A few years ago, all Tom Bramble wanted was to solve his very Vancouver commuting problem.
Cycling to his downtown office made the most sense, but the odds of his bike still being where he locked it at the end of the work day were not good.
"I was worried about buying a bicycle and it being stolen after being chained to a lamppost or parts going missing," he said. "So I started exploring options and came across electric unicycles."
Electric unicycles — EUCs for short — are compact, battery-rechargeable, single-wheel devices small enough to carry and keep at a desk. Unlike an e-scooter or e-bike, there are no handlebars. The rider stands astride the wheel on flip-out foot rests and makes it go and steers by subtly shifting their body weight, similar to a Segway.
"It seemed like such an elegant solution to my problem," said Bramble. "It's a briefcase that can take you hundreds of kilometres for just a few cents. And it's super fun."
Tony Davies was also an early EUC adopter, although, at age 73, he is not typical of riders who tend to skew younger. The retired taxi company dispatch manager bought his first "wheel" six years ago and has upgraded a few times since. He says riding feels like freedom.
"I absolutely love it," said Davies. "I just stand on it. I don't have to pedal. It's got one wheel. So if I go to a shop or a restaurant, I just take it in with me."
Whistler road trip not recommended
Last fall, Davies took his new EUC on a test drive up the Sea to Sky Highway, covering the 110-kilometre distance from Horseshoe Bay to Whistler on a single charge. Even though he made it uninjured, it's not an adventure he would recommend to others.
"About halfway up, I thought, this is really dumb," he laughed. "The scary part was the cars; they just get so close to you. And then you go over the corrugated part that warns drivers about the bike lane, but [the bumps] extend into the bike lane... so that wasn't too cool."
EUCs are not street legal but are allowed on Vancouver bikeways under a provincial pilot program looking at opening up the rules for e-scooters and other micro-mobility devices.
Bramble ended up turning his eureka moment all those years ago into a side hustle, launching online store Vancouver Electric Unicycles in 2016.
In year one, he sold only 15 units. Now, with growing awareness around decarbonization and e-mobility, he's moving "several hundred" EUCs annually.
'My friends were laughing at me'
"When I started selling them, mostly my friends were laughing at me," he said. "But I think [EUCs] are starting to turn the corner. And especially with COVID, people started looking for alternate forms of transport. They want something greener."
Prices range from about $600 to several thousand dollars, and full safety gear is advised. The battery range runs between 50 and 150 kilometres per charge, depending on the model. Some high-end units are capable of going over 60 kilometres per hour.
Of course, riding that fast is not advised. Davies says he rarely goes more than 20 kilometres per hour and always wears protective gear, including a helmet and rear view mirror strapped to his wrist.
Like every micro-mobility device, there is a learning curve to mastering an electric unicycle and newcomers should be prepared to practice before venturing onto city streets.
"I would say most people can learn to ride within two hours, at most half a day. It feels precarious at first, but it gets easier," said Bramble. "Once you get used to it, walking feels incredibly slow."