Rebecca Barry: Quit the car and join the scooterlution

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It was crashing the car that did it. The car wasn't mine but it seemed to think it belonged in my garden when it reversed off the driveway, leaving a dangling bumper on the left and a dent a hammer could have made on the right.

Go on, try parking me somewhere else, it said as I stared dumbly at the carnage I'd just created. Spend money on me. I'm not even yours. Ha ha ha.

Meanwhile a scooter gleamed imperiously from the top of the drive like the skinny cow who just fitted into your old jeans. A friend had been zooming around on it for the past year, trying to convince me to invest in his uber-urban, eco-conscious, warrant-of-fitness-less lifestyle, one that precipitated his wearing of leather jackets, padded trousers and a smug expression.

I was starting to see his point. I didn't have far to travel to the office (upstairs at home), my parents, the supermarket and the gym were only 10 minutes away and if I joined the gym and started driving there, I'd have to get through Bangkok traffic first.

Also, after a year away in which I revelled in the freedom of the two-wheeler, I'd clearly forgotten how to drive a car. It appears I'm not alone in reconsidering my transport options.

Registration figures from the New Zealand Transport Agency show nearly 5000 Aucklanders drive a scooter, almost a quarter of New Zealand's moped population. Last year, registration figures were up by 139 on the previous year and although retailers say sales have slumped since the recession kicked in, shops such as Kingsland's Scootling report an increase in hireage and repairs.

Even winter doesn't appear to put people off. Last year, more than 400 Aucklanders registered mopeds in May and June, more than any other months.

On one hand it's exciting to think of Auckland as a Romanesque city of beeping Vespas. On the other, it looks as though hordes of angry fashion designers have taken to the streets on ride-on sewing machines. Everywhere I look a big, buzzing mosquito goes by, the driver ramrod straight on its back.

It's almost impossible to slouch on a scooter, probably to the behest of the 40-somethings keen to relive their motorbike-riding youth but with less danger and expense. Who needs pilates when you can strengthen your lumbar on the way to work?

But what was once considered a wimpy alternative to a motorbike has become a fashion accessory more functional than a belt on a dress without belt loops, perhaps in part thanks to a legion of high-profile riders - Gwyneth Paltrow, Jamie Oliver and, closer to home, Heart of the City's Alex Swney.

Most scooter drivers I know are pragmatists rather than trendsetters, although there are plenty of style-conscious scootlings judging by the prominence of shops such as The Retro Scooter Company.

They live within 10km of work, generally close to the city. They're sick of being stuck in traffic. They like that it costs $5-$10 to fill up the tank and nothing to park.

They're also all men, one of whom gets a kick out of walking into his corporate office with his fluoro safety vest on, prompting his workmates to ask where his roading tools are. "Perhaps they're just jealous their wife won't let them get one," muses his brother, a fellow scootling.

Well, the wives have a point. The brother was rear-ended on Pitt St and sent hurtling off his scooter which, thankfully, sustained more damage than he did. This went through my mind as I watched the Shortland Street crew film a scooter accident scene in Rarotonga last week.

The victim lay on the grassy verge, covered in fake blood, his vehicle resting benignly behind a sharp rock. It would have been entertaining to watch had I not just gained my moped drivers' licence and was about to go for my first blat around the island. There's no buffer from the world like there is in a car. The wind whipping past your face is warm and smoky. Obstacles don't beep and swear but bark and cluck.

After a few days of exploring the island's roads, I started to imagine doing the same in Auckland, buoyed by advice from Sean Willmot, editor of scooter magazine Rush Hour, who says now is a good time to buy new as there are lots of good bargains to be had.

He points out the recession will lead to impulse-buying on cheap, easy-to-maintain forms of transport and that consumers are wary of looming congestion tax. Well all that aside, I think I'm ready to join the scooterlution, if only to avoid reversing down the driveway.

- NZ Herald

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