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July 13, 2007

For Those on Two Wheels, a Little Piece of New York Heaven

By ANTHONY RAMIREZ

In the gladiatorial traffic of New York City, a motor scooter, with or without racing stripes, is something between a motorcycle and a Radio Flyer wagon.

Now, however, thanks to a new marketing campaign, it is also something else: a ticket to the closest thing to New York nirvana, free parking.

On Wednesday, an American importer of Vespa, the Italian maker of probably the best-known brand of motor scooter, said it had paid for almost two months’ worth of parking at 48 spaces in lots and garages in Chinatown, TriBeCa, Midtown and the theater district.

Anyone with a Vespa can leave it in one of those spaces for hours. (But not overnight; the lots don’t allow overnight parking.)

The promotion, done in conjunction with Edison ParkFast garages, ends Sept. 30.

The promotion made Peter Scanlan ecstatic. Mr. Scanlan, 26, a college admissions official, parked his $7,000 Vespa GTS 250 for the first time in a garage yesterday on the Avenue of the Americas, near 44th Street. “It’s on street level,” he said, almost in a whisper. “It’s incredible. We win, we win!”

Piaggio Group America, the Manhattan importer of Vespas, would not disclose how much it paid for the parking spaces. “Why must you know?” said Paolo Timoni, Piaggio’s president, with a laugh.

But apart from the psychic comfort and status in certain social circles that a good parking space can confer, the square footage is precious.

How precious? Five private parking spaces, each about 150 square feet, in the basement of a condo development rising at 246 West 17th Street are for sale at $225,000 each. At those prices, the roughly 2,000 square feet set aside for Vespas in New York — equivalent to 13 or so car parking spaces — could conceivably sell for $3 million.

Parking spaces for motor scooters are scarce in Manhattan. Parking on the street can lead to costly collisions with automobiles, as drivers try to park them. And it is illegal to park on sidewalks, but riders often do so anyway, sometimes removing their license plates to foil parking enforcement officers. Garages and parking lots often refuse to rent spaces to scooters, sometimes for obscure reasons, even when riders offer to pay motorcycle or even automobile rates.

“With this pilot program, we hope to see if there is a demand for these spaces,” Mr. Timoni said. He said that six or seven scooters could easily fit into a car space. At $10 or more an hour for a car, a garage operator could rent 7 scooter spaces at, say, $2 or more per hour and make more money, Mr. Timoni said.

It may be an uphill battle, though. Vespa has sold only 2,500 scooters in New York City in the last six years, according to Mr. Timoni.

Still, he said, “This could be a good profit opportunity for the garages, and for the city it is important to try to relieve traffic congestion.” He noted that in London and Stockholm, the models for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s congestion pricing proposal, scooters are exempt from fees because they contribute less to congestion.

Mr. Timoni also said that a Piaggio-sponsored study by Sam Schwartz, a traffic consultant, found that the replacement of 20 percent of the cars in Manhattan with scooters would lessen traffic and free up 100 hours a year for drivers who now spend that time stuck in traffic.

Word of the campaign spread quickly among members of the New York Scooter Club. Andrew Marmion, 31, a lawyer from Brooklyn who works in Downtown Manhattan, took advantage of the free scooter parking yesterday at a lot at 15-21 Worth Street. “There isn’t parking for scooters, plain and simple,” he said. “Parking has become a rogue activity.”

Frank Pannone, 40, who works for an importer of Japanese comic books in Manhattan, said his 1973 Lambretta is his only means of transportation from his home in Englewood, N.J. He now parks free at 412 West 33rd Street. (The lot operator is allowing non-Vespas to use the space.)

He’s not sure what he will do after September, when the free parking ends. “I can have a nightlife with a bike,” he said.