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Last Updated: Sunday, 26 August 2007, 07:51 GMT 08:51 UK
Are scooters the answer to NYC jams?
By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, New York

Scooters outside the Brass Monkey bar in New York
Members of the New York Scooter Club bring colour to the city streets
On the corner of a slightly run-down street in the Meatpacking District of New York, a row of 30 shiny, colourful scooters stands out like a coloured umbrella on a rainy day.

Every Wednesday, at about 1900, these Vespas, Stellas or Lambrettas show up and are parked in front of the Brass Monkey bar, the meeting point for the New York Scooter Club.

With a drink in hand, two-wheel aficionados discuss their latest acquisitions, look out for vintage models or try out their friends' scooters.

Scooter riders say the small but sometimes noisy vehicles are the best answer to a dreary subway commute or, even better, to the traffic congestion that chokes New York streets.

"I commute every day from Queens. It can be scary, it takes a little bit of getting used to [driving in between big four-wheel-drive cars]," says one rider.

"But it's fun, I'm outside, it's great and quicker than being stuck in a traffic jam."

Jonathan Perkel, one of the club's founders, says he believes scooters would take off as a transportation mode if they were exempt from the congestion charge that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is trying to impose on cars driving into the centre of town.

London Mayor Ken Livingstone introduced congestion charging in 2003. Singapore also charges a similar tax.

Think of the money I'm saving by riding this - to fill it up costs $5 and it lasts for a month
Scooter rider Graham Fowler

But Mr Bloomberg is fighting stiff resistance to his plan, including in the state capital, Albany, where opposition from lawmakers last month meant that New York state failed to get a $500m (248m) federal grant to implement the plan as a pilot project.

The US Department of Transportation did award the city $345m to fund part of the plan, but this will mostly be used to improve public transportation.

Outside the Brass Monkey, the scooter club's conversation turns to congestion pricing.

"I'll still be happy to pay the tax if scooters are not exempt," says Graham Fowler, originally from the UK.

"Think of the money I'm saving by riding this - to fill it up costs $5 and it lasts for a month."

Parking wars

Allison Watters, another of the club's founders, says she hopes that if scooters become a more popular way to help combat congestion, the city might think about providing riders with legal parking options.

New York traffic
New York is plagued by traffic jams that cause pollution and delays

"At the moment, New York City is not embracing the scooter or motorcycle," she complains.

Parking on the street is a hazard. Drivers often park their car by feel, knocking over or denting scooters in the process.

It is illegal to park on pavements, although scooter riders sometimes do it anyway and remove their licence plate to foil traffic wardens.

Garages and parking lots often refuse to rent spaces to scooters, even when riders offer to pay the full parking rate.

One man has seen an opportunity here: Paolo Timoni, who heads the America section of the Piaggio group, which produces the well-known Vespa scooter, of which there are about 6,000 in New York.

Mr Timoni has paid to rent space in parking lots around town and is offering this, free, to scooter riders for two months. In a city where a parking spot can sell for $225,000, this is parking nirvana.

Mr Timoni readily admits that the free-for-scooter parking campaign is part of a marketing drive for Vespa, but points to the many advantages of riding a scooter.

"Of course we have a profit objective here, but the fact is that scooters consume less gas, are less polluting and can help ease traffic congestion."

He adds: "We asked a company to do a study for us to find out what would happen if we replaced 20% of the cars in Manhattan with scooters.

"We found that every single driver in Manhattan would save 100 hours a year that are currently lost in traffic - that's huge."

Air quality

Mr Bloomberg himself is known to walk or take the subway to work and has played up the economic advantages of a pricing plan that would help reduce traffic.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg
Mr Bloomberg proposed the charge as part of his environment plan

"Congestion pricing wasn't just about bringing in money to pay for mass transit," said the mayor, as he reacted to the thwarting of his bid for a federal grant by lawmakers in Albany last month.

"Congestion pricing was about reducing the time it takes to get to one place from another, so it was about the future of this city and its economy and its competitiveness."

And, he pointed out, it was also about improving the air that people breathe in the city.

"I just for the life of me do not understand how anybody is going to look parents in the eye and say, we'll get to this some other time, just tell your kid: don't breathe deeply."

A panel has now been set up in Albany to review the mayor's plan, which would impose an $8 tax on cars driving into the city centre and a $21 charge for lorries.

Limited incomes

Despite the Department of Transport grant, opposition continues, especially from outside the city.

"Two-thirds of all people who live in Queens must come to Manhattan's medical centres and hospitals for treatment," said Walter McCaffrey, from the Keep New York City Congestion Charge Free lobby group.

"Many of them are senior citizens, on limited incomes, who could not afford to pay $8 to drive, and they're not about to be able to rely on the mass transit system back and forth for these kinds of appointments."

Mr McCaffrey, who lives in Queens, also said it would be unfair to impose the $21 charge on small businesses which have lorries coming into the city, putting them at a disadvantage when they are trying to compete with rivals inside Manhattan.

And not everyone agrees that New York's congestion is a problem.

"Keep the traffic, I like it, it makes it exciting to walk to work, trying to dodge the cars," says one young man in mid-town Manhattan.

But what about more scooters to reduce the traffic? "I think it would look silly, it would be like Europe and I don't know if I can deal with that," he replies.

The riders of the New York Scooter Club had better stay away from him when they go, tooting their horns, to dine in little-known spots of New York that can only be discovered on two wheels.

Map showing proposed congestion zone in New York City

NYC congestion charge is blocked
17 Jul 07 |  Americas

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