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Published on October 21st, 2007 | by Stephanie Evans


Electric Scooters, Personal Eco Transports

If you live in just about anywhere in Europe or Asia, it’s unlikely that you’d need to be sold on the merits of motor scooters (also known by the eponym Vespas)—those fun, economical, and stylish two-wheel vehicles that are simply perfect for driving—and parking—in crowded cities. 

But keep reading—you just might be surprised by some of the scooter’s environmental implications.  On the other hand, if you live in the U.S., you might want to start thinking about this admittedly unconventional alternate form of transportation.

“It Looks Like a Wasp!”

Scooters are often lumped in with motorcycles (and nope, we’re not talking about those cute kick scooters you see kids gliding through the mall with).  Seen as a slower, smaller motorcycle, cities often class scooters as "mopeds" when their engine size doesn’t exceed 50 cc (resulting in less regulation and requirements for scooter riders).  However,there are distinct differences between scooters and other types of motorcycles.  What’s more, scooters have a pretty interesting origin all their own.

After WWII, the Allies forced Italy to limit its aircraft industry.  This restriction, along with a crippled economy and bad roads, gave Enrico Piaggio the idea of turning his business from fighter planes to cheap transport for the public.  In typical Italian style, he gave aeronautical engineer Corradino D’Ascanio the task of designing a "rational, comfortable motorcycle offering protection from mud and dust without jeopardizing requirements of appearance and elegance."  D’Ascanio’s design, drawing inspiration from the American Cushman scooters the military used during WWII, was a revolution.

ScooterD’Ascanio’s design, unlike a typical motorcycle, used extensive bodywork, which included a front leg shield to protect the rider from rain and mud, as well as cowling covering the engine to protect the rider from grease.  Mounting the engine on the rear axle left room for a flat footboard, giving scooters their distinctive step-through frame.  Riders didn’t have to wear leather for protection from the elements and the oil, nor did they have to wear pants to straddle the seat.  D’Ascanio, aeronautical engineer that he was, paid especial attention to the aerodynamics of the vehicle, creating clean and elegant lines that exemplify Italian design.  When Piaggio first saw the revolutionary vehicle, he exclaimed, "It looks like a wasp!"  The Italian word for "wasp" is "vespa," and thus the iconic Vespa was born.

A decade later, what had originally been conceived as a utilitarian vehicle came to represent freedom around the world.  Especially in North America and parts of Europe and Japan, the Vespa has been and still is associated with subcultures.  However, in Asia and Central America, the scooter maintains its utility status, serving as the vehicle of choice for families too poor to afford automobiles, or urban areas so congested that scooters are more convenient than automobiles.

When Piaggio first saw the revolutionary vehicle, he exclaimed, "It looks like a wasp!"  The Italian word for "wasp" is "vespa," and thus the iconic Vespa was born.

Beating the Competition

Scooter riders definitely have an edge over automobile drivers in dense urban areas.  Besides the manoeuvrability, scooters can often be parked on the sidewalk like bikes, just steps away from that convenience store or the doctor’s office.  No more driving around in endless circles, waiting for that street-side parking spot to open up, or paying exorbitant prices for garage or lot parking. In some cities, scooters (well, motorcycles in general) have dedicated, free parking spots.  And in some areas, lane splitting is legal. In case you don’t live in California and haven’t had the heart-stopping experience of a motorcycle vrooming past your stop-and-go car, lane splitting is the practice of allowing motorcycles (and scooters!) to use the empty space between car lanes in slow or stationary traffic.  As unsafe as it might seem, U.S. DOT statistics show that legitimatizing the practice actually improves motorcycle safety.

A quick word of caution—scooters are smaller and riders are therefore less protected, so potential scooter riders need to be constantly aware of their environment and appropriately trained and attired.  Especially in the U.S., automobile drivers aren’t used to sharing the road with scooters, so extra caution is a must.

Green Scooters

Okay, so they’re comfortable, cheap, small and therefore convenient—they’re even cute and fun.  But if I make it my primary mode of transport, what am I really doing for (and not doing "to") Mother Nature?  The answer is:  it depends.  (Doesn’t it always?).  Scooters are known for their incredible fuel efficiency, just like motorcycles.  Gas-powered scooters can easily attain 60-80 mpg, music to the ears of anyone who last calculated the mileage of his SUV, sedan, or even compact car.  Scooters might use less gas than a conventional car, but they still require it, and by now, we must all be familiar with the intricate politics of gasoline usage—foreign oil dependency, global warming, unsustainable fossil fuel, and the list goes on.  But gas isn’t the only thing you should worry about when considering this tiny transporter.

