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    Cheap, Chic and Sociable: The Buzz About Scooters

    Published: July 9, 2006

    MOTOR scooters may not move like muscle cars, haul like pickups or growl like motorcycles, but they are inexpensive to buy and cheap to operate. And in American cities, they increasingly come with a ready-made social network.

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    Brian Branch Price for The New York Times

    Mike Garrett of Washington finds a peaceful moment after a scooter-propelled scavenger hunt.

    Brian Branch Price for The New York Times

    Participants of the scavenger hunt get their bearings near the Ben Franklin Bridge.

    Brian Branch Price for The New York Times

    Damon Landry of Philadelphia on his 1967 Vespa.

    For instance, at 8 on a recent Saturday morning on Little West 12th Street in the meatpacking district, some two dozen members of the New York Scooter Club gathered at their usual Wednesday night meeting spot, a dive pub called the Brass Monkey, which had opened early to pull in World Cup soccer fans.

    Chatter about replacement parts, chrome accessories and parking troubles mingled for a time with the shouts of soccer enthusiasts. Then most of the members set off on a group ride to Elmhurst, Queens, where breakfast was served at the Pop Diner. The rest of the day posed further options, including more televised soccer in Manhattan.

    Scooters are ubiquitous in Europe, but in the United States their numbers remain low enough that devotees — whether attracted by the look and feel of the bikes or the budget-friendly freedom they offer — form a community with a unifying passion.

    A variety of scooter clubs have emerged that with the help of word of mouth and Internet forums support a broad network of activities, provide technical support and nurture friendships across the country.

    The scooter scene used to be dominated by mod young Europhiles who looked as though they'd just stepped out of Michelangelo Antonioni's "Blowup," but that is changing as a more diverse group of people grows attracted to the buzz of single-piston transportation. Now veterans of what was always a fringe group are making friends with Wall Street types, women and minorities are joining in and specialized clubs are sprouting.

    "Most of these people sitting here today don't have anything in common except for the scooters," Robert Segal of Brooklyn, a member of the New York Motor Scooter Club, said over breakfast at the diner in Queens. "We all get together and love each other's company. It's not about the machines. It's about the people."

    Indeed, while high gasoline prices have brought more than a few new owners into the fold, many newbies come to embrace the scooter lifestyle as much as the thrift.

    Ed Gallagher, a 27-year-old police officer from Queens, said he initially bought his Piaggio Beverly 250 for the gas savings, but had come to appreciate the camaraderie. "I didn't know the scooter scene," he said. "But, since getting into it and joining the club, it's just a jump start from commuting, strictly, to riding with these guys all the time." The New York Scooter Club draws as many as 50 people to its Wednesday rides. Other groups cater to specialized interests, and some are tiny. Jason Torres, a 24-year-old employee of Scooters Originali, a dealership in Orange, N.J., is one of just four members of the Mini Mart Muchachos — a group that comprises a Brazilian and two Filipinos in addition to Mr. Torres, who is of Puerto Rican descent. He rides a 2003 Stella.

    "A lot of people say they're pretty much sick of, well, two things: gas prices and traffic," he said. "They're sick and tired of driving their cars in the middle of Manhattan traffic. And now gas is over $3 a gallon.

    "It did spark some interest for people to buy bikes," he added. "And then they're like, 'Oh, by the way, there's a community. I can meet up with people and hang out.' The clubs and the meet-ups is just like a bonus."

    Scooter lovers have their own lingo: terms like "twist and go" for the newer automatics with handlebar accelerators. There are "mods," which are scooters with added-on chrome accessories, mirrors and lights, and "rats," which are beat-up or ugly scooters — that run nonetheless.

    Scooterheads have their own hand signals when riding in groups, and their own rules: Slower riders to the front. No passing. If you are up front, don't speed through yellow lights and strand everyone else.

    There are acknowledged routes for navigating New York City. For instance, there's a single lane on the bottom level of the Queensboro Bridge where traffic is light and the pavement is smooth — no uneven steel grate jostling riders balanced on 10-inch wheels. The lower level of the Manhattan Bridge has a breakdown lane that will accommodate any broken-down scooter.

    Riders must obtain a motorcycle driver's license, which in New York State requires that you pass a written test and either pass a road test or complete a rider's course approved by the Department of Motor Vehicles. (Information at nydmv.state.ny.us.)

    Scooter riders use Internet message boards, blogs and newsletters to spread news about rallies and clubs. Online chatter helped to publicize a three-day rally last weekend in Philadelphia. Some 120 riders gathered to inhale two-stroke-engine fumes, see the sights, participate in scavenger hunts and party all night.

    The Internet is also a forum for scooter-related activism. At www.nyscooterclub.com, the Web site for the New York Scooter Club, viewers can sign a petition calling parking spots for two-wheelers in New York City.

    Scooter owners will tell you that drivers on four wheels are clumsy and often disrespectful. "They park by feel in New York City," said Peter Lutjen, a book cover designer. "They back up until they bump into something, and if they bump into a scooter, it's going down. So your option is, get knocked down on a regular basis, or park on the sidewalk and risk being ticketed."

    Scooters are widely accepted in Europe and Asia, but in America, where bigger is often viewed as better, the zippy two-wheelers have had trouble gaining traction.

    Still, scooter sales are up. Piaggio, the Italian company that owns Vespa, said its American sales rose 18 percent last year.

    New scooters start at about $1,000 and can approach $10,000. Filling the tank costs less than $10, and most go more than 50 miles on a gallon of gasoline.

    One possible reason for Vespa's rise can be attributed to its re-entry into the United States market in 1996, when its two-stroke engines first met E.P.A. emissions standards for motor scooters with motors larger than 50 cubic centimeters. Before then, Vespa lovers either had to ride vintage bikes or switch to competitors like Honda, whose scooters lacked Vespa's sleek Italian style.

    "I had, ever since I was 15, this image of a white and green 60's Vespa in my head, and it just took 10 years until I could make it happen." said Josh Kanuck, 27, a television editor with a modified 1963 Vespa VBB.

    David Pitts, a founding member of the New York Scooter Club, said that while he was trying to organize and attract members, he had to think hard about what scooter love is really about. "It's not a fashion accessory, because accessory implies it's a fad," he said. "It's 100 percent emotional."

    The sense of community means something specific for the eight or so New Yorkers in Donne Veloci, one of many women's scooter clubs around the world. Its Web site — donneveloci.com — quotes one member, Kristed Sherman of Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, as saying the reason she loves scootering is "the great group of people I've met." Ms. Sherman, who rides a 1979 Vespa P125, says scootering is "a very male-oriented scene." Part of Donne Veloci's appeal — the name means fast women in Italian — is to "assist each other when it comes to the technical stuff," she said, "without always having to run to the boys."


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