Vespa in Seattle
March 25, 2012 12:17 AM   Subscribe

Hi everyone, I live in Seattle (Queen Anne to be specific), and I was wondering: (1) Whether or not a Vespa would be a great investment, better than a car, taking into account the layout of Seattle, for getting around the city, no major trips, and about as frequent as every weekend, maybe twice a week (2) Coming from NYC and not knowing how to drive, what is the best approach to learning how to drive a Vespa? Is any sort of license required, and where would I go to obtain that license? How long would it take, if I devoted time to learning regularly? Are there any issues specific to Seattle that I should take into account in taking up this project of learning how to ride and purchasing a Vespa? Any general commentary about motorized scooters is also greatly appreciated.
posted by brighteyes7 to Travel & Transportation (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I liked being able to hop onto the freeways in Seattle when traveling distances greater than a mile or two. I really would feel uncomfortable on a Vespa on I-5 or the 405, but I guess being on 99 wouldn't be too bad.

On the other hand, if you really intend to do no interstate driving whatsoever, I can think of plenty of reasons why a scooter is better than a car. If you're gonna do that, though, make sure the model you get has enough juice to negotiate Cap Hill, Queen Anne, etc. Lots of steep places in the city.
posted by Happydaz at 12:22 AM on March 25, 2012

You might have to call the DMV to be sure, because it depends on engine and wheel size IIRC. But the fairly Vespa-like scooter I had a while back was classified as a "moped", which meant I needed a drivers' license but not a motorcycle endorsement in order to drive it on the public roads.
posted by hattifattener at 12:22 AM on March 25, 2012

(FWIW, Happydaz, it was also illegal to drive my "moped" on any road whose speed limit was above 40, or perhaps 45, MPH. In practice that only ruled out Aurora and the interstates though.)
posted by hattifattener at 12:24 AM on March 25, 2012

If you drive anything but a moped, you're going to need the motorcycle endorsement to the regular driver's license. According to the DOL Motorcycle Manual (pdf), mopeds are "any two or three-wheeled vehicle that is powered by a 50cc or smaller motor and is capable of speeds of 30 mph or less on level ground." The big scooter manufacturers do make such beasts, so it's an option, and lots of people live their whole lives around Queen Anne without more than that. (Lots of people get by with public transit alone in that part of town, for that matter, if only because parking is such a San-Francisco-flavored nightmare.)

All that said, if you decide you want something with a little more go, talk to the Evergreen Safety Council folks about expectations and safety. (For that matter, given how dark and wet Seattle can be, and how ridiculously distracted most drivers are, even if you plan on putt-putting about town on a V50, you might think about talking to ESC about a safety class.)
posted by gingerest at 1:06 AM on March 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

You need a motorcycle license. I would suggest taking a Motorcycle Safety Foundation course in Seattle which would teach you how to ride a motorcycle without any prior knowledge and will help you get your license.
Majority of motorcycles require shifting of gears. If you get a modern Vespa, it will be automatic - twist and go. But it will be good just to get two wheeled practice with a MSF course before getting your first Vespa.
Modern Vespas also go up to 300cc now. To give you perspective, beginner motorcycles start at 250cc. 250/300cc gives you a top speed of 75~80MPH. You can take it in the freeway.
posted by xtine at 1:23 AM on March 25, 2012

Coming from NYC and not knowing how to drive, what is the best approach to learning how to drive a Vespa?

I would suggest starting with a car. You have to be far more alert to far more obscure dangers on a bike because other traffic doesn't see you and will drive right though you, given half a chance. If you don't already know how to drive in traffic, then unless you are an avid urban cyclist you haven't had the chance to learn where the danger is.

A car doesn't teach you where the danger is for bikes, but it allows you to learn one step at a time (how to drive in traffic etc), rather than needing to know and do everything all at once (going straight to a bike).

If you don't want to get a car, you could consider starting with a bicycle - no license is needed, and any time that traffic gets weird or an intersection looks intimidating, you simply hop off the bike and you're instantly transformed into a pedestrian, and that solves pretty much any trouble. You'll also be learning the urban bike skills you'll need for the scooter.

If you do decide to go straight to scooter, don't just get your license, invest some money in a defensive driving class for bikes and scooters. Biking on the road means knowing how to spot and avoid cars that haven't seen you (or have seen you then forgotten you, or...). This is not a matter of bad luck that you might not encounter, it will happen constantly. A friend of mine - who did know how to drive (but didn't have a car) - got a scooter, with great enthusiasm, but eventually sold it because traffic made it too terrifying to use.

