London is fast turning into a car park. The morning and evening rush hours have merged into one long jam. Nights and weekends are often not much better, when gas companies and cable contractors reduce roads to a single lane.

When you finally make it to the centre, where are you going to park? London has 2.3 million car-owning households, while nearly half of the working population commute by car or van. They squeeze into 208,000 on-street spaces and a further 153,000 off-street. With the number of cars expected to grow by at least 400,000 over the next 30 years, space can only get scarcer. And don't forget the strikes.

Suddenly driving a car seems to be one of the silliest ideas since Hovis took a knife to the humble loaf. The case for motor scooters, however, is overwhelming.

Stirling Moss has been whizzing around London on a scooter for 30 years. 'I find it so convenient,' he says. 'If you go out for an appointment you can give an accurate arrival time. Movement is tranquillity, and while you're on a scooter you're continually moving.'

Yet the UK scooter market is in a trough. According to the Motor Cycle Industry Association, annual moped registrations fell to 5,754 last year compared with 22,298 in 1989. There are 16,000 two-wheelers below 125cc in Britain, compared with 430,000 in Italy, 170,000 in France and 130,000 in Germany.

Neil Marshall, policy director at the Retail Motor Industry Federation, believes the difference is partly climate and partly British parents' reluctance to allow their children on scooters at 16. While there is now a 'tremendous resurgence in interest in bigger bikes, we're not seeing the influx at the bottom end. Teenagers want to spend their money on CDs, clothes or cars.'

Despite the gloom, Piaggio, Italy's leading scooter manufacturer, hopes to increase its moped market share by 30 per cent this year. Its pitch to commuters is straightforward - scooters are cheap, easy and reliable, unlike cars or public transport.

Its youth drive is more challenging. While scooters may be di rigore for the paninari of Milan, the damage inflicted in Britain on their image by the Mods, Twiggy and Jasper Carrott (remember 'Funky Moped'?) is immeasurable. Corrective advertising has just run on MTV and returns in the autumn. From next Monday, Vespas will appear in the windows of Miss Selfridge. A Piaggio spokeswoman explains: 'We're trying to create a first love of two wheels.'

I'll hire a Vespa for a week, I thought - classic Italian chic, practical as well. Armed with a brochure, I rang Metropolis Motorcycles: 'I'd like the red one please.' Apparently it's not as simple as that. The 'red one' is almost a 125cc and has four gears. Before being let loose on the road with L-plates, I should complete my Compulsory Basic Training (CBT).

The first lesson: be seen. Switch on your headlights, wear a day-glo bib and don't be afraid to honk (or in the case of a Vespa, buzz rather pathetically). 'The first thing someone will say after hitting you is, 'Sorry mate, didn't see you',' explains Andy Hale, owner of Metropolis. 'No one is trying to kill you, unless you're in Harlesden.'

A traffic policeman called Frank takes over. I quickly learn why he and so many motor cyclists have cropped hair. Helmets. Put mine on and my fringe scrunches down onto my face. Take it off again and I've developed a very attractive centre parting.

Vespa gears are on the left handlebar with the clutch (why didn't I get an automatic?), front brake and throttle on the right handlebar, back brake on the floor. It's simply a question of coordination. 'And don't forget your life-savers,' Frank keeps shouting. I think of Baywatch, but a life-saver is, in fact the final look over the shoulder before making any manoeuvre.

Next up, emergency stops, which require careful application of both sets of brakes to avoid skidding. After a conversation with a playground fence, I discover it's also a good idea to take your hand off the throttle. Finally Frank signs and hands over my CBT certificate: 'Be careful out there.' I'm trying to think of a route across London that does not involve any traffic.

The immediate priority - the hair - is addressed by a headscarf under the helmet. Well, I'd rather resemble a pirate for a couple of seconds than look like a prat for the rest of the day.

Then I begin to think about important issues. How do I eat a Polo mint, bite my nails, wipe my nose? The last question is answered the moment the pollen count rises. Sneezing for the first time on a scooter is fairly traumatic. Not only does the force of a violent fit send you careering across the carriageway, but visibility is instantly reduced to zero. I pull over to wipe my nose and then my visor.

I quickly discover that parking in the centre of London is a dream. There are plenty of bays reserved for motor cycles that are free and if they're full (they rarely are), you can normally get away with a pavement.

The other obvious advantage is the effect a scooter has on journey times in heavy traffic. Hammersmith to City Road, EC1, at rush hour, for example. It takes 40 minutes in a car, using short cuts. The direct route - Kensington High Street, Knightsbridge, Piccadilly, Shaftesbury Ave, Clerkenwell Road - is normally too jammed to contemplate. But on a Vespa you can duck and dive, cough and splutter and be there in 25 minutes.

A peak time run to the City leaving Amersham, Bucks, at 8am and coming down the A40 would take 90 minutes, perhaps nearer two hours, in a car. Even on a strike day and with the gentlest of phuts past the Hoover building, a Vespa can do it in 65 minutes.

At the hint of a tail-back, you sail by on the outside or up the middle. It can be stressful though. You can be fairly sure that some muppet will either change lanes without looking or indicating, or, frustrated with roasting in the queue, will sling a U-turn.

It is remarkable how the threat of imminent death sharpens your senses. You can tell by the way drivers fiddle with their car radios or pick their noses that they're not looking as they pull out. Hell, you're only a scooter after all. 'So remember,' as Frank kept telling me. 'Observation.' My one lapse (I was choking on smog at the time) came on Shaftesbury Avenue, when a blue Peugeot 405 braked for no apparent reason. Emergency stop time, my whole life flashing in front of me - the playground fence, that brief, embarassing period when I worshipped Kylie Minogue.

Death or serious injury are all around - psychotic despatch riders, Astramax vans and Parcelforce lorries. Taxis are tuned into scooters and usually let them in. But not pedestrians. They step out, see you, freeze, step back in, out, do everything bar the hokey cokey. And then they seem surprised when, after leaving a large part of your rear tyre on Brompton Road, you shout at them. At least tourists look first, albeit the wrong way.

This is not meant to sound gloomy. Because you are so aware of what could happen, it probably won't. And there's always the camaraderie of fellow Vespa riders for comfort. Friendly nods indicate Vespa Respect.

If I was buying - and I'm considering it - I'd go for a windscreen. It protects your clothes, so you could wear a suit if you wanted to. There's also a speed - around the late 40s - at which bugs suddenly stop being blown aside. I don't know what goes through a fly's mind at the point of impact, but it makes a hell of a mess on your visor.

For further information on motorcycle training and Piaggio scooters, contact Metropolis Motorcycles,

62 Albert Embankment, SE1 7TP.

Tel: 071- 793 9313.

(Photograph omitted)

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