Personal transport takes off - on two wheels

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Harry Kaartz doesn't leave home without his Zappy. In fact, by the time you're done reading this article, Mr. Kaartz could have covered five blocks, saved five bucks, and skipped a stop-and-go ride in a stale-smelling taxicab.

"I was just in New York City," says Kaartz, who carries his Zappy, an electric-powered scooter, in the trunk of his car. "I used [the Zappy] to get through Manhattan, and I've never seen anything quite like it. You beat all the traffic, you beat the taxis, it's phenomenal," Kaartz says. "It's convenient."

The small-scooter invasion that started with kick-powered models a few years ago in Germany and hit American streets this spring is raging in the US.

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From dapper financiers on Park Avenue to Tommy Hilfigered teens in Los Angeles, everyone is scooting.

The trend is sparking more unique modes of personal transportation and a renewed interest in alternative vehicles.

Trend sustainability often hinges on the fickle teen market. But some experts say scooters' portability (put them in a backpack) and handling (skateboards can't handle bumpy streets), mean the two-wheelers won't go the way of the Furby.

Scooters also have cross-generational appeal, as users like Kaartz can attest.

Teens point out that in-line skates make for sweaty feet (and take time to put on and take off), and that the police tend to crack down on skateboards on sidewalks. And bicycles? There may still be hard-core mountain bikers, but "people aren't into bicycles anymore," says Lee Fogel flatly. The Newton, Mass., teenager, along with friend Joe Weinogred, was checking out the Razor recently at a Sharper Image store in Boston.

"With my [Roller]blades I can't get into stores. They always kick me out; it's really annoying," says Mr. Weinogred.

"They are opening up people's imagination to alternative modes of transportation," says Gary Starr, CEO of Zapworld.com, which makes the zero-emission electric Zappy.

Spin-off products and offbeat new uses are rampant in the scooter industry.

*"Dogscootering" is the newest fad. Simply hitch Fido to your scooter and have him tow you while you bark out voice commands like a dogsled racer.

*The aquascooter, a 15-lb., gas-powered model, propels you underwater at speeds up to 5 m.p.h.

*The Know-Ped, made by Go-Ped, is another version of the Razor. Go-Ped is also known for its gas-powered vehicles.

Eric Metzdorf, equipment buyer for CitySports, a sports-equipment store in Boston, says the Quick Kick scooter - yet another foot-powered version - is the hottest-selling piece of sports equipment he's seen in the past four years. It's doubling his store's sales in the "accessories and skateboard" category. "We're having a hard time meeting the demand," he says.

Steve Patmont, creator of the gas-powered Go-Ped, says Americans' fascination with transportation runs deep.

"Americans are addicted to transportation," says Mr. Patmont, who anticipates selling somewhere between 70 and 90 thousand Go-Peds this year. "We humans will find some way to have a magic carpet."

Mr. Metzdorf predicts scooter-buying will peak when school starts and spike again at Christmas.

Bob Davis, vice president of sales at California Advanced Sports, which makes the Quick Kick, thinks that by Christmas, competition could drive the price of kick scooters down to $40 to $70.

Not everyone can wait that long. Take Claire and Pat Doherty. Their son persuaded them to take the plunge, though they were skeptical.

"I thought it was a lot of money because I didn't think they'd use it that much," says Mrs. Doherty, from Winthrop, Mass. "Usually you buy this sort of thing, and they play with it for two weeks, and they never look at it again."

Not the Quick Kick. She says her son and his friends are glued to their aluminum racers, all day, every day.

Metzdorf says an unnamed source told him demand is so strong bicycle dealers are having a difficult time getting parts from China. Bicycle factories there, which also make scooters, are shifting production to more and more scooters, leaving American bicycle companies low on parts.

Mr. Starr, the Zapworld executive, has seen a steady increase in sales. Anticipating the trend, his company doubled production. But interest exploded this year, and production has tripled to keep up.

For Starr, there is no question when it comes to kick or electric.

"It's fun to kick a scooter, but after a while," he says, laughing, "you really want an electric one."

One step above the electric or small, gas-powered scooter is the sit-down, European-style scooter.

Peter Terhorst, a spokesman for Honda, says such scooters are a lifestyle statement. Consumers flush with cash are willing to pay for a convenient commuter vehicle that turns heads.

He says the Euro-scooter craze reached its zenith in the mid-1980s, when the Honda Spree sold for between $300 and $400. About 123,000 scooters were sold in 1987. This year, even with the boom in the smaller scooters, Honda estimates sales of the bigger versions at about 10,000 units.

Not that American cities will likely come to resemble scooter-packed Rome.

"In our culture, in America, having a car is everything," says Terhorst.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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