As his Big 4-0 approached in October, Sean Brennan didn’t ask for a Rolex, Hublot or some other status symbol to let family and friends know he had spent his first four decades successfully. The real estate broker didn’t want a midlife-crisis convertible, either. But he did ask his wife for something with a motor that he could easily scoot around the city.
Brennan wanted to go over the proverbial hill on a scooter.
Brennan, who lives less than four miles from his Devine Street office at J. Bolos Real Estate, now often rides a Honda Metropolitan to work.
“If all I’m doing is going to the office and buzzing down to Jimmy John’s for a sandwich at lunch and to the bar for a cocktail at happy hour, I’d love to do that on two wheels,” Brennan says.
The reaction of friends the first time they saw him riding was emblematic of the scooter’s history.
“Oh man, I’m sorry — did you get a DUI?” Brennan recalls being asked more than once.
Though there are some who still perceive the scooter as primarily a “liquor cycle” (pronounced “sickle”) — the transportation of necessity for drivers who’ve had their licenses suspended because of a DUI citation — the scooter has become a convenient alternative for motorists in Columbia in the past few years. And it’s more than students hustling to class and young professionals riding the trend.
“I have been known to throw a file in the seat and jump out for a real estate closing,” Brennan says.
The Metropolitan, marketed by Honda as one of the best urban errand-runners ever, gets 117 miles to the gallon. Scooters are cheaper than cars to buy and operate, and along with extra cash, riders can put environmentalism points into their pockets. But what’s really going on in Columbia and in many cities nationwide is that scooters — and their two-wheeled cousin, the moped — have made a cultural impact.
The trend toward scooters and mopeds fits right in with two related trends: one in which young people are buying fewer cars, and another in which more young people are choosing to live in downtown areas.
In 2007, before the bottom dropped out of the economy, 73 percent of households headed by someone 25 or younger owned a vehicle. By 2011, that percentage had fallen to 66 percent, according to Pew Center research.
Other research suggests a long-term and wholesale attitude change among young people about cars. According to a Frontier Group/U.S. PIRG study, the number of miles traveled by 16-to-34-year-olds via walking, biking and public transportation all increased between 2001 and 2009, while the number of miles traveled by motor vehicle declined. The same study also notes that young people are increasingly inclined to live in urban areas and that fewer are obtaining driver’s licenses than in the past.
Then there’s just the intangible coolness factor: For some people, the scooter is a cooler — if slower — way to cruise local streets.
Scooters have become a lifestyle for hobbyists and tinkerers who like to build their own tricked-out rides.
Many people embrace the camaraderie in the two-wheel community.
“That’s what keeps me into it,” says Charlie Maynard, the president of The Buzzards, a Midlands moped gang. “It’s hard to find a jerk that rides a moped. I mean, it happens. But to ride something like that around …”
Takes commitment. Scooters and older mopeds, especially, can be unreliable. Cheaper models break down, and while replacing a transmission won’t break the bank, it can still be a headache. And while more people are riding scooters, there is still a slow uphill climb against a pervasive stigma.
“They don’t want to see the real estate agent show up — no matter how cool it is — on a scooter,” Brennan says of some clients. “Preferably, they want a car and nice shoes.”
The terms scooter and moped are often used interchangeably, but there are legal and aesthetic distinctions. The difference can get muddled, particularly when many of the scooters and mopeds on the road have been modified.
The U.S. Department of Transportation defines a scooter as a motorcycle. A step-through frame scooter, with a driver’s foot platform, is a motorcycle. To ride a scooter, you sit with your feet flat on the platform.
Mopeds were once easily identifiable because of bike-like pedals, but contemporary models, built without pedals, no longer resemble bikes with motors. Mopeds, particularly the vintage models that are currently appreciated, are straddled.
The central legal difference between a scooter and a moped is the engine and speed restrictions.
A scooter, with a single or multi-gear transmission, has an engine that’s 50 cubic centimeters or larger. Scooters, some with speedometers that register 80 mph, can technically travel at the maximum speed limit posted. Anyone who has been behind a scooter on a hill, however, knows that its speed can be frustrating.
Mopeds have smaller engines and are slower. According to the South Carolina Highway Patrol, a moped engine must be 50 cc or less and the transmission must be single-speed. The maximum speed allowed is 25 mph, although most moped speedometers measure up to 45 mph.
