The rollout of a sporty new trend

Wheels: The young and the fashionable are transported by scooters, the newest and hippest way to get from here to there.

June 25, 2000|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,Sun Staff

Bag the bike and retire those Rollerblades. With the coming of summer, scooters, both motorized and human-powered models, are turning the streets of the most chic cities in the United States into playful transportation time warps.

They're making fitness fun, spicing up commutes and satisfying the craving for a blockbuster summer accessory.

Zipping down a Mount Royal Avenue sidewalk on his Razor Rollerboard, Masaaki Tanaka is one cool commuter.

"I really like pop culture stuff," says Tanaka, 20, a student at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, who is headed to a friend's place. "If I see a neat gadget, I get it."

His wheels are iMac orange, though you can also get them in translucent green, red and clear. The body is silver. And the design of these sassy stainless steel and aluminum mini road warriors is simple.

The skateboard-like platform is only big enough for one foot. Pick up speed with the other, angle it against the platform, or lightly relax it on the foot brake, which offers safety without compromising cool. The adjustable steering handle can accommodate a lanky grown-up, pint-size daredevil or anything in between.

And this is no easy rider. It takes energy.

"Downhill is really nice. Going uphill? Don't even think about it," Tanaka says.

Need a break? No problem. The Razor, which retails for around $100, weighs in at 6 pounds and folds into a compact, easy-to-carry bundle to sneak onto anything from the subway to the bus.

The Razor isn't exactly a speed demon, however. Tony Farrell, a senior vice president for the Sharper Image, which sells several models, says the average speed is 3 to 4 miles an hour. Still, that doesn't deter stylish young businesspeople from gliding to work on them.

"What I'm seeing mostly is young commuters," says Farrell, who works in San Francisco. "You see people getting off BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit] and going to groovy ad design firms."

Sure the Razor is cute and now, but could it be dangerous?

In New York, it's not uncommon for scooter fanatics to ride in the middle of a busy street.

"They should wear a helmet, but most people don't," says James Yu, owner of Basic Wheels in Manhattan, which carries scooters by Xootr, Go-ped and K2. "There is no law right now."

Denise Crouch, of Hampden, who recently bought one for her son, Steven, 12, isn't about to let him ride on a busy street. Otherwise, she's convinced of the scooter's safety.

For one, she says, if you're in danger of wrecking, you can just jump off. And she's pretty confident about the Razor's quality.

"It's very durable," says Crouch. "He's very rough on stuff."

Scooters are speeding out of stores at a rate that rivals such popular predecessors as in-line skates.

"It's a fad we're barely able to keep up with," Farrell says.

The Razor is the Sharper Image's top-selling item at the moment, according to Farrell. They sell thousands a week, he says, adding that the current scooter capitals are Hawaii, Southern California and New York City. The Sharper Image in Towson Town Center sells about 20 a week, says Lori Klinger, the store's manager.

Naomi Crawford, director of sales and marketing for Xootr, another popular scooter brand, says, "We've been selling them as fast as we can make them." Xootr projects sales of 50,000 scooters this year.

Farrell saw the scooter as the toy of choice mainly for "sidewalk skater kids" but quickly realized that all kinds of people can get into it. There's the cell-phone-carrying career set always looking for a new high-tech trifle to add to its collection.

And there are actual kids such as Lutherville resident Arianna Signarale, 9, who declares her Razor, which she got for her birthday, "awesomer" than her bike. Arianna is into scooter stunts.

Then there are such kids-at-heart as Baltimore County dad Karl Allen, who bought one for his daughter Kierra but has ulterior motives: "She'll let me ride it," he says.

Lori Tharps, a correspondent for Entertainment Weekly who has written about the scooter craze, has witnessed parents and children on scooter outings.

"It's this cross-generational trend," she says. "Kids, adults, everybody's got them. That's what makes it a unique trend."

Don't forget the retro twist. Today's scooters are a far cry from their ancestors, the homemade fruit-crate-and-roller-skate-wheel prototypes of the '30s. Scooters made their first appearance in Germany in the early 1800s. The Depression was a high point for the quaint vehicles in the States. The '50s brought scooters to commercial prominence. Their popularity ebbed and flowed until the '80s, when in-line skates and the like became the rage. The new generation of scooters started turning up in Japan last spring, and the craze quickly spread.

The new breed of scooters has yet to take over the streets and sidewalks of Baltimore.

Young riders such as Steven Crouch are among the first wave. Crouch, who has watched his peers glide up and down Chestnut Avenue on their scooters, has had his Razor for only a month. But he's got it mastered, making 360-degree turns and daring to ride without using his hands.

"It's the coolest thing that's been out there in a long time," he says.

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