At first glance Gwyneth Paltrow and Harold Ickes may seem an odd pair, but both are avid Vespa riders. Paltrow, Sarah Jessica Parker, and former Human Rights Campaign head Elizabeth Birch are regulars, and Hillary Clinton adviser Ickes made news when knocked from his Vespa last fall.
“It’s an adventure that’s woven into your day,” says Channel 9 news anchor Tracey Neale, who’s has been riding Vespas since she was a teenager. “It makes running to the grocery store a little more fun.”
Other riders like these motorized scooters for more practical reasons. They’re inexpensive—about $3,500 for a midrange version—and owners can avoid the congestion and parking problems that plague full-size vehicles.
Long popular in Europe, scooters’ popularity here grew thanks to movies like Roman Holiday and La Dolce Vita. “I’m old enough to remember those movies, and I feel like I’m going through Rome,” says Bill Wax, program director of XM radio’s Bluesville channel. “It’s a wonderful adult toy.”
Vespas aren’t the only scooters in town. Financial entrepreneur Matthew Lesko, who bought a used red Aprilia and outfitted it with his trademark question-mark design, says, “You can put this thing anywhere. It’s cheap. And truthfully, I’m not lost if it gets stolen.”
There are downsides, as Ickes—who spent two weeks hospitalized after a car turned in front of him—can attest.
“People don’t see you,” says Lesko, who once fishtailed in the rain and tore up a suit. “They don’t pay attention to scooters.”
Riders also aren’t allowed on the Beltway, and vrooming around town in bad weather isn’t really fun. “When it’s too cold or too rainy to use it, I have to drive my car. But it’s that much harder to sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic,” says Jared Rager, owner of Mendocino Grille and Sonoma restaurants. Rager rides a Yamaha Zuma but, like many scooter owners, admits a preference for the Vespa: It’s “just sexier.”