What It’s Like to Have a Vespa Instead of a CarAugust 21, 2019
Photo by Morgan Trinker
I have a weird history with cars. I didn’t get my license until I was 21, and then I had a Volkswagen Beetle that was broken down more often then it ran. My next car was totaled by someone who wasn’t insured, and the payout wasn’t enough to get a new car — but it was enough to get a brand new Vespa.
I didn’t get a new Vespa then — I was young, and my parents thought Vespas were too dangerous, so I gave in and got a car. But I got obsessed with the idea. It’s easy to research how to buy a scooter or to find cute accessories for it, but it’s harder to figure out if a scooter can be a good primary vehicle. The question I was trying to answer was whether or not I was crazy to get a Vespa instead of a car, and what driving it everyday — to drive thrus and grocery stores and in the rain — is really like.
Fifteen years later, I’ve owned three scooters (two Vespas and a Yamaha Vino), and each of them has been my primary vehicle for at least a few years. My grandmother gave us my grandpa’s old car for our wedding, so I own both a scooter and a car now. But I’m feeling extra sentimental about my scooter right now (partly because I just wrote about using it at our wedding, and partly because it’s with the mechanic this week), so I figured this was finally the time to gather all my Vespa knowledge into a very, very, very long blog.
I’ve included all the questions I had about getting a scooter, the questions I get all the time (“What do you do when it rains?” and “How many miles per gallon do you get?” are by far the most frequent), plus a few extra things I wouldn’t have known to ask, but I think are important or interesting about life on a scooter.
What do you do when it rains?
When it rains, I get wet. This is a sarcastic answer, but it’s pretty much true. There are ways to limit your exposure to weather on a scooter, but none of them are perfect. When it’s raining, you will probably get wet. When it’s cold, you will be cold. When it’s hot, you’ll be hot. (My scooter-riding friend Cary calls this “hairdryer weather.”)
I’ve certainly gotten soaked on the scooter many times, but good gear can limit that. If I wear my leather jacket, gloves, my apron cover (more on that in the “What do you wear on a scooter” section) and a helmet, I can walk into my destination fairly dry, even if I got rained on along the way. (It’s helpful to have a place to lay out my gear to dry, but that’s not always possible.)
Riding in the rain isn’t particularly difficult — it’s easy to ride in the rain (I avoid the very middle of the lane, where the oil drips from cars, if it’s just started raining). What’s more dangerous in the rain is other drivers. They’re paying attention to the weather, so they’re less likely to pay attention to you, and visibility is worse than usual when it’s raining. When you ride in the rain, assume that you’re invisible to other drivers and ride extremely defensively.
Can you ride a scooter in the winter?
At 40 degrees and warmer, riding in the cold isn’t too uncomfortable. If you’re dressed correctly, it can be enjoyable. I ride all winter, so I certainly ride in sub-40 degree weather, but I don’t have the best attitude about it. My hands get red and cold, and my eyes get pretty watery. My scooters have also had trouble starting on winter mornings — they always start eventually, but spending 20 minutes coaxing your bike to start and then hopping on to a freezing ride isn’t the most pleasant way to start the morning.
In the cold, I can’t recommend leather enough — it blocks the wind better than anything else, and that makes a huge difference. My leather jacket has elastic wrists, a collar that snaps up, and a zipper cover, so the wind doesn’t really get inside. I usually wear a sweater, fleece or puffer jacket underneath or over it. A scarf (be sure it’s secured and won’t blow off) and gloves are essential in cold weather. I also have a baklava that I got from an outdoors store that I wear under my helmet when it’s really frigid. Other than that, it’s boots, thick socks, and my apron cover.
I’ve never really ridden in snow except a very light dusting, so I have no insight into this. But in Alabama, we don’t even drive our cars in the snow, so this isn’t necessarily Vespa-specific.
Do you have to cover your Vespa if you leave it outside?
I keep my Vespa outside; it doesn’t need a cover. I have a little bit of rust around the mirrors because the seals are old, and after about seven years, my seat split and I had to get a new cover, but other than that, I haven’t had a problem. I use my apron cover over the seat most of the time, but that’s mostly for convenience.
