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Motorists downsizing from four to two wheels

May 30, 2008

 

by Marene Gustin
Daily Court Review

With summer gas prices leading off at $4 a gallon over the Memorial Day weekend AAA Texas is reporting driving trends are down statewide.

And while it’s one thing to cut expenses by staying home during vacation time, what about the regular work commute? How can Houstonians save at the pump on necessary road trips? The answer for more and more people is downsizing, as in going from four wheels to two.

“You want a story?” asks Matthew Creede, owner of Apollo Scooters, pointing to a black SUV on his lot. “You see that Dodge Durango over there? A guy comes in a while back and says he’ll trade me straight up for that little green scooter. He drives off on it and a few days ago his wife comes in and says they’re saving $70- $80 a week in gas. I wonder who made the better deal.”

Creede started his scooter store seven years ago and struggled to educate and initiate Houstonians. Now, he says the last two months have been his best ever. “We sold 60 scooters last month,” he said. Business is so good that Creede is expanding from two locations to three, opening a new storefront in Galveston next month. He says people are flocking to the two-wheelers to save gas but finding that they have added benefits as well. He says that even using a scooter for half of your driving can save as much as $100 a week on gas and insurance, plus scooter owners find it saves them time. “Getting around in traffic, not having to hunt for a parking space,” he said.

And with scooter sales up 26 percent nationwide, scooters aren’t just for scooting around downtown. Creede says some customers use theirs to commute from Houston to Sugar Land, which is why he recommends buying a high-end, high-powered model. “You want something that can compete with highway traffic,” he said. “We sell models from China, Taiwan and Italy. The Italians can make a toaster go 50 mph, so you know those are good.” Prices range from $1,000 to $7,000 and most will get 65 to 110 miles-per-gallon. Lighter and generally easier to handle than motorcycles — Creede describes the drive like riding a couch — scooters are easy to maneuver. And while zipping through Houston’s notorious highway traffic may scare the faint of heart, Dr. Jesse Chang, who bought one two weeks ago, has no worries.

“I rode one in Taiwan,” he said. “So the traffic here is nothing, cars actually stay in their own lane here and don’t try to run you over. Plus they’re great for parking.”

And many high-end models make modern life easy with cell phone chargers in the compartment under the seat and an in-coming call light on the dash. But if you want to just get around the neighborhood, and save even more money, there are now electric scooters that require no gas at all.

Veloteq Corporation is a 5-year-old, privately held Houston-based company with a Shanghai manufacturing plant that produces electric scooters. They began selling the scooters in British Columbia and this April Gulf Coast Veloteq, a distributor, opened a showroom here in Houston.

“A 750 watt motor takes one kilowatt of energy,” GCV President Jock Drummond said. “You plug it in and it costs about 15 cents to charge. It will run for about 35 to 40 miles off that charge.”

Classified as low-speed electric bicycles by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, these scooters are street legal, require no registration or motorcycle license and get up to about 20 mph on the road.

“If your commute to work is a couple of miles,” Drummond said, “they’re great. Or just for weekends or to get around the neighborhood to the store or run errands.”

Drummond hasn’t been open long enough in Houston to compare sales data — although the manufacturer’s North American sales went from 700 last year to 5,000 this year — but he has noticed more people dropping by the showroom and taking test drives. He says it isn’t just the savings on gas money that drive the interest but also the green effect. “They don’t pollute the environment and they’re safer than bicycles. It’s a power accelerated bike, it’s like E.T. going home,” he said.

Veloteq scooters range in price from $1,500 to $2,000 and come with such features as cruise control and antitheft devises. And they come with detachable pedals, just in case.

But cost effectiveness and general cuteness (who wouldn’t want to be Audrey Hepburn scooting around Rome on a Vespa?) aside, will Houstonians embrace these imports and leave their SUVs and Hummers parked?

“All indications are that they will stay,” said Apollo Scooters’ Creede. “Even if gas prices start to go down, people are learning to like the European lifestyle, the convenience of them. You can put four people on a scooter and go the market or the beach. They’re just so easy.”

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