Apr 10, 2024 - News

Why D.C. is suddenly mobbed with mopeds

Illustration of a scooter with a delivery box on the back made from a $100 bill.

Illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios

Suddenly, mopeds are everywhere — and if you follow D.C. social media, everywhere they're not supposed to be, zipping along bike lanes and through traffic stops.

Why it matters: In the city's evolving streetscape, where drivers and cyclists battle for road room alongside scooters and e-bikes, mopeds are the latest contenders. They're a lifeline of inexpensive transport for some and a street scourge to others.

By the numbers: Moped registrations have jumped nearly 165% in the last two years, according to the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles, which clocked 143 registrations last year, way up from 54 in 2022.

  • So far, drivers have registered 78 mopeds in 2024.

Between the lines: Part of why mopeds are popular, especially for couriers and food delivery workers, is they hit a sweet street spot: they're faster than e-bikes but not as expensive or regulated as motorcycles.

  • Mopeds are limited to 30 miles per hour in D.C. Any bike that goes over is categorized as a motorcycle and requires a special license (mopeds require a standard driver's license).
  • They're allowed to park on sidewalks as long as they're not blocking pathways or tied to trees. However, they're not allowed to travel on sidewalks or bike lanes.
An X post of mopeds lined up on a sidewalk
Courtesy Steve Davis

The big picture: Mopeds are a hot topic in New York City, linked to the city's new immigrant influx, undocumented workforce, and a rash of deadly battery fires, largely from e-bikes and scooters. All those problems echo in D.C. given our own migrant crisis and boom of battery-operated vehicles that have also caused fires.

  • NYC's 65,000-strong food delivery workforce has been bolstered by undocumented immigrants, according to the New York Times, thanks in part to easy access to unregistered mopeds and lax verification processes by food delivery companies.

Yes, but: The NYPD recently cracked down on illegal vehicles, seizing some 7,000 unregistered mopeds this year, including clusters outside of shelters.

Reality check: Crashes and fatalities involving mopeds in D.C. are a tiny fraction compared with those linked to cars. According to the D.C. government's Crash Details data, mopeds and scooters comprise just 0.19% of overall incidents, whereas cars cover nearly 58%.

Zoom out: The D.C. DMV tells Axios it doesn't track unregistered mopeds, but that "law enforcement can stop any vehicle and/or driver if they are operating illegally."

  • Police spokespersons tell Axios that new D.C. police chief Pamela Smith pledged to hold at least two "high-visibility Traffic Safety Compliance Checkpoints" per month in her first year after road safety concerns.
  • Among all kinds of vehicles, officers so far have written 2,600 tickets and made 84 arrests.

Flashback: Starting in 2019, D.C. dabbled in shared mopeds as part of its equitable transport pilot program. Startups like Revel and Lime released hundreds of Vespa-like vehicles across all eight wards that licensed drivers could rent starting at just a few bucks.

  • Both pulled out of the city by 2022, citing shifts in business priorities.
  • Revel says it closed its NYC mopeds program last year due to competition from e-bikes and personal scooters, and to focus on the electric ride-share car side of its business.

What we're watching: More moped vendors are emerging in D.C.

  • Fly-E-Bike, a New York startup with over 40 locations worldwide recently expanded to Petworth.
  • It explicitly advertises that it targets a "niche market of food delivery workers who need to get around the city without any delays."

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to show Revel says it ended its moped program in New York due to competition and a shift in business models (not due to safety concerns).

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