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Scooters

Electrify your commute

The bus, train and shuttle only take you from point A to point B. Could a portable electric vehicle get you the rest of the way there?

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You've probably seen them whiz by on crowded city streets. Electric scooters, motorized skateboards and hoverboards are becoming legitimate forms of urban transportation -- and it's not just kids who ride them. There's a whole wave of new vehicles strong enough to support the weight of an adult, yet fold up small enough to carry onto public transportation or in the back of a Miata.

I spend three and a half hours getting to and from work every day. Each way, it's a 20-minute drive to the train station in San Jose, an hour on Caltrain to San Francisco and a 25-minute walk to the office. I can't complain: I love my job, and there's plenty to do on the train. But I quickly realized that the time I spent walking could be better spent with my family.

And after four months of testing a wide variety of ways to get around, I found two great electric commute vehicles to cut that time down.

No, a hoverboard didn't make the cut, but not for lack of trying. I rode one of the two-wheeled, self-balancing scooters to and from work several times. The problem wasn't staying balanced -- riding a hoverboard is easier than you might think -- but all the bumps, potholes and crazy drivers I encountered on the streets of San Francisco.

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Save yourself a few steps with electric transportation.

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What didn't work

Hoverboards are meant for fairly smooth terrain, as each little bump can throw off your balance. They're also difficult to stop in an emergency, and I can attest that it's easy to twist an ankle if you quickly jump off. Plus, riding a hoverboard wasn't much faster (15 minutes for me) than simply walking to work.

Electric skateboards have no problem with speed. The $1,500+ Boosted Dual+, a sleek longboard with orange wheels, travels at up to 22 miles per hour and can climb hills with a 25 percent grade. That's beyond my budget, but even when I tried the $700 Yuneec E-Go board, whose belt-driven wheels top out at 12.5 mph, I constantly felt like I was about to crash and die. Turns out that even though these electric skateboards have handheld remote controls to manage your speed, you still need to be pretty good at balancing on a skateboard to stay upright. I'm not.

I have plenty of experience riding bikes, though. So why not a folding electric bicycle? Watching my fellow Caltrain riders struggle to lift their bikes onto the train was enough to put me off. Folding electric bikes might fit into the trunk of a car, but I wouldn't dream of taking something so heavy and cumbersome on the bus -- and they're expensive, too, with many costing upwards of $2,000.

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What did work

There's one type of personal mobility device that suits last-mile commutes perfectly: the folding electric scooter. For around $1,000, you can hop on a collapsible electric vehicle that makes even an adult Razor scooter look like a kiddie toy. Like electric skateboards, the powered scooters go up to 20 mph, but also travel a distance of up to 20 miles on a charge. (Most electric skateboards and hoverboards don't have that range.) And most importantly, the scooters have a nice big handle so you don't slide off.

What to look for in a folding electric scooter. The Uscooter (pictured) has more of these features than most.

Not all electric scooters are equal, of course. EcoReco, one of the best-known brands, makes models built like a tank, with fold-out handlebars broad enough to make steering a cinch. But even the company's smallest, lightest $1,100+ EcoReco S5 model -- at over 28 pounds -- was too heavy and bulky for me to easily hoist to the overhead luggage racks on Caltrain or hold upright on a crowded bus. And when I was riding, its rear brake would often make the scooter skid instead of quickly bringing it to a stop.

Compared with the EcoReco, the $1,000 Emicro One is a revelation. It doesn't look like an electric scooter at all -- no power button, brake or throttle levers, just handlebars, wheels and deck. That's because it's an electric kick scooter whose motor automatically comes to life when you kick off with your foot. It extends your stride, going faster and faster each time you push -- which means you'll still be getting some exercise, particularly kicking uphill.

The Emicro is smaller and far lighter than any other electric scooter at just 16.5 pounds, and you can keep on kicking with minimal friction even after the battery runs out. Sadly, there's no springy suspension to help cope with San Francisco's gritty streets. I'd definitely recommend it if you don't mind a sidewalk-only affair.

Thankfully, there's another scooter that handles streets just fine, and works even better. The $1,000 Uscooter (aka e-Twow) is hands-down the most convenient vehicle I've found for navigating city streets. It has one of the softest suspensions, has the most traction going uphill and is by far the easiest to fold down. Even when I carry a heavy backpack, I can get through a work week (roughly 10 miles of riding, partly uphill) without plugging into a charger.

The Uscooter's the only one I've tried that's clearly designed for commuting, too, with a beeper and built-in LED headlights and taillights so cars can see me at night. It has cruise control, and its front electric brake stops me more quickly and safely than EcoReco-like designs. Sure, it's a little jerky, front-heavy and doesn't look particularly stylish. But I don't care about that when I'm leaving bicycles in the dust.

Now, I spend 20 minutes a day getting to and from the train instead of 50. That's a win in my book.

This story appears in the summer 2016 edition of CNET Magazine. For other mag stories, click here.