Lindsey Miller has only been scootering for a month, but when she puts on her sparkly silver helmet and wheels her orange Genuine Buddy through the streets she's giddy with the rush of takeoff, the wind in her face, the freedom.
"It's just fun," said Miller, a UCLA graduate student of urban planning who bought the motorized scooter in May because — like many others — she could get around more easily on it than on the bus and more cheaply than in a car.
This year U.S. scooter sales have surged after a two-year slump. Sales jumped 50% for the first quarter of 2011 compared with a year earlier, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council, an industry trade group in Irvine. And experts foresee more growth ahead.
Top sellers include models such as the Vespa LX 150, Honda Ruckus, Yamaha Zuma, Suzuki Burgman, Genuine Buddy and Kymco People.
Renewed interest in scooters this year is largely attributable to gas prices, which in California leapt above $4 a gallon before dropping in recent weeks. In 2008, when gas prices last spiked, scooter sales escalated to the highest level ever in the U.S. with 228,000 sold.
Sales plummeted in 2009 and again in 2010, when only 77,000 scooters were sold.
"Every time gas prices fluctuate, there seems to be a big interest in alternative kinds of vehicles of all different types," said Leslie Kendall, curator at L.A.'s Petersen Automotive Museum on Wilshire Boulevard. It recently opened the exhibit Scooters: Size Doesn't Always Matter. Among the 95 scooters on display are a 1917 Autoped and a 1961 Honda 50.
"You can't help but notice there's an awful lot of scooters out there now," he said. "They've evolved to a point where they're truly viable transportation for a lot of people."
That evolution is on display this week with Friday's opening of the Universal Pictures movie "Larry Crowne," starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts.
The story of a Navy veteran who loses his job and goes back to college will show 30 scooters from the past and present. Included is the 1983 Yamaha Riva 180 that Hanks' character rides in a suburban scooter posse, along with vintage Vespas, Italjets and Lambrettas.
Popular for a step-through design that allows riders to plant their feet on a floorboard and transmissions that are, for the most part, automatic, scooters are abuzz in increasing numbers on Southern California streets, where riders are embracing them for their thrifty chic.
Available in a variety of styles and sizes, new scooters from reliable brands start at about $3,000. Prices run up to about $9,000.
According to the California Department of Motor Vehicles, scooters of 149 cubic centimeters or less are considered motor-driven cycles. Scooters of 150 cubic centimeters and above are motorcycles. Both need to be registered with the state and require an M1 driver's license. Helmets are required.
Matthew Norton has been riding his Yamaha Zuma since 2004.
"I originally got it in high school when I didn't have that much money and I needed some sort of vehicle to get around to my job," said Norton, who is the customer representative at Comics Vs. Toys comic and toy store in Eagle Rock. Norton, 25, spent $2,000 for his scooter, which remains his only form of transportation. He said he averages 70 miles per gallon and needs to fill up his tank every two or three weeks.
"I've had lots of people come up to me on the street when I park and ask what kind of mileage does she get," Norton said of the red scooter he's nicknamed Jessica. "When I see them coming out of their giant SUVs, I have to hold in a laugh."
After scooter shops saw sales shoot up in 2008, "everybody overreacted" and ordered too many scooters for 2009, said Mike Frankovich, owner of NoHo Scooters in North Hollywood. "Just about every scooter manufacturer [expected] gas prices and demand to stay high."
This year, the market is thriving but not like it did in 2008 when customers were buying scooters with their credit cards.
"Not as many people are getting approved for financing," said Frankovich, who counts scooters from Chicago-based Genuine Scooter Co. and the Korean firm Kymco as his top-selling brands.
"We're sold out of scooters," said Jon Seidel, spokesman for American Honda Motor Co. in Torrance. All that's left of Honda's 2011 models are at dealers, he said.
"Scooters are a huge bright spot in light of how the motorcycle industry has struggled the last couple of years," he added. Like scooters, motorcycle sales declined through 2009 and 2010 and have begun to recover only this year.
"Riding a scooter, it's basically changed my life in L.A.," said Miller, the UCLA grad student who has mostly buzzed around the Westside and made her first crosstown trek to Hollywood via scooter Monday.
Along with 100 other scooterists and passengers, Miller participated in a ride organized by the Route 66 dealership on Lincoln Boulevard in Marina del Rey. They made their way to the Los Angeles premiere of "Larry Crowne" at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.
Although Miller is still cautious about major treks, she is buoyant about the possibilities ahead.
"My options of places to go are a lot wider," she said. "I can go anywhere I want."