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Ciao car, hello Vespa

Easy on the pocketbook, Italian-made scooter makes riding smooth around the city

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Tania deLuzuriaga
Globe Staff / June 22, 2008

It was an all-too-familiar situation: Ahead, a red light glared, and bumper-to-bumper traffic stretched as far as the eye could see. Taxis honked. Drivers sighed. Nobody was happy - except the reporter on the white Vespa who slipped into the space between the lanes and nimbly passed among the cars. Pedestrians stopped to watch, and drivers' eyes gleamed with irritation and envy as the reporter made her way to the front of the line, turned right, and zipped off on her way.

She would giddily repeat the move all day. And people would notice, often wistfully.

"That's what I need, a Vespa," said one of them, Garry Rizzuto, as he watched from a sidewalk in the North End.

Indeed it's a sentiment being felt by many these days. With gas prices at record highs and the weather transformed to glorious summer, many are parking their guzzlers in favor of transportation less petrol-hungry. Subway ridership is up. Bicycles are out in greater numbers. This reporter's choice was a Vespa, the sleek Italian-made scooter that seems to exemplify the phrase "Ciao bella!"

Of course, in a city where driving is considered a blood sport, tooling around on a 216-pound, 50 cc scooter might seem like a death wish. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and this fearless reporter wondered if saving a few bucks on gas is worth risking life and limb.

She set off last week with a full tank and a mission: to cruise the sometimes unfriendly streets of Boston, confronting obstacles, traffic, and the elements.

Would one of Boston's notoriously aggressive drivers push her off the road? Would people honk when she topped out at 35 miles per hour? Would she be eaten by a monster-sized pothole? Or would the ability to cut through traffic, park virtually anywhere, and look good doing it win out?

In South Boston, a bastion of just about everything old-school, heads turned as she flew past. Children pointed and shouted, and men in pickup trucks eyed the scooter's curves the way they might a beautiful woman. Or was that disdain in their eyes?

"One of the Rough Riders, huh?" asked an elderly man out for a morning walk.

Going through the waterfront district and into the financial district, a kind of Zen overtook her. She realized that she wasn't in a rush to go anywhere, as happens so often in her car. With the sun on her back and a helmet on her head, 30 miles per hour seemed fast and commuting was suddenly fun.

While drivers furiously tapped at their Blackberries and yakked on their cellphones, she was living in the moment, appreciating the sight of Fort Point Channel as she drove down Summer Street, the song of the sparrows as she whizzed down Newbury Street.

The Vespa's wasp-like 50-ccs were powerful enough to get her moving with traffic, but not strong enough to require a motorcycle license, insurance, or a registration. Best of all, she could park almost anywhere.

As vehicles circled Newbury Street searching for a spot during the lunch hour, the reporter glided up onto the sidewalk and left the Vespa in the shade of a tree.

In the North End, she bypassed the valets and parked in front of a gelato shop. At Government Center, she didn't think twice about the parking enforcers doling out tickets.

Of course the day wasn't without its hairy moments. Driving down Huntington Avenue, the reporter found herself ducking as schoolchildren tossed their trash out the windows of a Boston Public Schools bus.

Cigarette butts were equally lethal, and potholes suddenly seemed like death traps.

Mastering the technique of rolling the scooter back and kicking down the stand simultaneously requires some practice, and there was a moment of embarrassment when an older woman offered help as the reporter tried unsuccessfully to park in Mission Hill.

But more often, there were moments of wonder not often experienced on the streets of Boston.

Cars actually let the reporter cut in front of them. Pedestrians stopped midstep and waved the scooter by.

In Charlestown, a man in a white sedan stopped at a light and chatted about the Vespa he had owned 40 years ago, his face aglow as if he were remembering a lost lover.

It seemed like perhaps all of Boston would be a happier, kinder place if more people drove this way.

Tania deLuzuriaga can be reached at deluzuriaga@globe.com.

Fuel consumption and costs for a 40-mile roundtrip daily commute:

Vespa LX50 Basic cost: $3,299
Daily fuel consumption:
.57 gallons
Cost per week: $12.14 (uses midgrade fuel)

Toyota Prius Basic cost: $21,500
Daily fuel consumption: .83 gallons
Cost per week: $16.55

Toyota Matrix Basic cost: $20,400
Daily fuel consumption: 1.6 gallons
Cost per week: $31.92

Ford Expedition Basic cost: $31,345
Daily fuel consumption: 3.33 gallons
Cost per week: $66.43

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