A Fells Point businessman wants to start the electric revolution
Ray Carrier is a soft-spoken man with a vast experience in negotiating difficult bureaucracies. French-Canadian by birth, he moved to the United States in 1980. He spent the intervening years mostly overseas, as a human resources consultant, election monitor, and human rights observer in Africa and the Caribbean. Last year, after finishing a contract in Liberia, he decided to look for a job with a little more stability, and an idea for the future hit him. Actually, it just missed him.
"I was in China, visiting my wife's family," he says. "And I nearly got run over. It really woke me up to these things being everywhere."
The vehicle that surprised him was small, and almost completely silent--an electric scooter. In China, where gasoline scooters have been banned in some major cities, the scooters have become a popular way of providing cheap worker transportation without the pollution. It's an idea Carrier is hoping will take hold here, and last week he opened the doors of his electric scooter shop, Green Rider, on Broadway in Fells Point.
It wasn't a smooth journey from idea to reality. The Chinese companies have a huge market for their scooters in their own country, and Carrier found that they weren't all that interested in exporting to the small American market. Carrier spent some time looking at different factories, and found it tough going.
"I went to one of the places," he says, "and it turned out not to be a factory at all--it was just a front operation."
He turned to a Bulgarian-born engineer in Vancouver, Steve Miloshev, whose Greenwit Technologies has met with some success in Canada with its Motorino electric scooters. The Motorinos are designed and developed in Canada, but the motors are built in Taiwan and then assembled in China.
Chinese scooters have a poor reputation among scooterists compared to more established Japanese and Italian brands, but Carrier believes Miloshev has solved some of the problems with the Motorino line by keeping pressure on the Chinese factories to meet schedules and standards, and by importing enough parts to make repairs as necessary.
Carrier's first shipment--a container-load of around 48 bikes--arrived about two weeks ago, and he and mechanic Rob Green were still removing the plastic wrap from the bikes on the narrow showroom floor and watching the door for customers as Fells Point geared up around them for St. Patrick's day.
Motorino scooters are classified as low-speed vehicles--similar to mopeds under the law--and no special license is required to drive them. They are limited to a top speed of 20 miles per hour, and manufacturers say they should get 30 miles between charges, with space in some models for an additional battery to extend the range. They sell for around $2,000, depending on the model, and Carrier is trying to set up financing for customers (another hurdle, as he hasn't been able to find a company that deals with loans low enough for the price of his vehicle). He hopes to rent the scooters at the Fells Point shop as well. Carrier's Vancouver supplier has started producing electric bicycles, which he plans to add to the showroom, and a larger, faster, electric motorcycle is on the horizon.
Last year, after searching unsuccessfully for a conventional business loan, Carrier found a backer in Baltimore's Abell Foundation. Abell president Robert Embry took a trip to see the scooters himself, and agreed to help Carrier with his first shipment of imports.
"Shifting to all-electric has great environmental and national security implications," Embry says. "There really isn't an electric car that has any wide appeal, nor does there appear to be one on the near horizon. So this appeared to be a good step, and it's very inexpensive--it enables low-income people to get to jobs who couldn't afford a car. It seemed worthwhile to see if it met with popular acceptance."
Jason Sullivan, who heads Fells Point Main Street, a business organization serving the Fells Point neighborhood, says it's been a tough time for the area--a combination of the post-holiday season and the broader economic downturn have had an impact on businesses--but he points to Green Rider and other businesses opening their doors, and a planned Marketplace development at the foot of Broadway, as signs of hope for the future.
"It has been a tough couple of months--you've probably heard about some places closing," Sullivan says, "but we've been around a long time. Fells Point's going to weather the storm."
Carrier also has support from the local environmentalist community, in the person of his long-time friend Kevin Zeese, the activist and occasional Green Party political candidate who's currently heading up the non-profit Campaign for Fresh Air and Clean Politics. In response to an e-mail about Green Rider and Carrier, Zeese sends back a mini-essay.
"Green Rider has the potential to be the beginning of transforming transportation in urban areas and beyond," Zeese writes. "The bikes are affordable for many more people than the $20,000 and up cars that are available. They are clean and they are quiet. . . . It could be the first step toward the new, clean, affordable transit that is so desperately needed."
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