- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 1, 2007

There was a time in the 1980s when scooter riders were few and far between.

The two-wheeled vehicles were hard to find after the manufacturer of Vespas left the United States because stricter pollution laws banned its air-polluting scooters. And there were always the jabs from motorcyclists: “Why don’t you get a real motorcycle?”

“When people came up in the ‘80s, it was tough to be a scooterist,” said April Whitney, managing editor of Scoot Quarterly. “Because of that, there is a very rich culture that has grown around them.”

Now, scooter dealerships are popping up nationwide as demand for the two-wheelers, which get superior gas mileage, has increased since 2000. That was when Italian manufacturer Piaggio was allowed to sell its Vespas again in the United States, equipped with cleaner engines, Ms. Whitney said.

That signaled other manufacturers such as Bajaj, Derbi and Aprilia to join in.

High gas prices, congested roads and increased national focus on environmental issues have helped ripen the scooter market, said Armen Bodour, who owns Buddha Scoots in Fairfax with David Pierpont.

“It is a totally untapped market in the U.S.,” Ms. Whitney said.

Sales of new scooters have increased from 12,000 in 1997 to 120,000 in 2005, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council.

Estimates place 2006 sales of scooters at 115,000.

Scooters, which are not motorcycles, have a step-through design and smaller, more maneuverable wheels. Riders can reach speeds of about 75 mph, depending on engine size. Most scooters these days have automatic transmissions and cost between $1,000 and $10,000.

Scooters have become more popular because of demand for cheaper and easier forms of transportation, said John Stafford, a local scooter rider in his 30s.

“I live in the city and I like rock-star parking,” said Mr. Stafford, who has been riding scooters for 20 years.

In the District, scooters are regulated like motorcycles, so operating one requires a driver’s license with a motorcycle endorsement. Scooters are allowed on D.C. highways and interstates if they can keep up with traffic.

Under Virginia law, a scooter is regulated as a motorcycle unless it has an engine that is 50 cubic centimeters or smaller and goes no faster than 30 mph. Anything smaller and slower than that is considered a moped, which requires no insurance and can be operated by a 16-year-old, even without a license.

Maryland’s law defines scooters like Virginia does. Although a driver’s license is required, insurance is not.

Helmets are required in the District. In Virginia, helmets are required for scooters with larger engines. In Maryland, riders need eye protection but no helmet.

Modern scooters are usually cheaper to insure than a car. Even with one accident on a rider’s record, full insurance coverage for one year will cost about $400 in California, Ms. Whitney said.

Beyond financial considerations, scooter riders enjoy a different driving experience, Ms. Whitney said. “When I ride I can smell the flowers, hear the noises,” she said.

For some riders, scooters are a way of life, said Michael McCullough, founder of the 54-46 Scooter Club in the District. The club’s 15 members often modify their scooters to increase speeds. Most of them prefer vintage scooters for their attractive designs and manual transmissions.

New scooters usually come with automatic transmissions [-] a practical feature for buyers who see scooters simply as convenient transportation, Mr. McCullough said.

“It’s a new aesthetic meeting an old aesthetic,” said Mr. McCullough, who has mixed feelings about the new scooters.

Vintage die-hards, a vanishing breed, avoid scooter shops that don’t focus on the scooter culture but prefer to trade scooters among themselves, he said.

Because of this, Ms. Whitney said, some scooter dealers are setting themselves up for failure by focusing on profiting from a hot trend rather than offering specialized knowledge. Unlike car buyers who usually return to dealerships only for repairs, a scooter rider will return to a dealer multiple times for clothing and accessories, she said.

“If you’re a dealership, you have to embrace the product you are selling,” Ms. Whitney said. “[Focusing on the culture] is absolutely integral to the success.”

Enter Mr. Bodour and Mr. Pierpont, owners of Buddha Scoots in Fairfax. Their business venture, which began in June, recognizes the scooter culture by sponsoring scooter clubs, Mr. Bodour said.

“Quite a few businesses are trying to get into this, but are trying to make it into retail, a sales kind of thing,” he said. “A lot of the old-time scooter riders don’t want to see that.”

The store is run from a computer, but Mr. Bodour said Buddha Scoots plans to open a shop in Ballston. He and Mr. Pierpont hope to open more stores as a way to promote environmentalism, save energy and enhance the scooter culture.

“We’re trying to get communities to see that these people are helping the community and reducing traffic,” he said. “The scooter culture supports itself. It’s pretty amazing.”

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