New York Eyes Scooters
The most important part of Ehron Sidel's job as a mortgage banker for HSBC is face time with the client. And since he ditched mass transit for a scooter, clients and friends have been seeing his face a lot more.Before Sidel, 24, bought a Vespa in early November, he spent hours each day waiting for subway trains or sitting in taxi traffic during his daily trips to meet with business associates.
Not anymore."The scooter has literally increased my productivity," he said. "I used to do maybe two appointments a day and now I do at least four."And last week's transit strike? No sweat.Sidel, who lives on the Lower East Side, hopped his scooter and headed to work in the financial district as usual -- except that he had a few passengers."My manager asked me to pick up some colleagues and bring them to work," he said.Nicholas Mendizabal, 31, owner of the scooter shop Brooklynbretta, said the strike shone a spotlight on the city's growing scooter community."We got a lot of calls from people wanting to rent scooters," he said. "People were standing around or walking and the scooters were getting around like nothing ever happened," he said.Scooter popularity was on the rise in the city before the transit strike – a trend Mendizabal attributes to a variety of factors. New Yorkers, especially younger denizens, are moving to neighborhoods farther from Manhattan that have fewer transit options; MTA fares and gas prices are spiraling. The scooters offer commuters control – and they're fun."You're in control of your own destiny on a Vespa," said Zach Shieffelin, owner of the Vespa SoHo store. "When you want to go, you just go."Shieffelin, 34, commutes to SoHo from Brooklyn – a trip that takes about eight minutes on the scooter and 40 minutes driving or using mass transit.Scooting quickly became a lifestyle for Shieffelin."The ownership experience is very much like getting a word processor," he said. "Once you've used it for your daily business in New York, it's really hard to fathom how you did it beforehand.New Jersey resident Neil Barton, 32, cut his commute from an hour and a half to 20 minutes when he traded in his '89 Jeep Grand Wagoneer for a Vespa in 2003."The time and flexibility I've got now is immeasurable," he said. "And I feel a lot more empowered in terms of getting in and out."Barton, a technology consultant, is such a fan, he started a blog devoted to city scooting, UrbanNerd.com, and also writes for the Vespa-sponsored blog Vespaway.com.Carol Anastasio, who has worked for the city parks department for 17 years, got a Vespa for her 41st birthday. She was leery of city driving, but had wanted a scooter since she saw The Who's "Quadrophenia" at age 14.Though the obstacles of urban scooting are many – among them SUVs, potholes, veering cabs and pedestrians on cell phones -- driving "turned out to be not as hard," she said. "You just have to wear the right gear and be incredibly alert when you ride."It's unclear how many scooters have been involved in road accidents in New York, as the DMV and NYPD group them generally with motorcycles.
Anastasio rides her custom-painted emerald green and gold-flecked scooter every day from her Lower East Side apartment to her job in Prospect Park – skirting the tangle of subway connections she would otherwise tackle to get there.Driving, said Anastasio, is much easier than parking.
Unlike many European cities where scooting has long been popular, or even U.S. cities like San Francisco and Seattle where scooting has boomed, New York does not have designated motorcycle parking.While there's usually room for a scooter in between parked cars, it's not legal for two vehicles to share one space. Many riders resort to sidewalk parking – which is also illegal, but a better alternative, they say, to parking on the street and finding the bike knocked over upon return.Groups like the coalition ParkingNow! have waged campaigns to push for designated parking – but with no results yet, it's common to see scooters rigged up with removable Velcro license plates. Riders pocket the plates when they park to avoid tickets, and replace them to ride.The problem will likely become more pressing as the city's three main scooter shops -- Vespa SoHo, Vespa Queens and Brooklynbretta – continue to report rising sales.Vespa SoHo, which opened in 2002, is closing in on its 1000th sale. Vespa Queens has sold 200 in the year it's been open, and Brooklynbretta – which specializes in restoring vintage bikes -- has sold more than 200 bikes in the three years since it opened.Add those to the hundreds of vintage bikes already on the roads, and you've got a lot of scooter traffic.The vintage-style Vespa has enjoyed an American renaissance the past few years. The brand was yanked from the U.S. market in the 1980s when emissions laws changed and the scooters no longer met requirements – but it came back with a vroom in 2001.Vespa isn't the only scooter to take New York City – but it's definitely the most visible and brings with it a mythic history.Vespa emerged in Italy in 1946 as a utilitarian motorbike for the masses. The bike was designed to help drivers maneuver through bombed-out streets and rubble in the wake of WWII and became a symbol of resilience in post-war Italy of both the people and the economy.The bike later became a style icon associated with carefree romance in the States, with the popularity of films such as "Roman Holiday" - which featured Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck zipping through Rome astride a Vespa.Starring roles in "Quadrophenia" and Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" broadened the Vespa's mod mystique.Most scooters, from Vespas to Stellas to Kymcos cost between $2200 to $5500. Embellishments, accessories and custom paint jobs jack up the price, but money saved on gas is a big draw.There are no studies that directly link the boost in scooter sales with rising gas prices, but the two occurred simultaneously.Most scooters hold about two gallons and get anywhere from 60 to 100 miles per gallon. Riders fill the tank once a week (if that) for between $5 to $7."I think of it as a latte's worth of gas," Shieffelin said.The sales growth in New York city mirrors a nationwide trend. A spokesman for Vespa-maker Piaggio USA said sales-to-date for 2005 have increased by 25 percent since last year in its 80 dealerships across the nation.In fact, sales are up for all kinds of scooters, not just Vespa, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council – a non-profit organization that follows two-wheeled trends. The MIC reports about 96,000 scooters were sold in the U.S. last year – twice the number sold in 2000.With the zoom in sales, a social scene was born. There's now an annual Gotham rally and scooter clubs like I Scoot NY, the New York Scooter Club, and the all girl group Donne Veloci meet weekly for group rides and often workshops on everything from maintenance to winter riding.John Cataneo, 36, bought his Vespa GT200 after moving to SoHo from Staten Island. Cataneo, who owns a plumbing and heating contracting business, founded the New York Scooter Club in the spring and acts as president.When Cataneo began riding, the New York scooter community was "cliquey" and comprised mostly of old guard vintage riders. He rode with them, but didn't feel like one of them.Cataneo started the new scooter club to create space for the diverse band of new riders hitting the city streets. Membership grew from about 10 to about 70 in under 10 months."You get to meet people you wouldn't otherwise," he said. "I can't imagine anything else that would bring such a diverse group together."Off-road, a vibrant Web community chats and trades information and snapshots via hordes of online forums and message boards like Gotham Scooter Forum or the New York Scooter forum and scooter-centric blogs like Barton's UrbanNerd.com, Katstan.net and Brad in the Big City.The scooters are on New York's streets, in its cyber space and not even the cold weather can keep enthusiasts off the roads. Just like the Romans do – many city scooterists are prepared to ride all year long.Barton, Anastasio and Shieffelin wear full-face helmets, wind-proof armored jackets and thick gloves.Sidel wears long underwear everyday under his suit."It's part of my wardrobe now," he said. "It's cold riding out there, but I'm addicted."