Friday, May 12, 2006

High Gas Prices Lead to U.S. Scooter Boom

NEW YORK - With gas prices above $3 a gallon, software engineer Daniel Fry has been commuting to work over the Brooklyn Bridge in a car pool of sorts. It's actually more like a convoy — of motor scooters.

"It's fun to ride in a group," said Fry, 28, who joins a group of riders for coffee early Friday mornings before commuting into Manhattan via scooter. "In a big mass of scooters people look out for you more."

Fry is part of a growing community of scooter enthusiasts in New York and across the country who are taking to the streets in record numbers with gas prices so high. Fry fills up the 1.5-gallon gas tank of his scooter for under $5.

"The funniest thing is pulling into a gas station behind an SUV and seeing them pay 75 bucks," he says.

Scooter riders are also mobilizing in ways never seen before. Riders are joining clubs, setting up Internet message boards, and even lobbying city governments for more friendly laws.

One club, the New York Scooter Club, meets Wednesday evenings at a bar in Manhattan. They discuss mechanics, the relative merits of classic metal-framed scooters vs. the newer synthetic models, and the simple joys of scooter travel.

After the gathering, the members mount up for an 8 p.m. ride around town. On weekends, they organize day trips out of the city on scooters, first popularized in the 1960s and '70s by movies like Federico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita," and The Who's "Quadrophenia."

A scooter boom has been under way over the last few years as the vehicles came back into fashion. Retail sales in the U.S. have shot up from 12,000 scooters in 1997 to 113,000 in 2005, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council, a promotional trade organization. But this spring, the boom has turned into a bonanza, with more and more people realizing that scooters can get up to 100 miles per gallon and can weave around traffic jams.

"The phone has been ringing and recently the calls begin with talk about gas prices," says Aaron Peterson, manager of Vespa Soho, a Manhattan dealer of the most classic Italian scooter.

Sales at the Chicago-based Genuine Scooter Company, one of the country's larger scooter dealers, which owns the popular Stella brand, have been doubling annually for the last three years, with even faster growth projected for this year, according to owner Philip McCaleb. The Stella gets about 90 miles per gallon.

"We are trying to combine fun and fuel economy and three-dollar gas is helping," McCaleb said.

Dealers say high gas prices have attracted a whole different crowd from the usual fashionable set, who buy classic Italian models.

"I'm seeing a lot of people from blue-collar businesses, who are paying $100 to fill up their vans," said Nick Mendizabal, owner of Brooklynbretta, a scooter dealership. "A lot of people who thought scooters were not so masculine are now asking, 'How fast do they go?' and `What's the mileage?'"

Some of the scooter clubs aren't as practical. The Jedi Knights, a scooter club for Star Wars fans founded in Ann Arbor, Mich., has spread to more than a half-dozen cities. In New York, the club recently built a speeder-bike modeled after the vehicle featured in "Return of the Jedi."

"The Jedi Knights are about taking ourselves lightly," explains member Gregory Heller. "We are into 'Star Wars' and into scooters and that's a pretty high level of dorkiness."

On a more serious level, Heller helped organize a charity for fellow scooter riders suffering after Hurricane Katrina. He is also active lobbying the New York City government for designated parking for scooters and motorcycles, which frequently get knocked over when competing with cars for legal parking.

Heller says he got into scooters after traveling in Greece a few years ago. When he got back he thought it would be a romantic and efficient way to get around New York.

"It was go anywhere, park anywhere, wind in your hair," he says.

For others, the scooter is a cheap transportation solution. But most riders agree on the chief appeal.

"At the end of the day, it's just fun riding a scooter around a city," said Jonathan Faulhaber, who attends the New York Scooter Club meetings.

Associated Press


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