If a moped has been modified to exceed 30 mph, however, then it is considered a motorcycle.
To complicate matters, many manufacturers sell scooters and mopeds under the same model name.
The parking tickets piled up on Justin Clark’s windshield.
“My first semester at USC, I got over $300 in parking tickets,” he recalls.
He had to stop driving on campus after he got a DUI. To get around, he bought a scooter. It was stolen the first night he had it from a Bluff Road apartment complex.
Clark purchased another the next day and it lasted three years. He drove it even after his license was reinstated.
“I would go grocery shopping on my scooter,” says Clark, a 2012 graduate. “You can just wheel it right in and not have to worry about parking at all.”
Clark, 25, is the manager of Hawg Scooters, the Rosewood Drive motorbike retailer that opened less than three years ago in the former space of a Gamecock apparel store. In September 2012, Hawg Scooters, which has branched into four wheelers and dirt bikes, expanded into the empty next-door storefront. The company now sells parts out of a shop in Savannah.
Clark says the store sold about 400 scooters in 2012. Hawg Scooters provides storage as well as a showroom for people looking to sell their rides, taping clever messages to the frame. Potential buyers of a retro-style scooter are alerted that they must own a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses “to purchase this majestic unicorn of American-made metal.”
The scooter renaissance is, in part, credited to the shock of post-Katrina gas prices and the Great Recession. Something similar happened in the 1970s when the energy crisis sent car owners flocking to mopeds.
Back then, people returned to cars as gas prices dropped and car companies reduced the guzzling of their models. This time, more than six years after the start of the recession, people are still buying scooters and local stores, like Jade Moon, are meeting the demand.
Travis Harmon, the general manager of the West Columbia store that sells mopeds, scooters, ATVs, motorcycles and dirt bikes, is a factory-trained Honda, Kawasaki and Yamaha mechanic. Scooters won him over once he started working on them.
“From a mechanic’s perspective, I can blow one up, spend 300 bucks rebuilding the motor and be back on the streets in two days,” he says. “You can’t do that with anything else.”
He likes the ease of riding a scooter, because there’s no weight shifting like on a pedal bike. And on a motorcycle, a rider has to always be in awe — even scared — of its power.
“On a scooter, as long as you’ve got decent tires on it, you can be full throttle,” Harmon says. “Even full throttle wide open, you’re not going fast enough to hurt yourself too bad.”
They might be easy to ride, but the uptick has resulted in a rise of theft, collisions and fatalities involving scooters and mopeds.
According to five-year collision data from the S.C. Department of Public Safety, there were 455 total crashes in 2008 involving scooters and mopeds, resulting in 433 injuries and 13 deaths. In ’09, there were 531 crashes, 497 injuries and 18 deaths. The numbers peaked in 2012 with 37 fatalities and 807 crashes. There were 12 fewer deaths in 2013 and 100 fewer accidents.
State law requires that any operator or passenger under 21 wear a helmet. Brennan, the broker, will wear one for night rides.
“I don’t ride without a helmet. Ever,” says Maynard of The Buzzards, standing in his living room holding one he bought for $6 at a thrift store. “I don’t encourage buying used, but I do.”
Bike riders of any type must always be aware of motorists. By law, Maynard says, mopeds and scooters are supposed to hold the white line, the edge of the road. The shoulder isn’t always safe because of storm drains, debris and road imperfections, but riders on the shoulder can only dodge into traffic. Maynard says riding the shoulder also encourages impatient drivers to pass without the courtesy of entering the other lane.
“I’ve seen people eat it. I’ve eaten it before,” says Maynard, who has been slapped by side view mirrors. “You’ve got to have your helmet on, man.”
In 2008, Gamecocks football coach Steve Spurrier began requiring players who ride mopeds or scooters to wear helmets after three accidents, including one involving running back Kenny Miles, then a freshman, who had to sit out two weeks after suffering bruises and abrasions. In 2011, Andrew Clifford, a backup quarterback, suffered a concussion after crashing while carrying a pizza. He wasn’t wearing a helmet.
