So you’re thinking about buying a scooter? Smart move. You’re not? You should. They’re cheap to buy, cheap to run and cheap to insure. Scooters can be parked almost anywhere, and almost always for free. They are, however, legally considered a motorcycle, just like a powerful sport bike or a big fat cruiser. The three types couldn’t be further apart in terms of looks and performance. That’s obvious. What isn’t obvious is the difference in social implications. If you’re going to get a scooter and ride on roads alongside whining Ninjas and thundering Harleys, you need to be prepared. Prepare to be prepared.
I bought a scooter five years ago. At the time, I was living in an apartment in Melbourne, just across the river from the central business district. Melbourne, like many cities, is not kind to the car owner. Traffic is often choked. Parking is difficult and expensive. The apartment I lived in had only one space and my dad took it. Trying to find a spot in the surrounding streets was like stalking deer in the ocean. After a bit of research, I gave my car to my sisters and bought a scooter.
Scooters are motorcycles with a step-through frame. The engine is beneath your bum, leaving your feet free to rest on a broad, flat platform. You sit upright on a scooter, unfortunately giving the impression you’ve a rather long stick up your posterior. Compare this to the sleek lean-forward of a sport bike rider, lying almost horizontal on her tummy, her loins girding the vibrating gas tank, leaning into the headwind and slicing through it. A cruiser bike rider – typically a big, burly, bearded fellow in a leather vest – sits back, the bars rising up to shoulder level, sometimes higher. His knees are elevated and he looks like his is an easy, laid back journey over the open road. Scooter riders look like dorks.
There’s no way to avoid it: if you get a scooter, you have to accept your place in the social hierarchy of the road. We’re the nerdy kid who found his dad’s leather jacket. We bought a scooter because it’s practical. We aren’t that interested in the grunt and specs of our vehicles, barely aware of the type of engine oil we’re meant to fill it up with, but we still feel a little bit cooler than the chumps in their gridlocked sedans.
When you approach traffic lights on a scooter, you’ll be able manoeuvre your way around the stationary cars and snake your way to the front of the queue. This is a prime advantage of two-wheelers and gets you ahead of packs, cutting travel time. You’ll feel a little smug with the four-wheelers at your back, imagining their grimacing mutters as the light turns green and you speed away. The first time a real motorbike pulls up next to you at the lights, and every instance forever after, is when you’ll notice the gulf between a scooter and motorcycle. The motorcycle will edge into your field of vision and you’ll turn your head a fraction to scope it out. You’ll look over because you’ll hope it too is a scooter. Your heart will always sink a little when you realise you’re in the company of a real bike, because it’ll remind you that what you’re sitting on is inferior. Once you look, you’ll have to make visor-contact with the rider. Real bike riders are usually polite to we scooters because we’re all part of the brotherhood, so the rider will wave or give a little nod.
I was surprised the first time this happened. I thought I’d be ignored, but when I got the subtle nod, my hopeful face lit up. We’re part of the brethren, but we’re the little brothers. Our older bro might look out for us from time to time, wave in the school hallway to give us some cred, but as soon as he has the chance, he’ll ditch us for his bitumen girlfriend. When the light turns green, your scooter’s engine will be drowned out by the shatteringly louder roar of a motorcycle as it tears away, instantly one hundred meters ahead.
There’s also a question of etiquette at stoplights. If you’re at the line and a bike pulls up beside you, who has the right to pull ahead first? There are two schools of thought. One is that you should go first, because you were there first. You’ll know your fellow rider thinks this way if she sits back from you, so your tyre is edging out a foot or so in front. The second school of thought is that whoever has the beefier bike gets the spoils. If a rider is an adherent of this principle, there’s not much you can do about it, because as soon as that light goes green, you’ll end up with a face full of fumes, no matter how hard you wrench your throttle. In these circumstances, a scooter is very much at the mercy of a motorcyclist. I’ve had lovely moments of, “After you,” “Oh no, I insist,” but I’ve also had one prick sit behind me, let me take off first, only to rev his demon-bike and rip past me a bee’s dick from my flank, leaving my feet wet with fear on my broad, flat platform.
The differences between a scooter and a motorcycle aren’t just apparent on the road. Any rider, be it on a scooter, a superbike, a cruiser or a trike, will tell you that you must wear the proper safety gear. You’ll be amazed how adamant even the most hardened, toothless war vet is about safety on a bike. However, walking into biker gear stores all over the country is a stark reminder that you ride a scooter, not a motorbike. The walls aren’t adorned by posters of bikini-clad women on Vespas. Weekend rides aren’t through inner city suburbs on roads limited to 60 kmph. None of the clothing for sale features pleated trousers or ties. Still, if you stay polite, confident and chatty, you’ll leave with Kevlar pants that match your shirts and a very warm embrace from the two-wheeler community. Just learn how to fake noises of awe when someone tells you about their reinforced forks and bored-out phlange rigs.
The final note I can give you on the social implications of purchasing a scooter is that you aren’t buying a subculture. One of the reasons I got a scooter instead of a low-powered motorbike was because I didn’t want to feel the pressure of joining. Tell your friends you’re thinking of buying a scooter. If you have any friends that ride motorbikes, I guarantee they’ll suggest you get a motorcycle instead. A little one, maybe a 125cc or a converted postal bike. You’ll be asked out to rides: social events where a group gathers up in the hills and winds around curvy roads. All day. A scooter is a convenient way out of these events. There’s a tight bond between motorcycle riders, and they’ll happily let you join if you have a scooter, but they’ll also leave you alone once you decline the first few times. Most scooter owners buy a scooter to get around the city, to park easier, to keep costs down. We’re practical. We enjoy riding, but rarely do it for riding’s sake. If you want to buy a two-wheeled vehicle but don’t want to feel pressured to spend whole days speeding around breakneck bends, a scooter’s for you. We’re bitches. It’s fine. They don’t mind.