It's not every summer fad that can bridge the generation gap. Take hula hoops. Pre-adolescents gyrating their hips to keep a brightly colored plastic tube spinning at waist level are endearingly silly. A mature adult executing the same absurd maneuver is just plain silly.
The silliness factor of this season's hottest accessory can't be completely discounted, but across Europe, it's the fun and hipness quotient of the new scooters that matters most. That's right, those same low-tech, two-wheeled contraptions you remember from childhood are the urban transport trend of the summer. From Berlin's Bundestag complex, where members of parliament have reportedly been spotted whizzing down the corridors of power, to the leafy boulevards outside Buckingham Palace, scooter frenzy has taken hold. Sure, kids still get a kick out of the gadgets, which require so little skill and coordination that even a three-year-old can become adept. But with urban professionals scooting to the office and devotees like pop star Robbie Williams, scooters have cut across the demographic divide.
Today's scooters have the same basic design as the vintage version: a skateboard-like platform on wheels steered with handlebars. The new models, however, are made from lightweight metals, sport faster and more shock-absorbent wheels, are narrow enough to thread through congested sidewalks and have collapsible steering columns for portability. Top speeds will vary according to road-surface roughness, incline and the strength of the eco-friendly power source — a leg.
Europe's best-selling model, the two-wheeled Micro Skate Scooter, weighs about 3 kg, costs about $150, and, when folded, can fit easily into a rucksack. Snazzier models are pricier and there are even motorized versions, like the $600 Zappy, but it's the resolutely streamlined Micro that's the real sensation. Unlike a bike, it requires no lock or parking space and incurs no hostile stares when crammed on a commuter train at rush hour. This versatility is a large part of its appeal. "You're sort of between a bicyclist and a pedestrian, and can go where both go," explains 40-year-old Georg von Kreisler, a post-production manager who started scooting between film studios in Cologne and now uses his Micro all over town. And unlike that other wheeled trend of recent years, scooters offer the advantage of easy access: "You don't have to sit down and take them off like with Rollerblades," says 23-year-old Yilmaz Karagas, also of Cologne. "It really is practical."
Although Swiss inventor Wim Ouboter is credited with the Micro scooter's revamped design, scooter fever first hit Japan, where entire magazines are now devoted to scooter arcana. The trend has also taken off in Australia and the U.S., where the Razor (the American name for the Micro) is one of the top-selling items for upscale gadget retailer the Sharper Image. Micros first arrived in the U.K. — Europe's largest scooter market — last October, and now zip out of stores at the rate of about 5,000 a week, according to Nick Joslin of City Bug, Britain's sole distributor. The rest of Europe is not far behind. "We can't keep up with the demand," says salesman Jean-Philippe Perdriger at a Paris branch of the French sport retailer Go Sport. "I've just received 20 scooters this morning and I'm pretty sure they'll be sold out by the end of the day."
Is it just a summer fling? Maybe, but what a fling it is: designer Alexander McQueen rode one down the catwalk at his latest show and French fashion bible Elle magazine has proclaimed the scooter "the new urban survival kit." Paris boutique Chez Colette has even commissioned a specially designed scooter bag by Japanese designer Eiko Maekawa. Someday scooters will once again lose their zip, but for now, they're proof that what goes around comes around: maybe it's time to start digging out those old pogo sticks.
With reporting by François Messier/Paris, Michele Orecklin/New York and Steve Zwick/Cologne