Lately, the tough economy, the clogged roads, the dearth of available parking and growing environmental consciousness are causing more and more people to look for alternatives to cars. And scooters are flying off the shelves.
"Sales are on the rise big time," said Danville resident Amy McKelligan. "I used to feel like I was the only woman in Danville that had one, and now I see couples out on their scooter on the weekends, people doing their grocery shopping ... They're everywhere."
The Danville area is great for riding scooters, said Ed Boersma, who lives and works in town. The weather is almost always nice, the roads are flat, and you can get to neighboring towns without taking the freeway.
"I park my car for a week at a time and just drive the scooter," he said.
His sons, ages 12 and 15-1/2, love to ride on the back of the bike. Only one person can fit at a time, but Boersma said he's contemplating getting a sidecar so both boys can ride. Sometimes his English bulldog, Buddy, will come along, too.
"I tell everybody it's a great way to get around," he said. "A lot of fun."
It can be a way to reconnect with the environment. Taking in the beautiful scenery of the San Ramon Valley can help people remember why they live in the area, said Danville Councilwoman Karen Stepper, who rides a baby blue Vespa.
"It's a fun feeling," she said. "Every time I see anyone, I keep trying to convince them to get one and ride with me."
It can be easy being green - and cheap, too
"Having a Vespa now, it's a very culturally aware, very green thing to do," said McKelligan. "And from an economic standpoint it's so much less expensive."
Even with this month's slight break in gas prices a trip to the pump can feel like a $70 punch in the face. Filling the 2-gallon tank on a scooter, however, costs less than the price of a sandwich in downtown Danville. Scooters can get anywhere from 70 to 100 miles per gallon of gas, compared with 20 or 30 for your average car.
"There's definitely a knee jerk reaction to this issue," Boersma said. "Everyone was driving these giant SUVs for so long ... then gas tripled in price and this was a reaction to that."
He became a Vespa rider in 1980 quite by accident, when he pulled an abandoned scooter out of the San Francisco Bay. Later he bought a faster one and rode it around Santa Barbara during college.
"It's certainly the greenest form of transportation out there," he said. "It makes the Honda Prius seem like an SUV."
Some people buy scooters because they're naturally green-minded and aware that fuel is a limited resource, said Jim Perry, store manager at Vespa Walnut Creek. But another category of customer is popping up - those who are looking around at the gas-guzzlers crowding the roads and starting to think, "This is ridiculous!"
A gallon of milk that costs $4 ends up costing $9 by the time you get back from the store, said Perry, a Danville resident. More and more of these car owners are stopping in at the Vespa shop looking for another option.
Business is zooming
"I can't get enough product," Perry said. "They're just on fire!"
The shop sells an average of two or three scooters a day; often the bikes will sell the same day they arrive at the store, and some models have a waitlist of people trying to get their hands on them.
The sales boost started last summer and has been steadily growing since then, said Perry. December, which is usually slow because of the cold weather and holiday season, was one of the busiest months ever. That's about when gas prices started climbing.
But gas isn't the only reason people are jumping on scooters, Perry said. Nor is the environment. Bay Area residents are increasingly frustrated with congested roads, and they're realizing that maneuvering in traffic and finding parking are much easier on two wheels.
An average scooter costs around $4,000 to $7,000. That's just the middle range. Pre-owned vehicles can be as low as $1,500 and new ones can get up to $10,000 depending on engine size and features. Scooter insurance starts around $100 per year and is higher depending on age, driving record and type of bike.
While classic, Vespa isn't the only kind of scooter. Its parent company, Piaggio, makes a range of popular bikes, as do Honda, Yamaha and others. But Vespa is the iconic brand - the gold standard. The Italian scooter came out of the broken economy of post-WWII Italy. In the '50s, Hollywood helped make it popular: Think Audrey Hepburn in "Roman Holiday."
When choosing what kind of scooter to get, one of the first things to consider is engine size. At the small end is 50cc. It's cheaper but slower, and may not have enough oomph to tackle big hills. Engines go up to 500cc and beyond, though anything larger starts to get into motorcycle territory.
Not all scooters are just "put-put" vehicles like some people assume, said Perry. The most common model, the LX150, is freeway-legal with a top speed around 65 mph, he said. The price at Vespa Walnut Creek is roughly $4,300.
Not that there's anything wrong with a put-put. Most scooterists in the Danville area use the bike as a secondary mode of transportation for getting around town, rather than braving a freeway commute.
A car is still needed for transporting a lot of stuff, toting around a large family or going on a long road trip, scooter owners say. A Vespa is ideal for destinations that are too far for a bicycle and too close to be worth the drive. There's plenty of storage for errands, too, with one compartment under the seat and another on the back of the bike.
Fun and fancy free - but are they safe?
The scooter is one of the last remaining "legal freedoms," said Boersma. Cars require seatbelts and forbid drivers to talk on cell phones. Safety is regulated at every turn.
"It just seems like this is a loophole," he said.
This is what Vespa riders love: being out in the open air, feeling the wind around them, taking in the scenery.
"It's a great feeling - kind of a fun, free feeling," explained McKelligan. "I can't even describe it - it's like riding on happiness. It puts a smile on your face."
For some people though, that vulnerability is what makes scooters seem scary and dangerous.
"I do know that most people are hesitant 'cause they think they're unsafe," admitted Boersma.
"It can feel like you're the invisible man or invisible woman," said Stepper. "You know that people can't see you, so you have to be careful."
In Contra Costa County, motorcycles (as a category that includes scooters) are at no higher risk of being in a crash than passenger vehicles, according to 2007 statistics from the California Highway Patrol and Department of Motor Vehicles. The stats showed the same fraction, 1.3 percent, of registered passenger vehicles and motorcycles were involved in a collision.
However the safety concern with scooters goes further than that. Many worry that if you do crash, you are more likely to be seriously injured.
Stats show that the chances of an accident being fatal are higher for motorcycles than autos, at about 5 percent versus 0.5 percent. This is almost certainly due to the fact that motorbikes and scooters lack the protective shield of a car's frame.
"Frankly, you're a little naked out there in the traffic," said Boersma, suggesting that scooterists "drive as if you have a target on your chest."
Stepper recommends dressing up in all the safety gear. She wears a full helmet, gloves and a heavy duty jacket when she goes out for spin.
It's crucial for scooter riders to be extremely aware of what's going on around them, she said. The Motorcycle Safety Foundation offers a three-day safety course for new riders.
Scooters can be a bit nerve-racking, especially at high speeds. But when it comes to cruising around town, they're a relatively safe, easy and economical way to travel - plus they're just plain cool.