I have had the great good fortune to travel all over the world over the past six or seven years, and even better, I’ve been paid for doing it!
My slightly unusual preferred mode of transport during my travels has been and remains, the motor scooter. Now I’ve settled in New York, I’ve just bought myself a lovely little Vespa…so long subway, hello open road!
I find scooting about such fun and I love the freedom it gives me to explore the places I visit. I have noticed some key differences around the rules of safe scooting in various parts of the world, so here are my top tips for happy and safe travel via Vespa that I have learned from my recent exploits in New York and elsewhere. I should point out that I have no professional qualifications as a scooter adviser, so please, follow my tips at your own risk.
Several people have told me I’m crazy to scoot in the madness of the Manhattan streets. Of course there are risks, but I think that Manhattan is one of the safer cities in which I’ve ridden.
Nearly all the avenues and streets are one-way and very wide. Buzzing through the narrow winding, two-way streets of London or Rome, for example, throws up lots of interesting challenges. Other scooter riders for one, and in parts of Asia where scooters are very popular, it’s pretty much every man for himself out there.
Here in New York I seem to be a fairly rare breed on my Vespa. In fact, the number of motorcycles dodging between the cars is relatively low, so I don’t need to be so alert to them. In many places the roads are packed with fellow commuters on two wheels, but here it’s pretty much all cars and trucks
The US grid road system, although lacking a bit of charm and character, really does make it easy to find your way around. I have a reputation of being able to get lost under the lightest possible navigational pressure, but here in NY it’s a breeze and it leaves me free to concentrate on staying upright.
I’ll not use up one of my top tips on the obvious: invest in good equipment, crash helmet etc., I think we can take that as a given.
So here goes…in no particular order:
Tip 1: low speed control
Practice riding your scooter slowly and work on keeping it stable at low speed. It really helps when riding in heavy traffic and if you can balance well slowly it will help you at higher speeds. A very useful technique is to apply the rear break while holding steady high revs (not too high) and controlling your forward motion by releasing the brake, rather than applying more revs. It sort of tightens everything up and holds the bike much more stable.
Tip 2: be cautious yet assertive
In Asia, where, to a western eye it all looks like chaos, it’s all about making it obvious what you are about to do by the position of the bike and your body language. These non-verbal, non-flashing light signals are an important part of safe riding in many places. You can, to some degree, control the traffic around you. If I am keeping up with the flow of traffic speed, which I normally can in Manhattan as the average speed is about 20mph, I take the whole lane that I am in…dead center. If you want to pass me you are going to have to change lanes, which normally means you need to concentrate more. If you feel the need to keep hard right all the time, so that everything can pass you, you are going to get passed all day long and that makes you more exposed.
I like to see the whites of the eyes of the drivers who could potentially knock me off doing a maneuver. I make eye contact with them, and then I know they’ve seen me and if that’s the case, even if I am doing something wrong, most people don’t actually want to hit you.
An occasional deliberate “wobble” can be useful. If I sense someone behind me is not paying attention or is not seeing me if I carefully weave around a little bit. It tends to catch the eye and alert drivers to my presence.
Tip 3: horns
It’s interesting that horns are perceived differently around the world. In India you are asked to sound your horn regularly, in fact trucks have “Please sound your horn” stickers on the back. There, sound is an important way of telling other road users you are there. It’s perfectly acceptable and not at all offensive. There, the horn sort of means “Hello…just letting you know that I am here”
For the bystander it looks like a noisy mess, but I have found it actually works well on a scooter. I can see and hear who’s around me.
A sudden loud and close horn blast can be startling. I have learned in New York that the horn is abused most of the time. Here the horn means, “Hey pal, what the heck are you doing man!” People vent their frustration by holding onto the horn. It’s really pointless. So my tip for New York is ignore all horns, they don’t tell you anything. It’s normally some poor soul who needs to get to work and is so wound up he feels that a bit of horn blowing is going to help him.
Tip 4: road surface
In a car we don’t take much notice of the road surface, but on a scooter it is essential. Metal covers are slippery when wet and a pothole can dethrone you. Manhattan roads are among the worst I have come across. The combination of extreme hot in summer and a “polar vortex” in winter break the road surface down through expansion and contraction, leaving gaping holes that appear to receive little maintenance. You need to watch the road ahead, the mirrors and the road surface.
I did for a while use the FDR on my route from Brooklyn to 47th & 3rd in Manhattan. It is much quicker, but I have abandoned it. I just feel too exposed to the gusts of wind coming off the east river. The buffeting of heavy vehicles that pass me and the horrendous holes in the road just make it too dangerous for me. I think scooters are best in city traffic. I wouldn’t advise using one on big trunk roads.
Tip 5: weather
I once did a scooter safety course and a fellow scooting student asked the instructor “Any tips for when it’s icy?” The instructor replied “Yes…leave it in the garage you idiot!” Scooters, in my opinion, are for dry clear days only. I wouldn’t want to be out in heavy rain if I could help it and certainly not in conditions where there may be even a hint of ice. You stand no chance!
Tip 6: blind spots
Between when your front wheel passes the trunk of a car alongside you and when you appear alongside the driver of that vehicle, you are pretty much always in the blind spot and totally invisible to that driver. If that driver decides to drift in your direction, you’re in trouble. I try not to enter the blind spot unless I know I can get out of it quickly. If I am overtaking I plan it and execute it quickly. I like to be in front of you or behind you if you are in a car, not alongside you. Understanding where you are in relation to the cars around you is an important part of staying safe on such a lightweight vehicle.
Tip 7: mindset
My final tip would be this: Riding a scooter around is fun, convenient, reasonably eco friendly (175 miles to the gallon) and really exhilarating, but you need to be in the right frame of mind to do it safely. If you are stressed or running late, I would not recommend it. You need to set off with a smile on your face and be ready to face your journey with excitement and concentration. If you are under pressure, get a cab.
Only time will tell if I am forced to eat these words but to me it seems that zooming around the boroughs on a Vespa is a good choice. While most say that Manhattan traffic is crazy, in my experience it’s not really. The roads are very well organized, traffic signals and rules are pretty much obeyed and compared to many cities riding and driving is less challenging. Spring, Summer & Fall are pretty good months weather wise, so a good nine months exists when the scooter could be at full capacity for daily commutes and touring adventures.
I hope you’ll give it a try, I hope you’ll enjoy it and I hope that you’ll be safe.
By Tim Haslam,
CEO, 72Point US