Going from don't-drive straight to scooter in an urban environment is jumping into the deep end, even though the machine is easy to operate. I suggest starting with either a car or a bicycle, depending on what it is that makes a scooter appealing to you.
posted by -harlequin- at 1:42 AM on March 25, 2012 [4 favorites]

You're required to have a drivers' license to ride up to 50cc, and a motorcycle license for everything else. I got my motorcycle license in Seattle last year, and it's a piece of cake; you take a 2-day subsidised skills course and if you pass super-easy tests at the end, you have your license. (You do need a drivers' license to get your motorcycle license)

Before I got that license I rode a 50cc scooter in a city much smaller than Seattle without taking a riders' course. It's not hard to get the hang of riding (took me a couple weeks) but in retrospect, I wish I'd taken the course first. I only really got away with it because I was living in a city the size of a postage stamp.

Going up Queen Anne hill on 50cc will cut your top speed by at least 1/3, if not more. It took a long time to get used to cars passing me on crazy hills. I think 150cc is a much better fit for Seattle; it's still relatively compact but you'll actually be able to go the speed of traffic everywhere.

Also, don't get a Vespa. Get something less expensive and more reliable, i.e. any other brand.
posted by clipperton at 5:19 AM on March 25, 2012

Based on a friend's experience - it WILL get stolen in broad daylight unless you keep it out of sight in a locked garage whenever your butt is not actually on the seat. Even if it's cheap and crappy and barely runs. Even if you have a chain on the tire as thick as your arm. Even if it's parked right in front of the giant plate glass window of the shop where you work.

If you find it dumped a few blocks away, have it repaired, get a BIGGER chain, get your boss to install a massive U-shaped bike rack sunk in about a ton of concrete, chain it to that bike rack in front of that plate glass window, and ask everyone in the neighborhood to keep an eye out - it will just get stolen again. If it's a Vespa instead of something ugly and barely functional, up those odds about 500%.
posted by cilantro at 5:29 AM on March 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

Queen Anne would be an intense area to learn, the sidewalks on that hill have stairs, steep! If you do go that way get some good rain gear.
posted by sammyo at 6:18 AM on March 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

A lot of great advice here. I took the 2-day Motorcycle Safety Foundation course, and feel like I learned two years' worth of practical riding advice.

I also highly suggest learning to drive a car first. It's massively helpful to be able to have the rules of the road tucked away in an automatic part of your brain, so you can concentrate on being the most aware and attentive rider possible. (I always ride with the attitude that every car on the road is out to hit me.)

When I lived in Seattle, I owned two different 50cc scooters (one of which was stolen right off the street in Queen Anne), and a 125cc. I'd definitely recommend the 125, as you can go on the bigger roads like Highway 99 without everyone blasting past you or worrying that you have no extra oomph if you need to maneuver out of someone's way. But if 50cc is all you can afford, there are still ways to get around town -- I lived near Greenlake, and could get to work in West Seattle or up to see my parents in Edmonds without touching a road that was over 35mph.

I second the advice to not get a Vespa -- all I've heard about them is how much they need to be repaired. I'm sad to see that University Honda on Capitol Hill is now closed -- they were great. I also had good service at Aurora Suzuki, just north of Greenlake on 99. Whatever you do, don't go to Scooter Gallery in the U-District -- that guy sold me a total lemon then wouldn't take it back after six returns for repairs. (He did finally sell it on consignment to some other sucker, so I did get my money back after several months.)
posted by themissy at 7:01 AM on March 25, 2012

You'd have to call the MSF to find out about availability, but they do periodically offer a scooter-based introductory class. If you are certain that you are going to be a scooter-only person, that might not be a bad way to learn.

I would suggest starting with a car. You have to be far more alert to far more obscure dangers on a bike because other traffic doesn't see you and will drive right though you, given half a chance.

