Transport chaos accelerates the scooter's rebirth

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The Independent Online

For decades they were the ultimate in two-wheeled uncool. But the rebirth of the moped as the "must-have" for chic urbanites was confirmed yesterday after sales rose by more than a third in a year.

For decades they were the ultimate in two-wheeled uncool. But the rebirth of the moped as the "must-have" for chic urbanites was confirmed yesterday after sales rose by more than a third in a year.

Out go the jokes about hairdryers on wheels ridden by nerds; in come snazzy designs and boasts about beating traffic jams. Nowadays, the scooter spells automotive salvation for frustrated commuters.

That, at least, was the claim from motorcycle retailers, as they revealed a record-breaking boom in sales that has put 48,164 more 50cc two-wheelers on the nation's roads in the last 12 months.

The figures, published yesterday by the Retail Motor Industry Federation, represent a 38 per cent increase in year-on-year sales. Overall sales of motorcycles - 170,000 - are the best for 14 years.

To others, most of them environmentalists, the scooter craze is dangerous and causes pollution. But on both sides of the argument, there is agreement that Britain is in the grip of a love affair with the moped.

Industry experts said the effects of the chaos on Britain's railways and continued problems with congestion had encouraged a rush into showrooms for mopeds and scooters.

Kevin Kelly, the federation's director for motorcycle retail, said: "Thousands of people who live in cities are seeing the scooter as their means of escaping commuting hell, and being fashionable with it.

"Many were already being forced out of their cars because they were sitting in traffic jams all day, but the rail crisis has accelerated the trend. The scooter is a cheap and convenient alternative."

The trend for the machines, which sell for between £1,000 and £2,500, began in London and the South-east and has now spread across the main metropolitan areas of Britain, according to the industry.

Boasting fuel consumption of 100 miles per gallon and a burgeoning range of sizes and styles, their popularity is also provoking a rethink on how they should be accommodated on Britain's roads.

In Bristol, moped riders have been allowed to use bus lanes to speed up their journeys and similar schemes are under consideration in Birmingham, Edinburgh and Leicester.

Such moves are seen as necessary to help deal with a moped explosion which has seen an eightfold rise in sales rise since 1995, when the total was about 6,000.

Manufacturers including France's Peugeot and Italy's Piaggio, which produce the top-selling models in the sector, say sales will continue to grow and could reach 100,000 per year within two years.

Fuelled by fashionable new models and a renaissance in traditional scooters such as the Vespa, everyone from the pop star Robbie Williams to the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver is keen to be seen on their moped.

The inevitable conclusion, it seems, is the conversion of British society to a continental vision of pavement cafés and streets full of scooter riders strutting their stuff in helmets and sunglasses.

According to the manufacturers, the trend is in fact underpinned by a mixture of the Anglo-American love affair with the combustion engine and a peculiarly British fashion craze.

Craig Carey-Clinch, director of public affairs for the Motor Cycle Industry Association, said: "I think we are following an American model - people don't want to be shackled to bus and train timetables.

"Scooters have become part of a youth culture, they are very popular with teenagers. But we are also seeing people in their 20s through to their 40s and 50s rushing to buy them."

But for the green lobby, the scooter is not quite the transport panacea that the producers claim it to be.

Casualty rates for motorcycle users are 15 times those for car occupants. In 1998, motorcycles accounted for 15 per cent of road deaths (498) and serious injuries (6,001).

With a significant number of new users assumed to be disgruntled train or bus passengers, their popularity could also lead to a net increase in pollution in cities, environmentalists fear.

Steve Hounsham, spokesman for the Transport 2000 lobby group, said: "Scooters may not be as damaging to the environment as a large car, but if you are apublic-transport user switching to the roads, it will add to pollution.

"They are also more dangerous for users - you are more exposed if you are in an accident. We shouldn't head to the nearest scooter shop in the belief it will fix our transport problems."