New York Times – Get Your Motor Buzzin’

Sat, Apr 30, 2005


(New York looking more like Paris) Posted by Hello

The New York Times > New York Region > Get Your Motor Buzzin’

Get Your Motor Buzzin’

Published: April 30, 2005

During a recent visit to the Vietnamese city of Hue, Carol Anastasio watched two women secure a fat pig, its feet bound with rope, on the seat of their scooter, then zoom off into the chaotic traffic.

That scene made Ms. Anastasio a believer – people with scooters and a little ingenuity can handle just about anything.

“I love riding so much,” she said yesterday, standing next to her green Vespa on a quiet street in SoHo. “If they could move live swine, I could certainly move some groceries.”

Scooters have long hummed around the edges of New York life as either a faddish enthusiasm or a means of transport best suited to the city’s small army of couriers and food deliverers. But they have never gained traction here as a tool of mass transit the way they have in European and Asian cities.

But Ms. Anastasio, 43, is one of a growing number of New Yorkers turning to scooters to alleviate some of the headaches of urban living. A volunteer coordinator for Prospect Park, Ms. Anastasio uses her Vespa for what in the scooting world is called a “daily ride,” taking it to work, on errands and to social engagements.

Retailers and manufacturers say that the number of people buying scooters is increasing, and that a confluence of events, including high gas prices, rising public transportation costs and the re-entry of foreign scooter manufacturers into the American market, are causing more New Yorkers to consider two wheels.

Paolo Timoni, president and chief executive of Piaggio USA, which manufactures Vespas, said the company sold more than 1,000 Vespas in New York City last year, an increase of 128 percent from 2003.

This weekend, scores of scooter owners from across the country are expected to join New York riders for the third annual Gotham Rally, an event in which “scootophiles” show off their bikes, socialize and drink as they roll through the city and surrounding area in a buzzing swarm.

Nicholas Mendizabal, who opened a scooter store on Sackett Street in Brooklyn three years ago, is one of the sponsors of the Gotham Rally. His store, Brooklynbretta, is an axis of the new scooter scene, along with Vespa SoHo on Crosby Street. In the last 12 months, Mr. Mendizabal said he has sold more than 100 scooters.

Last Sunday afternoon, scooter enthusiasts gathered outside Mr. Mendizabal’s shop for a pre-rally barbecue, admiring each other’s bikes over beers and burgers. Many belonged to nearly a dozen scooter clubs with a presence in New York. There were a few Jedi Knights and members of the Donne Veloci, a female scooter club. A Checkered Demon told stories and others recalled the Screaming Mimis.

Two enthusiasts, Noel Hidalgo and Mary Anne Powers recently started another club, which they said is intended to bridge the gap between the last generation of riders, like the ones at the barbecue, and the new buyers. Ms. Powers, who wrote a college paper on scooters, said the bikes are still used as social vehicles.

“Sometimes, it’s great to go to dinner in some far off place on your scooter,” she said. “And it’s better still when your friend has one, too.”

Mr. Mendizabal, 30, promotes a more utilitarian vision in which commuters on two wheels scoff at fare increases, filling their scooter tanks for $3 a week and traveling effortlessly through the boroughs, from Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, for example, to the Upper East Side in 20 minutes.

“Scooters open up neighborhoods,” Mr. Mendizabal said. “People ride to new restaurants, they go check out Astoria, or Coney Island, or Mitchell Field, on their own time. It’s so much more positive than getting on the M.T.A. You fly, dude. You hit the green lights, and you go.”

The scooting experience can vary depending on how much people are willing to pay. A used scooter can cost $1,000 while on the higher end, $6,300 will buy a top model Piaggio, with a 500cc engine that goes more than 90 miles an hour.

Of course, not everyone believes that New York will ever become a scooter mecca.

“The magnitude of the streets is very different here than in Europe,” said Michael Horodniceanu, a former commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation and the president of Urbitran, an engineering, architecture and planning company in New York. “The streets are narrower over there, and it’s easier to navigate. You’re not in a sea of cars like you are here. Our users here tend to be more safety-oriented.”

Scooter drivers agree that riding in New York requires a dose of fearlessness, but insist that risk comes with the pleasure of living here. More than that, though, riders and manufacturers say the lack of parking for scooters in New York is the biggest challenge to acceptance of the vehicles here. Places like Washington and San Francisco have already moved to accommodate the vehicles by creating dedicated parking spaces for them on streets.

In New York, many riders simply park on the sidewalk and remove their license plates, rather than risk having their scooters knocked over by cars, or dragged out of the way by boorish car owners. Most of the time, the city does not bother towing the bikes.

Owning a scooter also carries bureaucratic requirements. Riders must insure their bikes, register them and get a motorcycle driving license. Foul weather also complicates life for scooters and many bikes are kept in storage during the winter months.

Despite all that, the Rev. Andrew O’Connor is among the new believers in scooters. He was given a scooter last June as a gift by one of his parishioners at Holy Trinity Church on the Upper West Side. Navigating traffic was daunting at first, he said, but over time he grew used to it. Last September, he recalled, he was running late for the ordination of two bishops at St. Patrick’s Cathedral so he took his scooter.

“It was so easy to get there,” he said. “I got there on time, and I just parked it on the side.” The police gave him a parking citation, he said. Since then, he has learned the trick – fasten the license plate to the scooter with Velcro and yank it off when parking is tight and the sidewalk is the only option.

Father O’Connor said that more of his parishioners were buying scooters, but that he had not been able to participate in any of the scooter rallies. “They’re all on Sundays,” he said.

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