Scooters rev up in popularity

Vespa owner Isabelle Goetz in Washington, D.C. August 17, 2007. All over America, riding a scooter is suddenly chic, not to mention economical. Scooter sales are skyrocketing, with women making up nearly half of the buyers. (Chuck Kennedy/MCT)
Vespa owner Isabelle Goetz in Washington, D.C. August 17, 2007. All over America, riding a scooter is suddenly chic, not to mention economical. Scooter sales are skyrocketing, with women making up nearly half of the buyers. (Chuck Kennedy/MCT) Chuck Kennedy/MCT

WASHINGTON — When Isabelle Goetz was getting married last November, the Washington hair stylist decided on a unique gift registry — a Vespa.

“When you get married you look for the really necessary gifts,” said Goetz, who wasn’t interested in kitchen gadgets. “My husband and I really liked two wheels, and it was something I use every day.”

The midnight blue Vespa LX 150 with a chrome package was eagerly purchased by family and friends this spring, and now Goetz commutes by scooter between downtown and her Arlington, Va., home in 10 minutes — “seven when there’s no traffic.”

All over America, riding a scooter is suddenly chic, not to mention economical. Scooter sales are skyrocketing, say manufacturers, with women making up nearly half of the buyers in many cities. Every time gas prices rise, say dealers, the phones start ringing. While the concentration of riders is mostly urban, in cities such as Miami, Seattle and New York, there are emerging pockets of new scooteristas in such unlikely spots as Texas and the Carolinas.

In the last 10 years, scooter sales have increased tenfold, from 12,000 in 1997 to about 120,000 in 2006, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council, the two-wheel industry trade association.

In 2007, sales continued to grow as drivers turned to the cycles, which can get as much as 100 mpg. Honda, Yamaha and Vespa — which re-entered the United States in 2000 after a hiatus — are among the largest manufacturers, and importers carry lesser-known foreign brands. Prices range from $1,800 for the 50cc scooters to as much as $8,000 for larger models.

The retro styling, automatic transmission and step-through design of the scooter appeal to women, who can drive them wearing skirts and heels.

Audrey Hepburn created an iconic image for the Italian-made Vespa in "Roman Holiday," and female riders today say that being on the scooter inevitably makes a fashion statement.

Goetz, 36, who also rides on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle on the highway, said she finds that it's the scooter that turns heads.

“It’s a more feminine ride, and people seem to appreciate it,” said Goetz, who is the stylist for Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y. Almost daily, passers-by will give her the thumbs-up sign.

In Miami, law student Emily Goodman was looking for a vehicle she could park easily after moving from Boston.

“It looks like scooters are more integrated into the culture here,” she said. After only a week on her blue Yamaha Vino, 49cc, Goodman loves her one-mile commute.

“It’s so cute. I’m definitely getting some interesting looks,” she said. “I feel like I’m powerful and in control.”

Fort Worth, Texas, city planning assistant Kandice Martin, 30, didn’t make the switch from car to scooter for her image, but it has definitely changed her life.

“I get quite a reaction,” said Martin, who got a Honda Helix 250cc this spring and sold her car a month later. Burly men on Harleys stop alongside and chuckle, “Wanna race?”

This summer’s rains haven’t deterred her, either; she just puts on a slicker.

Martin now pays $28 a month for gasoline, down from $180 a month for her Ford Mustang. But for her, the change was deeper.

“I could smell the honeysuckle. I could smell the trees. I could hear the birds. It brought on a whole new philosophy of life,” she said.

Brenda Gaskill, a Fort Worth paralegal who is in her 50s, said, “I just wanted something fun.” While her officemates made fun of her, she said, they all wanted to be taken for a ride. And she, too, found that the scooter was more than transportation.

“It changed my attitude about life,” she said. “You kind of slow down. You take your time. You take the long way to work.”

Charlotte, N.C., management consultant Amy Burns has upgraded twice since buying a small Chinese scooter. On her latest Vespa 250cc model, people wave, give her the thumbs-up sign and stop to talk at stoplights.

“I get asked about it every day,” she said. But the appeal isn't just the mileage. “I love the wind in my face,” said Burns.

North Carolina and South Carolina are among a few states that have a darker side to scootering: Motorists who lose their licenses for driving under the influence can drive the under-50cc bikes license-free. “Liquor-cycles," as they're known, aren't regulated and don't require any license, insurance or helmet.

And DUI drivers seem to know it. “That’s a large part of the 50cc market,” said Charlotte, N.C., Honda general manager Steve Negra, who doesn’t market the law. “It’s a fact of life.”

Many states require a “motorcycle endorsement” on a driver’s license, meaning a scooter buyer must take a course and a test. A road test is required for the larger bikes.

Still, business continues to grow.

“It’s a fun way to commute,” said Steve Calvo, manager of Vespa Seattle. In the environment-conscious Northwest, he added, “it’s a green thing to do,” with families turning to scooters as their second vehicle. On the ferries that cross Puget Sound, there’s another advantage — no waiting. Scooters get off first.

In New York City, Liza Miller, 26, bought her first scooter after 9/11 when she was a student. She now sells Vespas at Soho Vespa in Manhattan.

“It opens up the city to you,” said Miller. “I didn’t have to be dependent on New York City public transportation.”

And she definitely sees the fashion connection.

“Everyone looks good on them,” she said.

Many riders are so close to their scooters that they name them _ Miller’s is “Simon,” Gaskill calls hers “Big Red,” Goodman’s is “Little Blue,” and Martin’s is “Akira.”

Key West, with its compact 4-mile-by-7-mile island grid, is something of a scooter paradise. Victor Mills, the owner of Honda of Key West, at 56 seems to be the grand old man of scootering.

“Everybody here uses a scooter, old, young,” said Mills. “There’s no other place like here.”

Except, of course, it looks like other parts of the country are beginning to catch up.