As a motorcyclist, I strongly wish that we had a stepped licensing system where everyone was forced to spend their first year or two riding a 50cc scooter, because there is no way that driving a car teaches you what the world looks like to a bicyclist or a motorcyclist. Time spent riding that scooter will make you a far, far better car driver.
posted by Forktine at 7:13 AM on March 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Everyone I know who has ridden a moped/motorcycle around Seattle has been injured in an accident. Sorry to rain on your parade but there is a lot of wet weather here and lots of lovely hills and bridges to get hung up on. I wouldn't plan on using this as your main mode of transport unless you are happy with public transportation/bike/whatever on days when it is inclement.
posted by bq at 8:22 AM on March 25, 2012

Don't get a Vespa, get a bicycle and pannier bags. You will hate riding up Queen Anne slow as snails, as will all of traffic. Plus a bicycle is cheaper, so you can more easily save up for a car, and you will enjoy great exercise. YMMV with fixed gears, but I'm sure there are people on here that would say otherwise.
posted by oceanjesse at 9:30 AM on March 25, 2012

I think Seattle is a great city for a Vespa.....did it not rain 9 of 12 months. Ugh.
posted by tristeza at 9:38 AM on March 25, 2012

I came in to say what cilantro said. I lived in Seattle for 7 years. Violent crime isn't a huge problem in the area, but property crime definitely is. Your scooter almost certainly will get stolen unless you can secure it in a private garage. Even a shared (i.e. large apartment) garage isn't much security. Get a bike you can secure indoors/your balcony instead. It's usually at least less expensive to replace...

Otherwise, get a car or use the public transit. It won't be like what you're used to coming from NYC, but it works ok.
posted by asciident at 10:23 AM on March 25, 2012

At least in Vancouver, I always assumed scooters weren't very popular because its always raining. Most people I know seem to get by on a combination of bike/public transit/car share service.
posted by piper4 at 11:13 AM on March 25, 2012

I have no experience with Vespas, but I live in Seattle and ride a motorcycle every day; it's how I get to work and run most of my errands. It works well for me.

The MSF motorcycle training course is totally worth doing, even if you are going to ride a scooter rather than a motorcycle. The classroom component is fairly simple, but they also put you through hours of low-speed maneuvering practice. The practice machines are small, lightweight motorcycles, but they are still bigger and heavier than your Vespa. Once you finish the course you will be fully prepared to ride your machine safely.

Seattle is full of scooters; they started popping up everywhere when we had that spike in gas prices five or six years ago. Whatever people in this thread may think, there are clearly a lot of people in this city who think scooters are a useful way to get around!

Rain is a problem, for sure, but it is a manageable problem. Rain is mostly dangerous because it changes the way your vehicle responds to the road, but that is something you can learn how to manage. Once you understand what you need to do differently when the roads are wet, it's not that big a deal. It rains often enough here that it is easy to get enough practice!

I don't ride when it is snowy or freezing out, because that happens very rarely, and so I have no idea how to handle it safely. Rain, though, just means I do everything more slowly, take curves more gently, leave more space before the next car, and so on.

I haven't had my bike stolen or known anyone who has. I have, however, had people smash into my car while it was parked on the street: not once, not twice, but four times. It was legally stolen once, too, by a cranky neighbor who had it towed while I was on vacation. So, yeah, I'm sure there are lots of stories about people's scooters getting stolen or otherwise messed with, but there are stories about people's cars getting stolen or messed with, too.

Really positive things about riding on two wheels:
1) you can ALWAYS find parking.
2) your vehicle is smaller and nimbler than all the rest so you can more easily get through traffic
3) when the weather is good, it's like you've got a super-convertible: you are right out in the glorious sunshine. it's great.
4) with no cage around you, it's much easier to be aware of the traffic; you can see and hear everything
5) people smile and wave at you. you won't get The Wave very often, but people will still be friendly
posted by Mars Saxman at 11:22 AM on March 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think the advice to learn to drive in city traffic in a car, or bicycle is great.

I'll go further though, and suggest that when you graduate to a motorized two wheel vehicle, you skip the scooter and get a ~400cc motorcycle. The larger tires on motorcycles can deal better with our extensive collection of crummy pavement, and a 400cc bike will give you lots of options for accelerating out of trouble that you just won't get on a a scooter.
posted by Good Brain at 4:56 PM on March 25, 2012

You will get hit.

Get a fiat or mini instead.
posted by jeffamaphone at 10:40 PM on March 25, 2012

While it's not a total replacement (considering how often you want to drive) take a look at Zipcar, which is available in Seattle.
posted by victory_laser at 2:24 AM on March 26, 2012

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