Clark thinks helmets should be required. He also supports policing theft. His first scooter was stolen because he neglected to secure it overnight. His second scooter was almost stolen when he returned to his apartment one evening to retrieve books. By the time he was ready to leave, his scooter was being loaded onto the bed of a pickup truck. Startled, the thieves drove off without latching the truck’s tailgate and Clark’s bike slid off, clattering on the pavement.
Since 2008, the Richland County Sheriff’s Department has had 291 scooters reported stolen. In 2008, there were 26 compared to 64 last year. The high over the period was 74 in 2012.
Hawg Scooters sees a lot of poached bikes, and Clark takes frequent calls from owners looking to retrieve their property. The spray-painted frames with ignitions ripped out and replaced by one purchased at an auto parts store are easy-to-spot clues. But without proper registration, Clark says, “It’s kind of hard to get that person in trouble.”
The earliest mopeds were bicycles with motors attached. In theory, the mopeds produced in the early 20th century were not unlike the electric bikes that were banned this summer in New York City. Contemporary moped models look more like scooters, which haven’t altered their look substantially since Vespa became the standard after World War II. Vespa, a symbol of European cool, is the highest-selling brand in the world.
But scooters and mopeds are most popular in developing countries such as India, Indonesia and Vietnam. A majority of the scooters sold in the United States are manufactured in China.
Chinese scooters typically sell for less than $700, the price point for a reliable ride. Brennan paid $2,000 for his Metropolitan, built by the Japanese manufacturer Honda. Brennan was introduced to scooters by his neighbor, George Herron.
Herron, a self-described former Honda car guy, used to ride motorcycles. He didn’t think much of scooters until he rode one a friend had to buy because of a DUI.
“I just thought it was the coolest thing ever. I had the biggest grin on my face,” the bearded and tatted Herron says. “Because it was silly. It was slow, and I just felt weird.”
Now Herron customizes his own scooters, including a Princess Leia-dress white Honda Ruckus.
“What’s left of one, I suppose,” Herron, 33, says as he looks over the bike, which looks almost nothing like the stock model.
He’s removed the plastic tank cover, lowered the seat frame and made a custom wiring harness.
“It’s a bit of art to it, huh,” he says, admiring the work.
Harmon, the manager of Jade Moon, would agree. His bikes are down for winter modifications.
“Everything I ride is pretty much customed-out,” he says. “I’m the manager of this shop. It’d be kind of embarrassing if I was riding around on something stock out the box. So I try and change them up every year.”
Two years ago, Herron, who does some of the work in his garage but most of it in an airplane hangar full of bodies and parts owned by a friend, built his first scooter. He doesn’t think anyone in the city had seen anything like it before.
“It’s just taking something that’s not supposed to be fast and cool and making it fast and cool,” says Herron, who does not wear a helmet. “They don’t go that fast.”
Herron believes the work he and his friends put into scooters have opened people like Brennan up to riding them.
“He may be more hardcore then me,” Herron says of Brennan. “He’ll call me and be like, ‘I’m riding tonight, can you hang?’ And I’m like, ‘It’s so cold.’”
When he was riding motorcycles, Herron, who owns George Herron Photography, was hesitant to accept mopeds and scooters because they lacked speed.
“It was about looking as cool as possible and going as fast as possible,” says Herron who admits brushing 200 mph on a motorcycle.
He recalls the moment that helped change his outlook. He took a turn at 100 mph and then had to pop a wheelie to keep the front end from tank slapping, which is sometimes referred to as the death wobble.
“There’s so much power, it became very comfortable for me to do things that now I would be terrified to do,” Herron says.
How does he feel about scooters now?
“Two wheels are two wheels, man,” he responds.
Charlie Maynard and his girlfriend, Becca Talley, returning from a trip to Washington, D.C., to buy her moped, were driving past Owens Field when they saw a guy who seemed to be struggling with his bike. Maynard, 29, stopped and told him to bring the bike to his nearby house.
The guy, with a moped loaded with gear, was riding from Winston Salem, N.C., to Jacksonville, Fla., for a concert. He was going to camp in the woods behind Owens Field, but Maynard invited him to crash on his couch. Maynard happened to know the moped’s previous owner.
Maynard’s definition of moped is one with pedals — or one with pegs where the pedals used to be because the modification won’t allow the pedals to spin.
