Scootin’ Through the District | The American Word

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Scootin’ Through the District

The rise of moped culture in Washington


By
Elyse Notarianni | 12/8/17 8:30am


Kimberly Cataudella /
American Word Magazine

The
wind is sharp against your chin, poking out under the face-shield of your
shiny, black, three-quarters motorcycle helmet. You hurtle around the bend of
the Logan Circle traffic circle on a navy-blue Honda Metropolitan scooter.
Through the two-inch thick helmet padding, you can still hear the 49cc engine
roar as you weave through the small gaps between two lanes of cars, which are
now at a standstill, red light reflecting on their hoods from above.

In
the cracks between the cars and metro buses, Washington DC’s streets team with
adults scooting by on their mopeds. Since 2008, the rise of gasoline prices has
prompted residents to buy scooters they had previously only seen on the streets
of Rome and Florence. As the trend grew, riders started to find that these are
more than vehicles that helped them save money and avoid traffic; they’re the key to a culture and a community.  

“My
scooter completely changed the way I see the city,” Gabe Benevides, a senior in
Kogod School of Business, said. “It’s not transportation like a car or the
metro. It’s a lifestyle.”

Many
of the District’s residents don’t immediately notice the abundance of scooters
that permeate the city. But once they do, they’re met by a Vespa parked on a
bike rack on the corner of 15th and H Street or a BMS Heritage
scooter on the sidewalk outside a farmer’s tent at Eastern Market.

Andrew
Gelwick, a senior in Kogod, bought his first moped, a Tomos 95 Sprint moped,
two years ago when he moved into an apartment a mile away from campus. He
needed a way to get around the city, but thought his car wasn’t practical.
Driving downtown from his New Mexico Avenue apartment building could take up to
45 minutes, but by squeezing through cars on his moped, it rarely took longer
than 20.

“There’s
a sense of freedom that comes with riding a moped,” Gelwick said, adjusting his
aviator-framed glasses. “You aren’t limited to the bus or metro lines. You
don’t need to spend money on Uber. The only
drawback is that once you get one, you’re hooked.”

The
Washington, DC scooter scene is primarily made up of “20-something yuppies,” as
Gelwick calls them. Members often gather around garages like Dirt Church in
Silver Spring, Md. They try to meet up at least once a week for the “Tuesday
Night Ride,” when they hop on their scooters and ride side-by-side down the
city’s streets.

When
their scooters break down, those who can’t fix it themselves bring it to Marc
Connelly, one of the most well-known names in the District scooter community.
Connelly, 40, is the owner of Metro Scooters garage in Vienna, Va., one of the
few moped dealers in the area.

“The
DC moped market boomed around 2008 after the economic crash,” Connelly said.
“Scooter sales tend to rise and fall in proportion to the economy and gasoline
prices.”

What
had started as a cost-efficient way to get around became a community of riders
with the launch of Moped Army, and online group that organizes moped clubs
across the United States. Their forum section is what convinced Connelly to buy
his first scooter.

With
many models reaching up to 100 miles per gallon, he argues that scooters are
one of the most economically sound modes of transportation. Plus, he adds,
moped and scooter drivers can chain their bikes to bike racks and street signs,
which saves money in parking fees.

Most
riders start off with 50cc scooters, which are not classified as motorcycles by
the District of Columbia Police Department and therefore require no more than a
standard driver’s license. Connelly finds that after a year or so, many upgrade
to a bigger 150cc engine, which requires a motorcycle license.

Moped
and scooter riders thrive on the freedom of being able to hop on and go. They
have to do little except unlock the chain connecting their back tire to a bike
rack, toss it in the compartment under their seat, set their helmet on their
head and slip into traffic. They have a disdain for rules, mostly because they
never bothered to learn them.

DC
has clear guidelines governing where a scooter can park and how it must behave
on the street, but riders often don’t know them, and police officers often
don’t care. They look forward to their monthly trip to the gas station, where
they will buy $2.54 worth of gas, which will last them well into the next
month. They smile as they plant their feet firmly on the pavement after slowing
down at a stop sign, feeling carefree.

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