Uneasy riders of Baltimore

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Hundreds of hip, young Baltimoreans have found a perfect way to zip around the city: motorized scooters that look cool, are easy to park and get 100 miles to the gallon.

If only police would quit pulling them over and impounding the bikes.

The City Council outlawed Vespa-style motor scooters and mo-peds two years ago. The mini-horsepower machines were included in a bill that primarily targeted much more powerful dirt bikes. At the time, dirt bike gangs known as "rough riders" were roaring through Baltimore in packs of 20 or more, running drugs, popping wheelies and terrorizing motorists.

The motor scooter/mo-ped prohibition prompted little reaction at first, but complaints have revved up to a full-throttled roar in the past year as scooters gained popularity among professionals and blue-collar workers. Driving the vehicles' growing appeal is a change in state law that waived many requirements, such as the need for a motorcycle license to operate scooters.

"It just shocked me when I got pulled over," said Mark Sailors, 31, a martial arts instructor from Washington Hill who has been stopped six times since he bought a $2,500 Kymco Cobra 50 scooter in May.

"I just can't understand in a city that's as polluted as this that they are giving people a hard time for using vehicles that get 100 miles to the gallon."

Sailors said police let him go with a warning each time. But others haven't been so lucky.

John Orr of West Baltimore said he was stopped at a red light on Greenmount Avenue two weeks ago, on his way home from his custodial job in Columbia, when an officer pulled him over and impounded the bright yellow Cobra he'd bought three days before. It cost him $160 to get the bike out of the impound lot.

"It's come to the point, I don't even want that bike no more," said Orr, 26. "[But] I feel as though I shouldn't have to get muscled out of transportation just because of the police."

It's legal to ride scooters and mo-peds on public roads under Maryland law, but the city has the right to enforce a more restrictive ordinance, city and state officials say.

At least one City Council member wants to reverse the mo-ped and scooter ban, but police say there's a good reason to keep it.

"They're all a nuisance," said Col. Robert Biemiller, the city's chief of patrol. He said drivers of dirt bikes, scooters and mo-peds tend to ride on the wrong side of the road, run lights and ignore other traffic laws.

While dirt bikes might be their vehicle of choice, drug dealers also use scooters and mo-peds to ply their trade and flee police, even though their top speeds are about 35 mph to 45 mph, Biemiller said. Dirt bikes can go 75 mph, bike dealers say.

"I see them in certain parts of the city where they're used to facilitate the drug trade," Biemiller said of the scooters and mo-peds. "They can elude the police because they can get down alleys. They can maneuver better than a patrol car can."

Councilman Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr., whose southeast district includes several gentrified waterfront neighborhoods that are short on parking and long on scooter fans, has introduced a bill to make the vehicles legal again. It would require owners to register scooters and mo-peds with the city's transportation department.

D'Adamo expects his bill to have a hearing in the fall, but he's having trouble convincing council colleagues that it's a good idea.

"I think the fear of some members of the council is, if we go and change the law it will tell the drug dealers, 'Don't use the fast bikes, use the slow bikes to do your business,'" said D'Adamo, who thinks that's unlikely. "It's hard to do a wheelie at 25 miles an hour."

D'Adamo said he never dreamed that scooters and mo-peds would become so popular among city commuters when he voted for the ban in summer 2000. West Baltimore Councilwoman Catherine E. Pugh had proposed the bill that May, after two city men died in a dirt bike accident - one of a string on city streets at the time.

Some said the council bill was overkill. Dirt bikes - off-road vehicles that lack turn signals, regulation headlights and other safety features found on scooters - were illegal on public streets under state law. The city's bill stiffened penalties, empowering police to confiscate bikes and fine violators up to $1,000.

Then, a year after the bill passed, a change in state law made using motor scooters more appealing.

Maryland had been classifying scooters as motorcycles, which require a special driver's license, license plates, insurance and helmets. A law that took effect July last year reclassified scooters with engines smaller than 50 cc's as mo-peds, which require only a regular driver's license.

Since then, local dealers say, scooter sales have soared - despite Baltimore's ban.

"My business has probably doubled," said Bob Gordon of Gordon's Cycle in Hampden. "They've become very popular. A lot of college students are buying them. Most of my customers are probably professionals."

The surge is part of a trend across the United States, where scooter sales are expected to jump 25 percent this year to 50,000 to 60,000, according to Bruce Ramsey, national sales manager for STR Motorsports of Inman, S.C., the exclusive U.S. distributor of Taiwanese-made Kymco scooters.

In the past few years, scooter sales in America have surpassed those in Spain and Austria, Ramsey said. But overall, scooters are much more popular in Europe and Asia. Kymco sells about 400,000 scooters a year in Taiwan - whose population is less than one-tenth that of the United States.

No one knows how many scooters are rolling through the streets of Baltimore because owners no longer have to register them with the state. But Ramsey says the company sells about 500 bikes in Maryland annually.

Scooters are gaining popularity in many parts of the United States, in part because, like Maryland, other states are loosening motor vehicle classification laws, Ramsey said.

"We're finally catching on to the fact that in our more metropolitan areas, these are great commuter vehicles," he said. "You don't need an SUV to drive three miles to work.

"There's always been a faithful scooter crowd of generally fairly young people. But now it's expanding beyond that more to the yuppies and becoming more common. They're cute and efficient and ... people who are affluent see them and say, 'I have to have them.'"

Scooter lovers can count among their number Thurman W. Zollicoffer Jr., who as Baltimore city solicitor must review the facts in every scooter seizure case. Since the ordinance was passed, the city has seized 80 bikes, the majority of them dirt bikes, Zollicoffer said.

"I love scooters. I'm a scooter rider myself," said Zollicoffer, whose bike, a Honda Reflex, is large enough to be classified as a motorcycle - and legally driven on city streets.

Zollicoffer said he believes that the council was "reversing direction" on the ban. But until the council decides, scooter owners and shops will be in limbo.

Marvin Scott went into Broadway Bicycle in Fells Point recently, looking for something that would take him from his home near Johns Hopkins Hospital to his dishwashing job at an Inner Harbor restaurant. Parking a car is difficult and expensive near the restaurant, he said, and it takes him two hours to get home by bus.

Stuart Gorman, the shop owner, warned Scott about the scooter ban and watched his potential customer walk out.

"Bottom line is, nobody knows what's going on with the law, no shop owners," Gorman said. "Nobody told us anything. We're so tired of being on tippy toes."

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