“If I ever see somebody on a pedal moped, I just run out, ‘Be my friend,’” says Maynard, who is wearing a black hoodie with the slogan “It’s Just Mopeds” on the front.
As a teenage skateboarder, Maynard would ride on the back of a friend’s moped in search of skate spots. While his friend was in college, he bumped into the friend’s father, who let Maynard have the bike.
He started riding it and he broke it. While Googling how to fix it, Maynard came across the website for Moped Army, a forum for the subculture that is now part of his daily life. He frequents rallies, where he’ll ride in packs of hundreds, the thundering motors rattling the chests of curious onlookers.
In Sumter, he started The Buzzards, a gang that will have its fourth rally in May. Last year, more than 100 people attended the event in a rented warehouse. There was a 100-mile ride from Sumter to Santee and back. The Buzzards are one of only 24 official Moped Army branches. Sumter shares the same status of cities such as Austin, San Francisco, Denver, Chicago, Los Angeles and Brooklyn.
“If I don’t get to work on a bike, I get depressed,” says Maynard, who has been “wrenching” on mopeds for seven years. “I wasn’t really going down a great path, and I really think finding mopeds gave me a sense of direction. I’m thankful for that. I think that’s one of the things that makes me more connected with the community.”
Moped mechanics are predominantly male, but riders are diverse. The Gaskettes, an all-girl L.A. gang has a branch in Portland, Ore. One of The Buzzards’ original members is female, and Maynard’s vice president is black.
“It’s all about acceptance,” he says. “Mopeds don’t even know a race, man.”
Neither do scooters.
“It’s not black or white,” Clark of Hawg Scooters says. “And I almost want to say it’s a cult, but it’s not like CrossFit.”
“In the end, it’s just so much fun,” Talley, 24, says of the moped community she’s immersing herself into. “We can go ride together. We can go eat together at a big table.”
Mopeds are temperamental to climate changes and require a lot of maintenance, so Maynard always allows himself extra time to get where he needs to go.
“They’re finicky, they’re fickle. You have to love it or you’ll hate it,” he says. “That’s why the community evolved the way it did, because you’ve really got to love the bike because you’ve got to work on them all the time.”
When the bike is performing well, though, it probably means it’s time to dismantle it and build something new.
“Sometimes I’ll get in trouble because I spend money on my mopeds when I shouldn’t,” Maynard says.
Life on two wheels has its appeals and certainly its advantages. It’s always a cool ride in the spring, summer and fall.
“How many times have you not found a parking spot?” Maynard rhetorically says. “I pop up on the sidewalk two feet from the door.”
But in the winter and when it’s raining, it’s hard to advocate for the convenience of scooters and mopeds.
“If it’s it a little nippy out, it’s not what you want to be out tooling around in,” Brennan says.
Many riders believe that scooters and mopeds don’t require registration, insurance and a valid license, but that’s not always the case. If a scooter is considered a motorcycle, then riders, by law, must carry a Class M license, which requires passing a vision, written and skills test. If riders take a 15-hour safety course, they can reduce their insurance rates by 20 percent, according to DMV.org.
The state highway patrol’s Guide to Enforcement of Moped/Scooter Laws also notes that scooters are required to have liability insurance.
“All vehicles that are considered scooters must be registered and insured as motorcycles, regardless of whether or not it has a transmission with gears or a single-speed unit,” the document states.
Mopeds don’t have the same restrictions and do not require registration, according to the DMV. But mopeds are supposed to have tags (provided by dealers), with corresponding validation stickers, according to the highway patrol booklet.
In South Carolina, anyone 14 and older can drive a moped by obtaining a Class G license, which requires a vision and knowledge test. Drivers who have their Class D or M license suspended for more than six months are also required to take the Class G test.
The laws appear concrete, but education and enforcement are as complicated as determining the difference between a moped and a scooter.
Bob Crawford of the Columbia Police Department says scooters sold as mopeds create multiple violations for the buyer and for the rest of the motoring public.
“We enforce all traffic laws with equality, so if someone is operating a scooter and it has the moped tag, then they would be cited for no vehicle registration,” Crawford says.
“It’s up to each individual person to find out the requirements before they make a substantial purchase,” Sgt. Bob Beres of the highway patrol says.
“We do enforce (scooters having a motorcycle vehicle license) because that’s the law.”
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