When I had to replace my seat cover, I tried order an entirely new seat, and they were out of stock for months. I finally just ordered a seat cover from Cheeky Seats, and it’s incredible. I can’t recommend this company enough; they were easy to work with, and the seat was super simple to install and has held up well. The only thing I miss about the old seat is how easily it dried after the rain, but I just wipe the new seat down with a rag I keep in the scooter and it’s good.
How do you carry stuff? How do you get groceries?
Anyone who’s ever traveled with me knows I do not pack light. The Vespa has some pretty ingenious ways of carrying things, and I’ve come up with a few more ways (some smart, some ridiculous, some unnecessarily dangerous).
Here’s what’s built in:
Under-seat storage: The seat lifts up, and you can get a lot inside. It’s waterproof and locked, so it’s a safe way to store things. My Vespa fits some basic tools, a battery charger and all my gear (jacket, gloves, scarf, a small towel for wiping down the seat after it rains, plus my apron cover). If it’s raining, I’ll usually put my purse or at least my phone in the seat.
Helmet hook: This is a small hook on the inside rim of the Vespa seat that you can use to hang a helmet or two. The seat closes over the hook and locks, so your helmets are safe from being stolen and you don’t have to carry them wherever you go. (They hang upside down, so if it’s raining, you’ll still need to carry your helmet with you.)
Bag hook: There’s a hook at the front of the seat for hanging a small bag (purse, groceries, fast food, etc.) between your legs. (It doesn’t get in the way of driving.)
Glove box: The front panel of the Vespa opens so you can put small items inside. I rarely use mine because I mostly just put stuff in the seat. But I have found that you can fit a small coffee (the “short” or 6 oz. size) inside, and even if it spills, it’s not as much of an issue as spilling into your seat.
Here’s what you can buy:
Back rack or top case: These sit behind you on the scooter, past the end of the seat. A top case is an actual case (hence the name); it’s lockable and waterproof. I prefer my back rack, though — it’s a rack that sits just behind your seat, and it acts as a little platform for anything you can strap on there. I bought a cheap bungee cargo net that attaches to the back rack, and it gives me a lot of versatility on what I can strap onto the scooter.
Here’s what else you can carry:
Duffle: I have a huge army duffle bag that has backpack straps on it, and that’s what I use for groceries. It’s pretty cumbersome to load and put on, but once you get it on the Vespa, the bag “sits” on the seat behind you, so it’s not tough to drive with.
Backpack or back with a shoulder strap: Be careful with shoulder straps and make sure they’re not so long that they’ll slide down your arm. Backpacks are the easiest thing to ride with, especially if you’re a new rider.
Bag with strap hanging from handlebar: I often loop the strap of a shoulder bag over my handlebar (bring it over the entire handlebar — mirror, throttle and all). This probably isn’t best practice, and I wouldn’t try this if you’re not used to riding a scooter, but it’s never given me a problem.
Another person: They just sit on the back! They need a helmet (depending on state laws). Also, make sure they know not to move around a ton because that will make it harder for you to steer.
How much do you spend in gas? (How many mpg does a Vespa get?)
I get 65 mpg generally; my Vespa holds two gallons of gas, and that usually lasts me three weeks or so. So, yes, you’ll likely save a lot on gas if you get a scooter. You can use regular gas in a scooter, but I use premium in mine.
Is it expensive to own a Vespa?
It’s an expensive hobby (because you have to invest in the actual bike), but it isn’t expensive to own a scooter as a primary vehicle, which mine usually has been. I bought my Vespa new for $5,000. Repairs, tires, registration, etc. are all much cheaper than they are with a car — my Vespa registration is less than half my car’s registration, even though my Vespa is newer; tires are about $60-100, and you only need two of them. Gas is also a big savings, of course.
Towing a Vespa: so easy, yet so difficult
It’s generally difficult to get a Vespa towed by a traditional company because the tow trucks are so big that it’s hard to get the bike secured. AAA has a motorcycle towing service, which I have, but it’s more expensive, and they always just send a regular tow truck regardless, so you still get a tow truck driver who’s irritated with your bike. (AAA towing covers both motorcycle and RV towing, weirdly, so if you’re ever stranded in a motorhome, hit me up.)
