Scooter Life

A local writer shares the joys of zipping around town on two motorized wheels.
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scooter life
Photo by Wes Davis

At the peak of this past summer’s gas prices, I pulled into a station and filled my tank with premium-grade gasoline for just $5.75. Granted, my tank only holds a gallon because I ride a scooter.

I have been seeing more scooters around Sacramento over the past year. They have become increasingly popular as more people look for alternative ways to get around the city. To clarify, a moped is a two-wheel vehicle with a motor and pedals. A riding scooter (not stand-up) has a motor but no pedals. Many people use the terms interchangeably.

Riding scooters offer several advantages over other modes of transportation. They are much cheaper to operate and maintain than cars, and they emit far less pollution. Additionally, scooters are more nimble than cars, making them ideal for navigating through traffic-clogged streets. It doesn’t hurt that you never have a problem finding parking. They’re economical, fun and practical.

I had been thinking about getting rid of my car for some time. I live downtown and can walk and bike to many places and events. I could easily grab a rideshare e-bike or e-scooter if I was in a hurry or just tired of walking. I also had noticed an increase of app rental cars, such as Zipcar and GIG, parked strategically around town. I determined that as long as you have a smartphone app and a credit card, it’s easy to get short-term transportation. Add in the fact that I have use of a company car and I found myself asking why did I need a personal car? I wanted to be rid of the cost of insurance, gas, tires and overall maintenance.

I always rent scooters when I visit Honolulu. Then in 2019, Zebra rental electric scooters came to Sacramento. For a nominal fee, you could rent a scooter on a monthly basis, keep it at home and ride up to about 30 miles before needing a charge. Top speed: 24 miles per hour. I grabbed the opportunity and rented one for about six weeks until the city of Sacramento jumped in and said they weren’t properly permitted. Zebra opted to leave California rather than go through the registration process for every scooter.

By this time, I had fallen in love with the scooter. It also didn’t hurt that my car was hit in a collision, and I had to decide whether to fix it or give it up. I took the insurance money and ran to the scooter shop.

The first Sacramento scooter store that will come up in a search is aptly named Scooter City, near 16th and F streets. I spoke to Steve Barber, founder and principal shareholder, over the phone, and he shared a wealth of information on the different brands of scooters. I immediately felt comfortable making a buying decision with his help.

In 1979, Barber opened Barber’s Shop auto repair (on 18th Street), which repaired Italian cars and scooters. Back then they would repair Italian brands such as Vespa and Lambretta. In 1985, Barber bought the local Vespa dealership. Scooter ridership was low in the United States for the next few decades—so low that Vespa closed all its dealerships in the late ’80s. For more than a decade, Vespa did not sell stateside. Barber soon began carrying Taiwanese-made scooters such as Genuine, Kymco and Sym. Vespa has since returned to selling in the United States; the nearest Vespa dealership is in Elk Grove.

“Basically most of the manufacturing, except for Vespa, is happening in Asia,” says Barber. “Even Vespa has most of their models built in China.”

Barber agrees with the term “you get what you pay for” when it comes to scooters. You can find inexpensive scooters online, even sold on Amazon. Barber says often customers come in to buy a scooter from him after one of those cheaper models fails, and the owner is unable to find someone willing to repair it. He recommends buying from a dealership where you know you can get service, a warranty and registration.

Scooter City will repair all brands, but as a dealership, it also provides the service of getting its sold vehicles registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles. California vehicle codes call for “motor-driven cycles” to be registered in California. (This is where Zebra got into trouble when it didn’t want to register its scooters.)

Dealerships also provide warranty services. My Genuine scooter, for instance, has one year of roadside service and a three-year unlimited mileage warranty.

According to the California DMV, “Any person with a valid California driver license can operate a short-term (48 hours or less) rental motorized bicycle . . .” Riders can get by with a general driver license as long as the moped or scooter has a speed of no more than 30 mph. Once the speed is over 30 mph, a class M1 motorcycle license is required. My scooter goes 65 mph, so I had to register it and get an M1 license.

In San Francisco and other major cities where it is difficult to own a car, you can rent scooters from Revel. Revel has registered each scooter with the state of California. Its fleet of electric NIU scooters is sprinkled within the San Francisco city limits; each has a top speed of close to 30 mph. This allows anyone with a valid driver license to rent one. Each comes with two helmets. Asked whether a NIU can manage the steep hills, Khalid Yasin, head of micromobility at Revel, says, “I think one of the reasons our moped scooters are so popular in San Francisco, over the standing scooters, is that we have more power. The average (rental) distance is about 4 to 5 miles.”

The cost of ownership is considerably lower than that of a car. Costs are determined not only by brand but also by the size of the motor. I opted for a gas-powered Genuine Buddy 170i because I wanted to forgo the worry of charging if I went too far. With my 170cc engine, I can go 65 mph on a tank of gas that will last approximately 90 miles. I can ride it on highways, but that’s a bit scary. The most I do is Highway 160 between downtown and Arden Fair mall. I bought it in 2020 for about $4,500, and my yearly registration and insurance run around $150 each.

Prices have risen. As with everything during the pandemic, the supply chain for scooters and their parts has been impacted. According to Barber, it may not be so much the parts themselves as the problems that occurred with shipping and receiving the cargo at the ports. Many manufacturers have increased prices to cover those issues. I noticed recently that the price of my model has gone up by about $500 this year.

Parking is a breeze. I happen to live downtown, so I do a lot of navigating around midtown. I never have much trouble finding a spot and never have to pay at a parking meter. I did get a ticket once for parking too far into the pedestrian right of way on a sidewalk. I’m more careful now.

I ride my scooter all around the Sacramento region. I’ve ridden to Folsom via Folsom Boulevard and to the Davis Farmers Market via the levee road and to Woodland. Riding down to Clarksburg and the Old Sugar Mill is also popular and beautiful.

On a Saturday afternoon in July, a line of scooters sat in front of a Land Park coffee shop. A group of scooter enthusiasts gathered to partake in a poker run. They are part of the Sacramento Scooter Days Facebook group. Almost all the parked scooters were vintage Vespas and Lambrettas. The riders were all friendly and I quickly felt welcome even though my 2020 Genuine was the newest of the bunch. It wasn’t long before we were zipping first up to a doughnut shop on Folsom Boulevard, down to Florin Road to visit a boba shop, then to a couple of bars before ending the ride in midtown. My poker hand was a bust, but that was beside the point. I had achieved my goal of meeting others for a group ride after having spent the past two years riding solo.

Kate Dana, one of the organizers of the poker run, has been riding vintage scooters for 20 years. She has owned several and currently rides a 1966 Vespa Sprint 150. Dana participates in events throughout California, hauling her Vespa in the back of her Honda. She lived for a few years in San Francisco and admits the hills can be a challenge. Then she came for a group ride to the Sacramento area and loved the wide roads and flatness of the area. It became a major reason why she moved to Sacramento shortly after. “It’s dangerous with traffic and stuff,” she says, “but (Sacramento) is very scooter friendly. I think we have an advantage here. And the scooter people here are so friendly.”

She offers this advice: “For anybody who wants to get into it, talk to a lot of people. Any time you see somebody out with a scooter that looks like something you want to ride, talk to them. I get a lot of people who ask me questions about cost, safety, etc. I would also figure out what you want it for. If you want it for commuting or long distance, don’t buy an old scooter like mine. If you’re nostalgic like me . . . I’ve always ridden vintage.”