New York: A Scooter Perspective

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If you think you’re seeing more people on scooters this summer, you’re probably right. The number of two-wheeled vehicles registered in New York State continues to increase each year, and this year it's at a higher rate than in most other big states, according to the states' Department of Motor Vehicles. Scooter users say it’s the easiest way to navigate the city, and that it burns far less gas than a car. But while the two-wheelers may turn heads on New York streets, riders say they don’t get much respect from the City.

WNYC’s Jim Colgan tells WNYC's Isaac Davy Aronson about thrills and trials of scooter-riding in New York City.

We should say up front that you started riding a scooter yourself.

I did, and I love it. I got one at the beginning of the summer because I thought it looked like a great way to get around the city and get to work. But I also wanted to find out what the experience was like from other scooter riders. And most people I spoke to on the street sounded like Melissa Lucas from Brooklyn:

"I don't like being bound to the MTA. I don't really like being around people, so this is perfect for me. And I get around faster."

And Michelle Eisenberg from Manhattan:

"Oh it's great! The wind, you don't have to take the subway, you can watch everybody, everybody thinks you're cool."

People also say it’s more fuel-efficient and you certainly get far more miles per gallon than a car, but some of the older bikes do emit more pollutants. 

So how different is it from riding a bicycle?

Well, even though you have the freedom of a bicycle it is a motorcycle (so you need a motorbike license) and you can usually go as fast as cars. But you don’t have the shell or protection of a car. And the people I spoke to on the streets cited a lot of fears:

"I think the main thing you gotta watch out for is car doors."

"Taxi drivers do not see you, choose not to see you even when they do see you. SUVs are out to kill you."

"It's stressful. because I like to go in between cars to get ahead and that's not always a good idea, so I have to watch out for pedestrians - it's also illegal - oh yeah, that too."

How is that not legal?

Well, that’s something called lane-splitting. It’s not legal in most states, but it is legal in California and many European cities. But that’s just one of the bounds of the law that the scooter drivers I spoke to felt comfortable pushing.

Another one is parking. They park on the sidewalk because they don’t think it’s safe to park on the street with cars. And they do it because they’re worried that the bikes will get knocked over.

Here’s Jesse Ehrlbaum of a group called the New York Motorcycle and Scooter Task Force:

"About 58 percent of all riders of scooters and motorcycles in 2009 had their vehicles knocked over at least once, so we're talking about nearly 60 percent chance in single year of getting knocked over it that was the level of damage for automobiles, there would be riots in City Hall."

And one way that scooter riders get away with parking on the sidewalk is by pulling off their license plate, so it’s harder to get a ticket.

Can scooter riders use bike lanes?

No. And that really annoys bicycle advocates, like Noah Budnick, the deputy director of the group, Transportation Alternatives:

"We have 6,200 miles of roads in New York City. We only have a couple hundred miles of bike lanes. And those lanes for bike riders."

So is the city doing anything specifically to promote scooter riding?

A spokesperson for the New York City Department of Transportation told me they had no plans to promote scooters as environmentally friendly transportation. However, the first of two motorcycle-only parking spot just opened a few weeks ago. But two days later, that space had a car illegally parked in it.

A car parked in the first motorcycle-only parking space in New York City (in the West Village), shortly after it was created this summer.