My mechanic has a trailer with straps that he uses to tow motorcycles, so I try to call him when possible. You can also fit a bike in the back of a van or truck, but you’ll have to secure it so it doesn’t fall, and I have no idea how to do that. Because a scooter is easy to get in the back of a van, though, it’s easily stolen.
Motorcycle Insurance: Vespas are easy to steal and (sort of) hard to insure
I’ve had two Vespas stolen — my first was never recovered, and I got an insurance payout for it. My current Vespa was stolen a couple of years ago, but it was found a couple streets from where it was taken. The police didn’t even take it into impound; they just called me, and I came and grabbed it from the side of the road.
Not all insurance companies cover scooters, so check to see if yours does. I use Progressive, which I get through Seguro Insurance in Homewood. I cannot say enough positive things about Seguro (here’s a Tumblr post I wrote a million years ago about how much I like them); we use them for our cars now, too.
Vespas have some anti-theft features: The keys are programmed, so they can’t be hotwired or started with copied keys. (Vespas come with two keys — one normal key, and one that will program a new key. But even if you still have your programming key, it’s a pretty big pain to get a new key cut and programmed.) You can lock the steering column on a Vespa into place, so even if someone could hotwire the car somehow, they could only drive in a circle. These features are cool, but I don’t think they really prevent theft, because thieves don’t realize they can’t start the bike until after they’ve stolen it, so it really only frustrates them. However, this is probably why I got my current Vespa back — the thieves realized they couldn’t drive it anyway, so they just dumped it.
Vespas do have a loop built in under the footrest that you can use to lock your Vespa to something (sort of like you’d lock a bicycle). I rarely use the lock, but it is useful if you need to leave your scooter overnight.
Beware of dogs: Motorcycles really freak them out
I have no idea why this is, but some dogs really go crazy at the site of the scooter — not all dogs do this, but it’s enough to be noticeable. I’ve been chased by dogs, and it’s awkward to sit in traffic behind a truck with a dog freaking out in the truckbed or the backseat — I usually drop back a couple of cars behind so they’ll chill out.
Do you get helmet hair?
The helmet will definitely smoosh your hairstyle (you can’t wear a bun or a ponytail unless it’s really low). If I have to be someplace really nice, I really like to use a car instead so my hair looks better. Day to day, though, my bangs actually help a lot, because they look better when they’ve been smooshed by a helmet for awhile.
Can you go through a drive thru?
Yes, but you get weird looks. The people at the window usually think it’s funny. If you’re getting fast food, remember you’ll need a bag with handles to hook it someplace (the front of seat hook is perfect for this). Otherwise, you’ll have to get off the Vespa to put it the food in your seat, so you might as well just go inside. Oh, and don’t go through the drive thru if you’re getting drinks, because you won’t have any place to put them.
Is there such a thing as a motorcycle wave?
There absolutely is. It’s polite to wave at other people on scooters, motorcycles, etc. when they’re passing you in the opposite lane. The wave is sort of the opposite of a normal wave — you bring your left hand off your handlebar and extend it down and away from your body (at something like 45-degree angle); you can extend your hand with an open palm toward the other rider, or you can extend two or three fingers (like an upside down peace sign, except your fingers are closer together). You use your left hand because the right is your throttle hand.
I wave at motorcycles and scooters, but not all motorcyclists will wave back. Guys on serious bikes like Harleys will almost always wave because, as one motorcyclist I know put it, “It’s really us against the cars.” I find that guys on brand new bikes that look like they’re made of legos (“crotch rockets” is the gross term that I’m trying to avoid here) are generally more snotty about it and won’t wave.
It’s hopefully obvious, but don’t wave when it’s not safe to remove your hand from the handlebar. A nod is also sufficient if you want to acknowledge the other rider but you don’t feel good about letting go of your handlebars.
Do you have to know how to ride a motorcycle to ride a scooter?
