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Scooter City

Getting out of the car and onto a scooter.

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During my morning commute, I don't listen to the radio or talk on the phone.

I mostly play a little game I call "Do you see me?"

Here's how it works: I see someone in a car or SUV waiting to turn left. Often they're talking to their passengers or on the phone. I make eye contact — death-stare, stink-eye style — until I'm sure they've seen me. Thusly satisfied, I smile. Sometimes, and this is the shocker, they even smile back.

You see, for the past month, I've been riding a scooter to work.

Like many people, I was looking for an alternative to rising gas prices. I've wanted a scooter for a couple of years, but before, I was considering it more as a toy. Now I'm looking at it as a more serious (if you can call it that without laughing) form of transportation.

And I'm not the only one.

Malcolm Smart says he recently bought a Buddy 125 for his wife to use to run errands in Collierville.

"She'll take it on grocery runs and to the local mall and has really enjoyed herself," he says. In fact, he would like to drive it to his office downtown, but he says that parking would be a hassle.

Nationally, first-quarter scooter sales were up 25 percent from last year. Locally, Linda Salim, of family-owned Scooters Plus on Summer Avenue, says sales have probably tripled in recent months.

The reason?

"Let's see ... gas, gas, and gas," she says, laughing. In this climate, even a place called Scooters Plus is having trouble keeping them in stock.

"They're in high demand right now," Salim says. "People are buying them, but they have to wait two weeks to get them in. They're all sold before we can get them off the truck."

She says most of their customers are buying scooters with a 150-cc engine because they're more economical — they get about 65 to 70 miles per gallon — than scooters with a larger 250-cc engine. Salim says their 150-cc scooters range in price from $1,500 to $1,900.

"Our prices are pretty good right now," she says. "We're selling so many of them that you can get a good deal."

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that the 17th Annual Ride to Work Day, intended to promote motorcycles and scooters as transportation, is July 16th. Organizers say that motorcycles and scooters reduce traffic and parking congestion, use less fuel, and are less destructive to infrastructure.

But riding a scooter is an interesting endeavor. There is a certain amount of risk involved as accidents are more often life-threatening on a scooter than in a car. Rain can be problematic (and cold), and you can't haul a truckful of stuff. And I try to remember to put sunscreen on in the mornings.

But with the price of gas, scooters are being seen as almost practical. People have literally stopped me on the street to ask about my gas mileage, if it's worth it, and if it's scary.

So far, I'm liking it.

It's a completely different perspective on the city. Instead of being isolated in my car, I feel like I'm interacting with the world around me. At stoplights, my feet actually touch the city streets. I am intimately aware of which roads have nice new blacktop and which ones have buckled and bowed in the Memphis heat.

One hot day, the fire department was hosing off a parking lot — I assume as a training exercise — and as I drove by, nearly a block away, I could feel a fine mist in the air.

I can smell the city — sometimes freshly cut grass, sometimes barbecue, sometimes bus exhaust. I'll admit it's kind of a mixed bag.

But I wonder what would happen if there were more people experiencing the city in the same way.

At the Coalition for Livable Communities' second annual summit for Neighborhood Leaders a few weeks ago, they released the results of a neighborhood livability survey.

When asked about topics of concern in their neighborhoods, a majority of survey participants ranked "safety" as their number-one priority. That was followed by neighborhood condition, then neighborhood services, and then by transportation.

But what struck me was that if more people were out and about, more people walking, more people waiting for mass transit, more people on bicycles or motorcycles, that maybe those other things — safety and the condition of the neighborhood — would be impacted, too.

Of course, until then, I just have one question: Do you see me?

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