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Scootin’ Through the District

The rise of moped culture in Washington

By Elyse Notarianni | 12/8/17 8:30am
Kimberly Cataudella / American Word Magazine

The wind is sharp against your chin, poking out under the face-shield of your shiny, black, three-quarters motorcycle helmet. You hurtle around the bend of the Logan Circle traffic circle on a navy-blue Honda Metropolitan scooter. Through the two-inch thick helmet padding, you can still hear the 49cc engine roar as you weave through the small gaps between two lanes of cars, which are now at a standstill, red light reflecting on their hoods from above.

In the cracks between the cars and metro buses, Washington DC’s streets team with adults scooting by on their mopeds. Since 2008, the rise of gasoline prices has prompted residents to buy scooters they had previously only seen on the streets of Rome and Florence. As the trend grew, riders started to find that these are more than vehicles that helped them save money and avoid traffic; they’re the key to a culture and a community.  

“My scooter completely changed the way I see the city,” Gabe Benevides, a senior in Kogod School of Business, said. “It’s not transportation like a car or the metro. It’s a lifestyle.”

Many of the District’s residents don’t immediately notice the abundance of scooters that permeate the city. But once they do, they’re met by a Vespa parked on a bike rack on the corner of 15th and H Street or a BMS Heritage scooter on the sidewalk outside a farmer’s tent at Eastern Market.

Andrew Gelwick, a senior in Kogod, bought his first moped, a Tomos 95 Sprint moped, two years ago when he moved into an apartment a mile away from campus. He needed a way to get around the city, but thought his car wasn’t practical. Driving downtown from his New Mexico Avenue apartment building could take up to 45 minutes, but by squeezing through cars on his moped, it rarely took longer than 20.

“There’s a sense of freedom that comes with riding a moped,” Gelwick said, adjusting his aviator-framed glasses. “You aren’t limited to the bus or metro lines. You don’t need to spend money on Uber. The only drawback is that once you get one, you’re hooked.”

The Washington, DC scooter scene is primarily made up of “20-something yuppies,” as Gelwick calls them. Members often gather around garages like Dirt Church in Silver Spring, Md. They try to meet up at least once a week for the “Tuesday Night Ride,” when they hop on their scooters and ride side-by-side down the city’s streets.

When their scooters break down, those who can’t fix it themselves bring it to Marc Connelly, one of the most well-known names in the District scooter community. Connelly, 40, is the owner of Metro Scooters garage in Vienna, Va., one of the few moped dealers in the area.

“The DC moped market boomed around 2008 after the economic crash,” Connelly said. “Scooter sales tend to rise and fall in proportion to the economy and gasoline prices.”

What had started as a cost-efficient way to get around became a community of riders with the launch of Moped Army, and online group that organizes moped clubs across the United States. Their forum section is what convinced Connelly to buy his first scooter.

With many models reaching up to 100 miles per gallon, he argues that scooters are one of the most economically sound modes of transportation. Plus, he adds, moped and scooter drivers can chain their bikes to bike racks and street signs, which saves money in parking fees.

Most riders start off with 50cc scooters, which are not classified as motorcycles by the District of Columbia Police Department and therefore require no more than a standard driver’s license. Connelly finds that after a year or so, many upgrade to a bigger 150cc engine, which requires a motorcycle license.

Moped and scooter riders thrive on the freedom of being able to hop on and go. They have to do little except unlock the chain connecting their back tire to a bike rack, toss it in the compartment under their seat, set their helmet on their head and slip into traffic. They have a disdain for rules, mostly because they never bothered to learn them.

DC has clear guidelines governing where a scooter can park and how it must behave on the street, but riders often don’t know them, and police officers often don’t care. They look forward to their monthly trip to the gas station, where they will buy $2.54 worth of gas, which will last them well into the next month. They smile as they plant their feet firmly on the pavement after slowing down at a stop sign, feeling carefree.