Nope. Scooters are a lot easier to ride than motorcycles because they have a lower center of gravity. It’s a little more similar to driving a jet ski, so you can probably pick up the driving pretty easily. (It’s driving in traffic that takes practice.)
Parking a Vespa
You can park in regular parking spaces or on the sidewalk, so if finding a parking spot is a daily issue for you, a scooter can be a great solution. Parking on the sidewalk is legal; you won’t get ticketed by the police for it. To get up on the sidewalk, just use the wheelchair ramp (check for wheelchairs and pedestrians, obviously).
Sometimes building owners will leave a note asking you not to park there, and if the sidewalk is on private property, I guess they can theoretically tow you if you continue to park there, although I’d be shocked if that happened. (How is the tow truck going to get on the sidewalk, for one thing.) I’ve gotten a few notes over the years, but no actual problems. When riding on the sidewalk, it is polite to go very slowly and be very aware of pedestrians — especially when riding in front of doors. Always park with enough clearance for a wheelchair to get by, don’t block entrances, etc.
You can also park in a parking space — I always park toward the back of the space to the left or right side. Park in the back so cars can see you when they’re looking for a spot (instead of swinging in when they think it’s an empty spot and going into a rage when they find out it’s taken). Park to the right or left so another scooter or motorcycle can share your spot if they drive up. In a parallel parking spot, you can pull in normally, or you can pull in perpendicularly in order to fit more bikes in the space.
Where’s the reverse: backing up on a scooter
Vespas (and motorcycles) don’t have a reverse. You take the bike off the kickstand and push it backward with your feet. This is easy … unless you’re on a hill. When a parking spot is on a hill, I find two spots together so I can pull into the first one and turn into the second (it’s a mini U-turn) so that, when I’m leaving, I can pull straight out of the space without reversing.
What do you do on the interstate?
I don’t take my Vespa on the interstate, and I generally avoid highways (although not always). In Birmingham, I drive on most parts of Highway 31, but I don’t take Red Mountain Expressway very much (although I have in the past, but I never felt safe). I don’t take 280. That’s not because of the speed — the scooter can handle that — but because it seems like people don’t pay much attention on those roads. Birmingham is actually a great place to own a scooter because you can get almost anywhere without getting on the interstate.
Do you have to stop at lights?
Except for parking on sidewalks, you basically follow the same traffic laws as cars. This gets irritating at certain stoplights — lights that are on a timer are fine, but lights that are on a trigger will normally not detect your bike. Some people say this is because bikes are too light. Some people say weight has nothing to do with it, and the sensors are set to detect metals in your car, and the sensors aren’t sensitive enough to pick up a motorcycle or scooter. I don’t know which is correct, but I do know that some stoplights refuse to change for my scooter.
I’ve read that it helps to park directly on the sensor line in the pavement (they’re obvious), but that doesn’t always work for me. Normally, I either wait for a car to pull up with me or I just run the light.
Are hills a problem on a scooter?
Nope, not on a scooter with a decent sized engine. With a moped, you’ll make it up the hill, but it will be a slow journey. Both of my Vespas have been better at handling hills than a lot of cars I’ve driven were.
Do you ride with a scooter club or with a buddy on another scooter?
I like riding with someone else occasionally, mostly because it’s nice to have someone to talk to at stoplights. There’s nothing really different about the way you ride, but when you stop at a light, one person can pull toward one side of the lane, and the other person can pull up alongside. Even when you’re by yourself, a Vespa or motorcycle (or sometimes a bicycle) will pull up beside you at a light and talk. I don’t usually do this to strangers because I’m shy, but I don’t mind when they do it to me.
There are scooter clubs who ride together; one of them was super active when I was first riding a Vespa years ago, and I’d regularly have one of the members waiting by my scooter when I came out to the parking lot to invite me to join. They were super nice, but riding in a pack really isn’t my thing. (I think most of the people in scooter clubs ride for sport, like on the weekends, but I always rode every day, so joy riding didn’t have the same appeal for me.)
