Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Philadelphia Scooters in Philadelphia Weekly

Stella!: Scooters name desire for Philadelphians these days. (photo by michael persico)

Gas (Conserving) Hogs

Philadelphians are trading in their cars for scooters.
by John Steele

It’s tough to look manly on a scooter. They’re small, they’re cute, they’re popular in Europe. Our car-obsessed cowboy culture should want nothing to do with them. But it’s amazing what $4 a gallon will do to cultural identity.

“The main reason has to be gas prices, but scooters are also very popular in the media right now, in movies and commercials,” says Ryan Targoff, service writer for Vespa Philly. “I think the general populace is finally becoming aware of scooters as an alternative form of transportation.”

The Vespa Philly store at Second and Spring Garden has been here just a year, but already the scooter showroom is having trouble keeping product in stock. Even on a recent dreary Wednesday morning the place was packed with potential customers.

Upon hitting the streets, a young couple tooling around on a red one whizzes up a tiny NoLibs alley, their heads bobbing under helmets. A little farther down, two scooters are chained to a bike rack along Second Street.

A quick jaunt up to Yamaha City, a motorcycle dealership and garage just off Columbus Boulevard, finds a similar scene. Sasha Jancic is loading a newly purchased scooter into the bed of his pickup truck. “I bought a scooter for my father,” he says. “I have a bigger motorcycle, but this is good for him,” he says. “I live in the suburbs, and he can go to the YMCA and back, the grocery store and back, and with a 50cc model, he doesn’t need a motorcycle license.”

Unlike Vespa Philly, Yamaha City is clearly a motorcycle store that has changed its inventory. And according to sales manager Paul Caza, they have good reason. “The scooters are outselling the motorcycles 10-to-1 right now,” he says. “We get a lot of city dwellers and students. On a 50cc you get 100 miles to the gallon. You can’t beat it.”

Despite the positives, some Philadelphians have voiced concern about scooter parking rules. A memo the Philadelphia Parking Authority (PPA) distributed last year to scooter store owners reads, “Motorcycles and scooters are not permitted to park on a sidewalk unless they are against the wall and within the property line … Scooters are permitted to be chained to the bicycle racks but may not be chained to parking meters or sign poles.”

In other words, scooters can’t be parked anywhere there’s no bike rack. So scooter owners may have a tough time. But with scooters quickly gaining popularity, the PPA has explored options to accommodate riders.

“We’re beginning to look into establishing scooter parking spaces,” says the PPA’s senior director of strategic planning Richard Dickson. “That would require some security devices that the scooters can be locked to. We need to protect pedestrians and also accommodate scooter owners.”

Dickson says the PPA is looking to run a pilot program in neighborhoods with high scooter populations to see how citizens respond. But Targoff thinks the PPA may encounter some resistance from City Council.

A bill was already introduced a few years ago to create spaces for scooters, as Dickson described. “There was a study done saying that something like a quarter of all handicapped parking spaces in the city were unused at all times, so the idea was proposed to take a few of those spaces for scooters,” Targoff says. “Of course the lobby being what it is, they ran into some roadblocks.”

But Dickson is confident the new spaces will eventually come to be. “Rest assured, the pilot program for the spaces will be underway,” he says. “However, I can’t give you a definite start date.”

The parking woes haven’t slowed sales at Philadelphia Scooters on Passyunk, a small sidewalk retailer in South Philly, where Glen Hoffman and his daughter Kristen are pricing scooters so Kristen can get around the city.

“I actually have an old dumpy car, but I just park it in South Philly here and never move it,” she says.

“In Europe these are all over the place,” says Glen. “And with gas hitting $5, we’re going to see millions of these—especially downtown.”

The bald, athletic Hoffman makes a funny picture next to the traditional European-style Genuine Buddy model. But still, he confesses, “I’m actually thinking of getting one myself.”

From an Eastern European biker in NoLibs to a tough-guy dad in South Philly, when it comes to scooter riding, manliness is clearly no longer an issue.

“There’s a whole range of scooters you can get, from bombing around town to going cross-country,” says Larry Wong, sales manager at Philadelphia Scooters. “It looks like people are finally changing the way they get around.”

John Steele writes the Green’s Anatomy column on