunk in the moped and explains how to wear one, but it never says helmet use is required. At the end, the instructor on the video stresses to remember to check street signs before you park. "You are responsible for any parking tickets that occur after ending your ride," the instructor says.

Revel suspended its in-person safety classes on March 13 "in compliance with COVID-19 stay-at-home orders" at the time, according to the company spokesperson. The sessions are still suspended in Washington, but Revel restarted the optional lessons in June in New York, as well as in Austin, Texas, and Oakland, California, the two other cities where it is currently operating. Revel's Miami operation remains closed because of the pandemic. 

"If you want to go somewhere and you don't want to get on public transportation, you are going to think it is safer to rent a Revel whether you are able to attend a training session or not," said attorney Flanzig. "And that's probably not the case."

Next available lesson: August 21

The Revel spokesperson said it now requires masks during safety lessons and that instructors have been trained how to conduct lessons according to social distancing guidelines.

Those safety lessons still appear to be in short supply. As of July 21, Revel's website showed only three lesson dates remained available in New York in July. The next available lesson was not until August 21, according to the sign-up calendar on its website. The spokesperson said Revel has added "pop-up lessons" in New York to make them easier to attend and customers are welcome to reach out to Revel to request a lesson outside of the regular schedule.

On the rising demand for its services during the pandemic, the Revel spokesperson said: "Revel usage declined significantly as stay-at-home orders went into effect. Over the past few months, as the city began to reopen, we started seeing an increase in ridership as people sought socially distant, open-air methods of transportation."

The spokesperson said the company has "strict safety policies in place," in line with local regulations, and is "constantly iterating and adjusting our policies to address changing conditions."

New "E-Moped" Ride-Share Launched In Brooklyn
Revel co-founder Paul Suhey walks one of the rideshare startup's electric scooters from a lot at the company's Brooklyn, New York, headquarters on July 31, 2018.  Spencer Platt / Getty Images

In June, New York University professor Sarah Kaufman, a specialist in transportation and urban planning, released a company-sponsored study that found Revel's mopeds has been in relatively few accidents — just 155 out of nearly 900,000 rides in the second half of 2019. The data were based on claims that Revel had made to its insurance company.

Nonetheless, Kaufman's study recommended that Revel make its instructional video required viewing and "should consider having new users, unless they have motorcycle experience, be required to take lessons to reduce incidents and injuries."

Another recommendation would make it so the scooters would not function if the rider was not wearing a helmet: "Ensure that riders are wearing the required helmets. A technological solution, such as installing in-helmet sensors, can be used to validate the start of the trip."

What's more, the public transportation data used for the study did not include accidents between mopeds and bicycles, which attorney Flanzig said is the case in many of the incidents he is contacted about.

In Brooklyn alone, plaintiffs have filed at least nine lawsuits against the company for injuries allegedly suffered in crashes involving the mopeds. Flanzig, who is an expert in bicycle crash litigation, said he gets calls nearly every day from individuals claiming they were hurt while riding one of the company's mopeds or hit by someone on one of its vehicles. 

Last year, Revell co-founder Reig told a Washington radio station that not all riders needed a full training session to conquer the scooter. Some Revel customers leave lessons after as little as five minutes, he said, "because they get it really quickly."

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