Along the Seine, little wheels keep on turning

Move over you cyclists, skateboarders, and roller-bladers. Urban chic has found new wheels.

The dernier cri, or "latest fashion," for ecoconscious Parisians is the scooter. Not the engine-powered variety that infests Italian streets, but a spiffy version of the foot-propelled model that children played on a generation or so ago.

But that is not the image that the designers of today's stylish vehicles are trying to project. The most popular model at the moment is a stripped down, hi-tech little number in brushed steel and aluminum with tiny wheels. It turns on a dime, folds down into a capacious handbag, and retails for $135.

In a city where air pollution is so bad that authorities have set up giant digital billboards on streetcorners to proclaim each day's rating on a scale of 1 to 10, the environmentally friendly scooter has brought in a breath of fresh air.

Lately, these same scooters are also on a roll in New York and Los Angeles, which, along with Paris, have the smoggy distinction of being among the megacities with the highest levels of traffic-based pollution in the world.

Sophie Faure, a grad student, was captivated as soon as she spotted one in a bike shop window just off the Place de la Bastille the other day. One or two trial whizzes up and down the sidewalk, and she had her credit card out.

"I like the fact that there's no engine, that I'm doing the pushing," she says. "I feel like I'm practicing a sport, but it's aesthetic too."

Until now, Ms. Faure has cycled to school, or used Rollerblades. "But bicycles get stolen, and you have to bring a spare pair of shoes if you are on blades," she says. "This is going to be more practical."

"It's hip," says Philippe Salziger, the manager of Velo Bastille, where Sophie bought her scooter. "Not everybody can rollerblade, but on a scooter you can be modern without losing your dignity."

There are two things seemingly wrong with that statement: first, scootering is considered not entirely dignified. And second, it sometimes seems as if absolutely everybody in Paris can rollerblade.

Especially on weekends. As Sophie bought her scooter, several thousand rollerbladers were gathering on the sunny pavement outside, donning their gear in preparation for their Sunday jaunt through Paris.

Every week, with permission from the city, bladers simply take over the streets along a route that organizers and the police have agreed to. In a streaming procession that can stretch for more than a mile, led by police cars with orange and blue lights flashing and accompanied by members of a special police unit on Rollerblades themselves, they cruise through the capital in a river of fun.

The ritual attracts all sorts and all generations, from small children to gray-haired grandparents, though most participants are in their 20s and 30s. Fathers push their infants in specially designed high-speed strollers, couples skate hand in hand, and the mood is convivial.

"I come because I need a bit of exercise and it's something I can do on my own, or with friends," says Muriel Chapin. "And rollerbladers really stick together. I've only been doing this for three weeks, and when I started I didn't know how to stop. So I just asked a rollerman I saw in the street, and he taught me."

The Sunday afternoon excursion, along a relatively gentle route, grew out of a much wilder ride known as Friday Night Fever, which starts at 10 o'clock on summer Friday evenings and lasts until 1 a.m. in the morning. By the time the cold weather set in last autumn, 25,000 people were showing up for the 15-mile Fever, dressed to kill and ready to rock.

The Fever is an adrenaline extravaganza, a fast and sometimes dangerous torrent of densely packed speed merchants, led by young alpha males who disdain protective helmets or padding for their knees and elbows. They leap the hoods of any cars that try to nudge into their path and sometimes hit speeds of 30 miles an hour.

If that struck me as a little ambitious, the scooter struck me as a bit feeble. Inspired by the Sunday afternoon crowd, I rented myself a pair of Rollerblades for the first time, and took to the freeway along the right bank of the river Seine, closed on Sundays to all except self-propelled traffic.

Once I had persuaded my young sons that I did not need pushing, I got the hang of it. Next time I will see if what Ms. Chapin told me is right: I shall have to find someone to teach me to stop.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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