Here's some trivia for you: The mayor of San Diego's wife rides a motor scooter. Perhaps Paolo Timoni, CEO of scooter manufacturer Piaggio USA, would have appreciated that factoid when he put together an ad that ran Feb. 22 in The New York Times.
The ad, in the form of a full-page letter from Timoni, was addressed “to all U.S. mayors concerned with America's oil consumption.” The letter posits scooters as a tool to combat the country's “addiction to oil.” People in Europe and Asia love their scooters, Piaggio points out, whereas here, we can't let go of our cars. Today's “eco-friendly motor scooters,” he wrote, are far more fuel-efficient and emit 90 percent less carbon monoxide and 80 percent less carbon dioxide than automobiles.
Who would guess a vehicle whose heyday was linked to an Audrey Hepburn film followed by a counter-culture music/fashion movement would years later get a boost from a phrase thrown out by a Republican president?
Indeed, as gas prices have gone up, so, too, have scooter sales. According to the Motorcycle Industry Council, last year 113,000 motor scooters were sold in the U.S. compared to 42,000 in 2000. In San Diego-touted by many as ideal for scooting due to weather-scooter sales jumped 300 percent between 2000 and 2005, said MIC spokesperson Jen Dreis. The average scooter buyer is about 46 years old and makes roughly $50,000 a year, according to MIC numbers.
Next to U.S. auto sales, however, scooter sales here remain rather insignificant. In Taiwan, there are two people for every one motor scooter-granted the entire country is only 14,000 square miles, slightly larger than the state of Maryland-and the scooter's popularity in Europe is driven by both the high cost of gas (roughly $7 per gallon) and dense urban areas. In 2004, when U.S. scooter sales approached 100,000, by comparison, Ford that year sold roughly 130,000 Mustangs alone.
Still, don't be surprised if you start to see more and more scooters on the road. These days, Jyson McLean, manager of Vespa's Hillcrest shop-the brand-name scooter reintroduced by Piaggio five years ago-can barely keep scooters in stock. This past week he sold nine and on Saturday afternoon he had to drive up to Orange County to bring down more bikes. Over at Motorsport Scooters in North Park, owner Alex Cohn said his store sold 10 scooters last week-in a normal week he might see two scooters out the door. “They're selling themselves,” he said.
Motor scooters can get roughly 80 miles per gallon of gas, compared to 22 to 25 miles per gallon for the average passenger car. McLean points out that his Hummer-driving pal gets only nine miles to the gallon.
McLean sells one Piaggio model that's as bulky, if not more so, as a motorcycle and can travel up to 110 miles per hour. Scooters with motor power of 150 CCs or more are considered “freeway legal,” meaning they can reach a speed of 70 to 80 miles per hour. Cohn's shop specialized in Kymco scooters, made in Taiwan. A 150 CC Kymco scooter sells for $2,000, he said; a new Vespa costs around $7,000. It was from Cohn that Mayor Jerry Sanders' wife, Rana Sampson, bought her candy-apple-red Kymco scooter. Cohn said he's sold scooters to Padres fans who're looking for a quick way to get downtown and wanting to avoid parking hassles.
Scooters were born out of the need to make the best use of limited resources. In the 1940s, Enrico Piaggio, whose family's aircraft factory in Italy was destroyed by a bomb during World War II, began looking for a way to turn the factory's leftover parts into some form of cheap ground transportation. The war was over, there was no point in trying to rebuild the factory, and people with little spending money needed a way to get around heavily damaged roads. One of Piaggio's engineers borrowed some ideas from airplane design and came up with what Enrico Piaggio said looked like una vespa-a wasp.
Michelle Mehok, who drives a truck big enough to fit her English Mastiff, was in the Hillcrest Vespa shop on Saturday, quizzing McLean about the differences between the brand's models.
Gas prices are driving her decision to purchase a scooter, Mehok said. She'd had experience with motorcycles but said scooters are easier to control.
Mehok figures a scooter will add only 10 minutes to her 15-minute commute to work.
“You can get anywhere in San Diego on side streets,” McLean pointed out, advising another customer that a route from Pacific Beach to Murphy Canyon would be no trouble to map out.
Both McLean and Cohn said that, as far as they're aware, none of their customers have been seriously injured or killed in a scooter accident. Sanders, a former police chief, told CityBeat he thinks scooters are safe but draws the line at freeway riding. “My wife has a couple of rules: she's not allowed to ride on the freeway, which she abides by,” he said. “Second is that she always has to wear a helmet.”
California law requires that all scooter operators possess a valid driver's license or permit as well as additional DMV authorization to operate a scooter. While the latter can be obtained by passing a riding-skills test at the DMV, everyone CityBeat spoke to for this article recommended a course offered through the California Highway Patrol and the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. State law also requires that scooter operators purchase insurance and wear an approved helmet.
Still, safety is what's keeping Michael Shames, executive director of the Utility Consumers' Action Network, from embracing scooters as a way to cut gas consumption.
“It's hard for us to recommend that people use scooters when a lot of people have no idea how to drive them,” he said, “and worse, a lot of drivers aren't used to navigating around scooters, so the increased likelihood of an accident or injury is significant enough that it may not be the most effective way-at least not the way we would recommend you save gas.”
Cohn argues that scooter operators don't have the same distractions that car drivers have and are therefore more aware of the road-there's no radio to fiddle with, you can't eat and drive a scooter since you control the brakes with your hands. “The problem is [people on scooters] have to watch out for cars and anticipate other drivers,” Cohn said.
Shames also points out that for a scooter to be worth it for the owner, it requires commitment-the bike's got to be more than a novelty, he said. “A lot of people will buy them, use them for a month or two, maybe even a year, and then get tired of them or don't like them, and then they've wasted their money because the gas savings isn't significant enough unless you use this scooter for a long time.”
But for Max Stromberger, who works for Cohn at Motorsport Scooters, there's something infectious about owning a scooter. People will smile or wave or ask about fuel efficiency, a topic Stromberger is happy to discuss. “There's no amount of stress that a 20-block ride home can't cure,” he said.