Defensive driving for Vespas and scooters
Vespas aren’t safe. But you can do a lot to improve your chances by being a very defensive driver. Always be plotting what you’d do if a car came over into your lane, because that happens pretty often. Obviously, don’t ride in someone’s blind spot; I try never to drive alongside a car at all if I can help it. If I have to ride right next to a car, I pull up near the driver so I’m in their direct site line.
You can generally fit a car and a Vespa into one lane of a road; so, worst case, if you keep your wits about you and don’t swing into the next lane of traffic, you’ll probably be fine just riding alongside the car that didn’t see you and either speeding up or dropping behind from there.
You can honk your horn to get another driver’s attention, but a Vespa horn is very cute and friendly, so it will not convey how pissed off you are. Screaming at someone from inside your helmet and/or kicking the person’s car probably will, though. Um … not that I’ve ever done those things.
Can you use Google Maps?
I’m pretty terrible with directions, so it’s frustrating that I can’t use Google Maps, GPS, etc., on a scooter. The closest thing I have to GPS is a post it note with directions on it that I stick to my console. You can get a helmet that incorporates Bluetooth, and I think you can use GPS that way, but I don’t have one.
What kind of Vespa do you have?
I have a navy blue LX 150 with a tan seat. If you live in Birmingham, there are at least two of them driving around town — both driven by people named Carrie, weirdly enough.
Automatic vs. Manual
I have an automatic, so I just turn the key, pull the throttle and go. The pros and cons of manual vs. automatic are pretty much the same as they are with cars.
Why a Vespa and not another kind of scooter?
I just happen to like Vespas. I bought my Yamaha from a friend because my first Vespa was stolen and I needed something to drive; it was available, and it was brand new (she’d won it at an auction and hit a fence the first time she tried to drive it, so she sold it to me really cheaply). The Yamaha was fun, and it’s a great scooter for the price, but it was really low to the ground and really light (because it’s a plastic, and Vespas are metal). I always felt like it was a lot more like a toy, and it felt more dangerous. (I don’t think it actually was more dangerous; I just couldn’t shake the feeling.)
When I bought my third scooter, I shopped around, but I’d loved my Vespa so much that I ended up going back to them.
Vespas are more expensive, and they are not easy to fix. Hondas and Yamahas tend to be easier to get someone to work on. In car terms, it’s sort of like the difference between buying a Honda and a Volkswagen.
What’s the difference between a Vespa and a scooter and a moped?
A Vespa is a kind of scooter that’s made by a company called Piaggio — it’s like the model of a car (i.e., Vespa :: Piaggio as Accord :: Honda). The difference between a moped and a scooter is the size of the engine; moped engines are smaller. Most people classify mopeds as scooters as well — so a moped is always a scooter, but a scooter is not necessarily a moped. (Like a hatchback is always a car, but a car is not always a hatchback.)
“Scooter” is more of a catchall term (like “car”), so when in doubt, you’re probably safe calling a Vespa or a moped a scooter. Or just avoid the whole thing by calling it a “bike,” which applies to scooters, mopeds, motorcycles … and bicycles.
How to sound like you ride a scooter
There are a million motorcycle and scooter terms that I do not know, but here’s what I do know: You don’t drive a Vespa; you ride a Vespa. And you don’t wreck a Vespa or a motorcycle; you “lay it down.” These terms indicate how those of us who ride these bikes really feel about them — they’re more like a beloved horse than a car. If that thought process makes sense to you, you will probably enjoy the Vespa life. If it sounds crazy, you might want to just stick with a car. Owning a scooter can be exhilarating and life affirming, but it can also be annoying and unnecessarily difficult. If you don’t enjoy the romance of it, the hard times probably aren’t worth it.
What do you wear on a scooter?
You can pretty much wear anything, but you can’t wear anything safely. Natural fibers, like leather or a very heavy denim, are best if you actually wreck (something about the way synthetic fibers bond with your skin in a crash is not great). Leather is also really good at blocking wind and cold.
Ideally, I wear a helmet, a leather jacket, leather gloves and leather shoes or boots. Honestly, I get lazy, and when it’s hot, I’m not likely to wear my jacket. Even when I’m lazy, I try to protect my face and hands with a helmet and gloves.
