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Hacking SF: Your City Scooter Survival Guide

Jenna Scatena | June 7, 2013 | Lifestyle Story City Life

The idea of traversing the city by two motorized wheels is alluring—cheap, quick, efficient, fun. Zooming from your apartment in Noe Valley to work in the Financial District and having available parking right outside your office (for less than $3 a day!), and on weekends riding laps through the Eucalyptus groves in the Presidio seems like a great way to get around the city.

Michael Keating, founder and CEO of the new startup Scoot, realized this last year and soon launched his fleet of electric scooters that people can rent for cheap. One of the best parts of Scoot, Keating touts, is that you don’t need a motorcycle license to drive his scooters. Keating says that most states don’t require a special license for driving low-powered scooters like his. California does, but makes an exception for scooter rentals less than 48 hours. Instead, you just need a valid driver’s license, and in Scoot’s case, to go through their 40-minute orientation.

Keating says about 75 percent of Scoot’s members have never been on a scooter before. When asked what the orientation covers, Keating explained, “We teach you how to start, brake, turn, and how to stay out of cars’ blind spots, then we send you around the block a few times… It’s easy to ride.” There’s no test you have to pass, just an approval from one of Scoot’s employees that you seem to know what you’re doing.

As a licensed scooter driver, I quizzed a friend who recently signed up with Scoot about basic safety techniques (like to never break while turning) and she didn’t answer one of the five questions correctly. Scoot's scooters don’t go above 30mph, but still, driving one of these vehicles through the city is very different than riding, say, a bike or driving a car. Bikes usually have bike lanes, and for a reason, and don’t zoom through the Broadway tunnel at 30mph. There are different dangers to be aware of—even different clothes you need to wear. Maybe the law won’t make you get a special license to drive one of Scoot’s bikes, but it might not be a bad idea to take your safety into your own hands.

Here’s the top five things to consider before scooting, whether you’re on an electric Scoot or a new, shiny, red Vespa.

1. Take the motorcycle safety course.
Seriously. Scooter school may sound like an automotive kin to clown school, but it’s no joke. There are dangers around every turn of the city—potholes, cable car tracks, slick street paint—that pose entirely different risks on two wheels than on four. As one of my teachers put it, “Crashing at 40 mph on a scooter is no different than crashing at 40 mph on a Harley.” For my two-day class at Bay Area Motorcycle School, a couple of bearded instructors barked orders at us with the demeanor of a highly-decorated drill sergeant Swerving around orange cones and hurdled wooden planks in the SF City College parking lot undoubtedly prepared me for the hazards of driving in a city. Be sure to request a scooter when you register.

If you pass the class you get some sweet perks too: discounts on auto insurance and local scooter stores like Scuderia West and Mr. Scooter. Plus you are waived from taking the driving test at the DMV for your M1 (you need an M1 to drive scooters above 50cc).

2. Wear the right gear
Slim fitting leather gloves and a leather jacket not only make you look like a badass, they are key for not getting horrible road rash if you fall. Supportive boots that rise above the ankle with rubber soles (sorry ladies, no heels) are important for not slipping on loose rocks or slick road paint.

To protect your eyes from flying objects, you need good eyewear (though a face shield is best). Something as small as a pebble poses a big threat to your peepers at 30mph—and quality eyewear is important, as that pebble would shatter cheap sunglasses. Oakley has a great selection of impact-resistant and optically clear sunglasses, most of which are customizable so you can mix and match frames and lenses. I went to their Market Street store to find the best scooter-friendly shades with three things in mind: a comfortable fit inside my helmet, unobstructed peripheral visibility, and a style that doesn’t make me look like a tool. The three best pairs I found were the Miss Conduct (women’s; love the name), Half Jacket 2.0 (men’s; interchangeable lenses), and Frogskin (unisex; stylish and good fit but not as clear peripheral visibility).

Also consider a full-face helmet instead of a less protective three-quarter-size helmet (think about it: If you rear-end someone, would you rather your helmet break your fall, or your chin?).

Lastly, utilize bright clothing and scooters. In SF, the streets are clogged with trucks, buses, cars, and bicyclists competing for the road. It’s easy to not see a scooterist, so a bright scooter or jacket in a color like red or silver will increase your chances of being seen.

3. Scooter parking in SF is tricky.
A lot of people say they want a scooter because they think they can park anywhere. You can't. Sometimes you can get away with sharing a meter with a car, parking longer than you’re supposed to in time-limited spot, or even parking in an undesignated spot, but if you want to play it safe, you have to follow the laws like all the other vehicles. Luckily meter parking is significantly cheaper than for cars (price ranges from about $0.30 to $0.80 per hour). You can find a map of official motorcycle and scooter parking in SF here.

4. Where to buy a scooter.
There are a handful of great shops in San Francisco that sell used and new scooters. Some of the best are SF Scooter Centre, SF Moto, Scuderia West, and Vespa SF. Then there’s Craigslist, which is hit or miss for obvious reasons. Good used scooters are in such high demand that most of the Craigslisters I contacted about buying a scooter said they had a check in their hands within 24 hours of posting it. Do your research ahead of time about the size, make, model, and CCs you want, and then keep your eyes peeled and be patient. Chances are if you find what you’re looking for, you’ll have to jump on the opportunity or someone else will. Unfortunately this doesn’t give you much chance, if any, to get the scooter pre-checked by a mechanic. It’s a gamble.

5. Where to take your scooter when it’s sick.
The SF Scooter Centre in SoMa is one of the best scooter mechanics in San Francisco. They service a wide variety of scooter brands, are personable, and quick. Plus, they have a an awesome scooter museum.

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