Scooters line the streets of Florence, ItalyOne of the most important measures of greenness is noxious emissions—how much and how bad.  Unfortunately, conventional scooters fall short here.  Most of today’s scooters have two-stroke internal combustion engines, and if you happen to remember the hubbub Greenpeace raised over allowing two-stroke snowmobiles in Yellowstone, you might also remember that two-stroke engines are polluting, noisy, and short-lived.  Cars and "light trucks" might be the most environmentally derided modes of transportation, but they have a history of regulation that just keeps getting stricter.  Your modern car emits just about nothing compared to cars a couple of decades ago, and unfortunately, scooters currently rank with the latter.  Most scooters lack fuel injection, catalytic converters and other technologies that are standard in today’s cars.  These features either prevent harmful compounds from forming or convert them into harmless compounds.  Some sobering statistics: scooters emit just as much particulate matter as a large diesel truck, and three times as much carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons.  Who knew something so small could be so bad?

But despair not!  "Green" scooters do exist today, and more are on the way soon.  Although scooters probably won’t be getting catalytic converters anytime soon, they are taking a few pages from the automobile book.  The 2000 European emissions standards (Euro 3) require new motor scooters sold in EU member states to have four-stroke, instead of two-stroke engines. Four-stroke engines are more fuel efficient, quieter, more reliable and, most importantly, much cleaner than two-stroke engines.  But there are a couple of problems with switching over to four-stroke engines: one is that they come with a performance loss, and the other is that phasing out two-stroke engines is hard.  Scooters with direct fuel injection are now available.  This fuel injection technology results in increased fuel efficiency and power output.  It is available for both two-stroke and four-stroke engines.  Most new scooters are also made with continuously variable transmission (CVT).  Rather than requiring the selection of discrete gear ratios, CVT provides an infinite number of ratios in a finite range.  CVT allows for selection of the most efficient ratio of engine speed to vehicle speed, improving fuel economy even further.

Some scooters are also made to run on alternative fuels.  In fact, some cities in Asia have banned gas-powered scooters, allowing only propane-fuelled scooters to run on their streets.  Propane (aka liquid petroleum gas or "autogas") happens to be a great alternative to gasoline.  Propane pollutes much less, is cheaper, and already has a fantastic distribution infrastructure in place.  Better yet, propane-powered scooters use four-stroke engines.  These eco-friendly scooters are increasingly popular in Europe and Japan, and have already gained widespread acceptance in Asian cities.

But nothing can beat the electric scooter, greenest of the green.  Practically silent with no emissions, an electric scooter is a stalking panther through the urban jungle, leaving not a trace behind.  With electricity costing only one-tenth that of gas, you might be wondering why you ever thought the marvel of scooter fuel efficiency was even relevant (don’t get me wrong, efficiency is important as energy consumption is still energy consumption).  As a bonus, electric scooters require significantly less maintenance because they have fewer moving parts and don’t need endless amounts of lubricant, oil, and other engine fluids.  So what’s the catch?  Well, there are a few you should be aware of:

  • The upfront cost of an electric scooter is higher, just like you suspected it might be, but that little green motorbike is probably going to pay for itself through energy cost savings.
  • Unfortunately, the battery pack isn’t going to have anything on a fuel tank, and that’s the truth.  A 30-mile range seems about average, with 50 miles on the high end.  You’ll probably be fine running errands and commuting to work (unless your bedroom community is 20 exits away from the corporate office park where you work), but anything long-distance will call for something more substantial.
  • Recharging your battery also takes time—if you’ve ever recharged a cell phone or laptop at a public outlet, you’ll know how maddeningly slow that recharging can be.  However, if you plug in your electric scooter every time you come home, you shouldn’t have a problem keeping your battery charged up.  On that note, wouldn’t it be convenient if there outlets wherever there were parking spots? Well, maybe one day.

Companies like Vespa-producing Piaggio are continuing to set the curve in this industry—they’re in the prototype phases of developing a combination gas/electric scooter , the HyS, that boasts a hybrid drivetrain said to up power by 25% and cut gas guzzling by 20%.  They’ve also announced the Piaggio MP3, a leaning three-wheeled scooter that bolsters speed, stability (with a tilt angle of about 40 degrees), and traction, especially on slippery terrain.  And it just keeps getting better—this model is a plug-in hybrid that fully charges in three hours and gets about 170 miles to the gasoline gallon.  No word on pricing or release dates yet, but these annoucements should open up the market a bit and rev-up the speed on other projects.

To sum up: Electric scooters definitely hold the title of being the greenest scooters around.  But if you can’t find, afford, or use one for whatever reason, a propane-fueled scooter with a four-stroke engine that uses direct injection is the next best thing.  If you’re still not having any luck, just try to get your hands on a four-stroke.  Happy scootering!

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