I ride the Vespa in skirts a lot because that’s what I wear most days; I have a Vespa cover that fits around me like a lap blanket that I wear over skirts and dresses. For years, I rode in skirts without the apron cover. Long skirts are easy. Pencil skirts are tough because it’s hard to straddle the bike. In a knee-length skirt, you can tuck your skirt in around you, and it’s generally okay … but it does blow up sometimes, and your hands aren’t free when you’re riding a Vespa, so it’s embarrassing when that happens.
My favorite Vespa accessory: Leg Lap Apron Cover
This is pretty much my favorite thing I’ve ever bought for my Vespa (my parents bought it for me, actually). A Leg Lap Apron Cover is basically just a blanket that buckles in the back like a seatbelt; you can wear it over your lap when you’re riding, or you can buckle it onto the seat to act as a seat cover.
I didn’t get one of these until the last couple of years, and I absolutely love it; it makes riding in a skirt so much easier. The apron cover is also wonderful in the rain and cold — it’s pretty easy to keep your torso dry with a jacket, gloves and a helmet, but the apron cover is weather-proof, so it protects your legs, too. It acts like a windbreaker, and it’s fleece-lined, so it really helps keep you warmer in the winter. It also has velcro pockets, so if you need to access something at a stoplight, these are super convenient.
The cover fits in my seat even with my jacket and gloves, but I usually just buckle it on over the top of the seat; it also helps protect the seat a bit.
Where did you buy your scooter and where do you get repairs done in Birmingham?
I bought mine from a company called Bogart’s Motorsports, but they’re out of business now. I have a friend who fixes my bike, but I’ve also used Magic City Motor Scooters in the past and have had good luck with Matthew.
Dead Vespa battery? No problem
You can charge your Vespa battery in a regular wall outlet! You can also use your kickstarter to start up your Vespa, but I’ve found kickstarters to be really strange — neither of my Vespas has ever reliably started when I kickstart, but if I kickstart it a few times, it’s more likely to start up using the regular ignition. So if the bike has been sitting for a long time without being ridden, it might need me to kick it a few times (sometimes more than a few) before it will start up normally.
Two of my three scooters have also had trouble starting in cold weather. With the Vino, if I pumped the gas with the throttle a couple of times before I tried to start, it started up. My current Vespa hates to start in cold weather, so for most of last winter, I’d have to alternate between kickstarting and trying the ignition for up to 15 minutes sometimes. Even then, it was prone to dying at a stop unless I kept the throttle open a little bit until it really warmed up.
What kind of helmet should you get?
My first helmet was made by Vespa, but regular motorcycle helmets are great and are cheaper (almost everything is cheaper without the Vespa logo). I like to have a full-face helmet with a hinge front (so the front of the helmet lifts up), just for convenience.
Do you need a windshield?
My helmet is my windshield. You can also have a windshield installed on a Vespa. It does look pretty cool, and I imagine it helps block the cold and the rain, but I’ve never ridden with one.
Is it worth it?
When I bought my first Vespa, I was really torn. It was unsafe, unfamiliar and, in many ways, inconvenient. The guy at the motorcycle store acknowledged all these things. But then he started talking about how it feels to ride over a hill in autumn, when the weather is still warm and the leaves are turning and you crest the hill into Mountain Brook and the weather drops a few degrees as you ride through the trees, and I was sold. I still am. Sure, I like owning a car. It’s very convenient. But riding a scooter is magical and exciting and fun in a way that driving a car has never been to me. Sometimes it’s hard, and it’s always dangerous, but it’s usually the dangerous things that make you feel alive.
My life is different now, and it makes sense for me to have a car, but I’m not ready to let go of my scooter, not completely. For those years that I wanted to take chances without worrying about a car payment, and that saving money on a tank of gas meant being able to go out with friends or actually get groceries that week, it was a really wonderful solution.
Carrie Rollwagen is author of The Localist, a book about buying from locally owned stores and cofounder of Church Street Coffee & Books. Currently, she works as Vice President of Strategic Planning at Infomedia, a web development company in Birmingham, Alabama. Find her as @crollwagen on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and most other social media platforms.