Tue, Sep 30, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Scooters becoming a red-hot accessory for urban French women in a hurry

DRIVEN WOMEN Whereas their male counterparts tend to choose a metal steed based on its `pose value,' female commuters are taking a more practical approach


There was a time when drivers stuck in the infernal traffic jams that clog Paris, London, Madrid and other European cities at peak hour would see only leather jackets, sunglasses and macho helmets whizz by their windows.

These days, though, there's an increasing number of handbags and high heels.

As daily commutes become trials of patience and brake pedals in cars across the continent, women are turning to the only mode of transport that still manages to squeeze through the roads packed with stationary cars and buses: the motor scooter.

Long familiar to youths in Mediterranean climes, the two-wheeled vehicle has recently become a hot-ticket item for urban women looking to get to the office on time and in economical fashion, industry observers say.

The result could be seen at a trade show in Paris on the weekend showcasing motorbikes and bicycles. There, in the middle of stands catering to testosterone-charged displays of Harley-Davidson horsepower and mean-looking racing gear, stood scooter after scooter with graceful lines and dainty colors. And staff who know where their fastest-growing market is coming from.

"There are more and more and more women walking into our shops looking for a scooter. I'd say the ratio of men to women riding them has dropped to about 75 to 25 percent in the past couple of years," Gilles Droneau, the head of Piaggio France's two-wheeler division, said.

And whereas men often chose their metal steed for reasons of personal vanity -- its "pose value" -- women were more interested in the practical aspects, he said.

"They want something easy to ride, that's really stable," Droneau said. And when they find it, he said, they often "sell" their experience to at least four other friends.

Aleksandra Brajeux, cutting through Paris traffic on a little silver scooter with the aplomb of an experienced rider while wearing a chic jacket, elegant shoes and her handbag on her back, could be a poster girl for the sector.

Her boyfriend bought her the vehicle in February for her 30th birthday, opting for one with a 49cc motor -- top speed of 60km an hour -- which requires no driver's licence and which has a fully automatic transmission.

"It has radically changed my life. Radically," she said, explaining that she uses it to get to her work as a television promotions editor/writer and for her after-hours socializing.

"You can go anywhere in the city in half an hour," she said, comparing it to her previous experiences driving a car the same distance in peak hour -- something that would take more than twice as long. Parking is also free on virtually any footpath, she added.

There are concessions, though.

"You have to wear warmer clothes, and almost no jewellery. And luckily I couldn't care less about my hair," Brajeux said, her coiffure squashed flat under her helmet.

Despite that -- and the evident safety risks -- many women are looking to move up in the horsepower stakes to motorbikes, braving the extraordinarily difficult licence tests.

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