Neither motorcycle nor bike

By Kelly Rix

With gas prices soaring and global warming becoming a major issue, some Chicagoans are looking for more fuel-efficient modes of transportation. Many are opting for bicycles, but some are choosing motorized scooters, which can go as fast as 30 mph and get about 60 to 70 miles per gallon.

Though scooters may seem to have more in common with bicycles than cars, the city of Chicago views them as one and the same, making parking more difficult, theft easier and many scooterists frustrated.

According to city law, scooters cannot be parked on sidewalks or locked to bike racks. They pay the same rate as larger vehicles when parked at metered parking spaces with pay-and-display boxes. Violators are subject to a $60 fine.

Elizabeth Holder, a 25-year-old scooter owner, learned about parking the hard way. A few years ago, when she worked at Columbia, she got numerous tickets for parking her Yamaha Vino scooter on the sidewalk locked to the bike racks in front of the Alexandroff Campus Center, 600 S. Michigan Ave.

“I would get tickets a few times a week,” Holder said. “But I had a standard letter that I sent into the city with my ticket and I would always get out of them because, at the time, they didn’t really have any clear laws.”

Holder said her letter argued that her scooter was not legally classified as a motorcycle since it had a smaller engine and didn’t require a motorcycle license and was, therefore, legal to park on the sidewalk secured to a bike rack.

But last year, the city clarified these parking laws and Holder’s letter no longer gets her off the hook.

The reasons behind the scooter parking restriction are mainly legal, said Ed Walsh, spokesperson for the Chicago Department of Revenue. Any changes to this parking rule would likely require legislative action, Walsh said.

“[Scooters] are legally considered to meet the state’s definition of a vehicle,” Walsh said. “Technically, they are not allowed to park on the sidewalk.”

Holder, who is now a research analyst and graduate student at DePaul University’s Loop campus, no longer rides her scooter to work because there is nowhere she can park it safely.

“I’ve had my scooter stolen before, so I always have it locked up with one of the really heavy-duty bike locks,” Holder said. “I just don’t feel comfortable not having it locked.”

Holder is not alone in her concerns about scooter theft. Many scooter owners avoid parking on the street, like a regular vehicle, because there is no easy way to secure them.

Scooters, which can weigh under 200 pounds on average, are often the targets of thieves who will simply pick them up and put them in the back of a pick-up truck.

Holder said she suspects that is how her scooter was stolen since there was no evidence of it being hotwired. When Holder and her fiancee travel on their scooters together, they lock them together making them heavier and more unwieldy for thieves to pick up.

Bryan Bedell, a 39-year-old graphic designer, has been riding a scooter since 1995 and is active in the scooter community. As publisher of a scooter-related website, 2StrokeBuzz.com, he hears many scooterists complain about parking issues.

“From what I hear, most people know they are doing something wrong and when they get a ticket, they complain about how unfair it is,” Bedell said. “It is really hard to park in the Loop … the law used to be really unclear. At least it’s clearer now.”

Bedell said he agrees with the city’s parking restrictions and said that in many European cities, where scooters are even more popular than in the U.S., there can be too many cluttering the sidewalks, making it hard at times for pedestrians to maneuver around them.

But Bedell and Holder agree there must be some way the city can make it easier for law-abiding scooter owners to park safely without using sidewalks or bike racks.

“I wish [the city] would put more effort into finding some sort of solution that did work instead of just saying it’s impossible,” Bedell said.

Bedell and a group of about 20 other scooterists met with city officials from the Departments of Transportation, Revenue and Environment last year to discuss issues scooterists were dealing with.

One of the many concerns raised by scooterists at the city meeting was what they perceived to be unfair policies regarding scooters and motorcycles parking at city pay-and-display boxes. Currently, scooters pay the same rate as cars but they only take up a fraction of the parking space. Bedell said he would like to see the city find a way to charge scooter and motorcycles at a lower rate than cars when parking in these spaces.

Other cities have found ways to compromise with scooterists. In Toronto, for example, scooters and motorcycles can park for free at metered parking spaces. San Francisco designated more than 1,500 parking spaces around they city for scooters and motorcycles. The city of Columbus, Ohio unveiled a new scooter and motorcycle parking plan in July that will create 15 parking corrals around the city.

Nothing is in the works for Chicago, a city that prides itself on being “green,” but as scooters become more popular with commuters, some say the city may need to address the downtown parking problem.

Shawn Lyte, the business manager of Windy City Scooter and Bicycle Rental, 2151 W. Division St., said his shop’s sales have drastically increased during the past year. He attributes this growth to higher gas prices and the larger variety of scooter brands and models available in different price ranges. The majority of the new customers are city commuters, Lyte said.

“People see now that [scooters] aren’t just semi-luxury toys, they are serious primary transportation vehicles,” Lyte said.

Windy City Scooter isn’t the only scooter dealership that reports a dramatic sales increase. Bonnie Matijevic, a sales representative at Motoworks Chicago, 1901 S. Western Ave., said the sales at Motoworks have probably doubled in the past year, most likely because of gas prices and traffic congestion.

At the meeting with city officials, Bedell said the scooterists also talked about parking and theft issues. The city seemed empathetic, but there were never any promises made and he and his cohorts had low hopes that much change would happen, Bedell said.

No follow-up meetings have taken place since their initial discussion because none of the scooterists had the time or made the effort to hound the city and stick with it, Bedell said.

Chicago Department of Transportation spokesperson Brian Steele said that the city is open to new ideas and will consider the needs of scooterists, but that they should keep in mind scooters already have a place to park in Chicago-the same places that any cars can park.

For now, scooter owners should continue to obey the city’s parking regulations, Bedell said, and people thinking of owning a scooter should make sure to do their homework before buying one.

“I think the city should encourage people, as much as possible, to be more efficient and to ride scooters, mopeds and bicycles instead of cars,” Holder said.

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