Walk along any street near downtown Portsmouth and you’ll likely hear the buzz of a moped motor. Recently, these small motorbikes have been whizzing along Portsmouth’s streets in greater numbers and packs of scooters can often be found parked along the sidewalks and in alleyways near the Portsmouth waterfront.
But this rise in moped ridership – and where they’ve been parking – has raised some concerns among business owners and city officials.
“In recent years and particularly this year, there seems to be a dramatic increase in scooter type vehicles being used in the downtown part of the city,” said Portsmouth City Attorney Robert Sullivan.
“These vehicles are able to park on the sidewalk or where regular vehicles cannot. It’s actually been suggested that this is the reason they are being used.”
Bob Marchewka rides a scooter because it’s fun and it is cheap to run, register and maintain. Having the ability to park in places cars can’t is also a big part of why he chose a scooter.
“It’s hard to find a parking space, but with a scooter, it’s easy to find parking,” said Marchewka, who owns the scooter rental service ScootMeNow. “Especially for people who work downtown, it’s a great alternative to owning a car. I’ll take a scooter downtown in the summer before I drive.”
Competition for parking spots in Portsmouth is high, especially during summer months. The city’s municipal parking garage is frequently full and satellite parking lots require a shuttle bus ride into downtown after drivers leave their car. But if you drive a scooter or moped into town, you can park on the sidewalk and along bicycle racks.
Sullivan said his office has received complaints regarding blocked sidewalks and this summer, business owners raised concerns about mopeds blocking access to the trash storage on the waterfront.
The sidewalk parking issue has also been raised at city Taxi Commission and Parking Traffic and Safety Committee meetings. Portsmouth Parking Clerk Wanda Furbish said that if parked scooters and mopeds are blocking the sidewalk or are in prohibited areas, they will get a ticket, but Sullivan admits that when it comes to the rules of moped parking, “clearly there’s some vagueness to it.”
“There’s no question there are more scooters and mopeds on the road. It’s evident if you go downtown and look on sidewalks. Five, six, seven years ago, you never saw that,” said Portsmouth Police Capt. Frank Warchol.
The added number of mopeds hasn’t affected traffic and safety on Portsmouth streets, but Warchol warned moped and scooter drivers should take the same safety precautions a motorcycle driver would.
“Anybody can hop on a moped and off you go, but when you drive a motorcycle you have to take a motorcycle course,” he said.
“To be quite honest, I highly recommend that the course be taken by those who are going to ride a moped. They need to understand they ride like a motorcycle, for the most part. The blind spots are different from a car, where they ride on the road is different, how high they sit is different.”
Although Portsmouth is having some growing pains adjusting to moped parking, the increased interest in these vehicles has boosted business for scooter retailers and even spawned a few new businesses.
Three years ago, Marchewka opened ScootMeNow, renting out his eight scooters from a Deer Street storefront. If you want to try out a scooter for an hour or two, that will cost $25, and scooters can also be rented by the half-day, day or week.
Marchewka said business has been steadily growing as more people hear about it. By year two, he had doubled the number of rentals and this year he estimates rentals will be up by roughly 20 percent.
“We see people who want to try them out, and local people take them because they want to go to the beach for the day,” said Marchewka.
Jonathan Thompson says he’s seen a growth in scooter ridership, as well. Thompson is co-owner of Motorbikes Plus in Portsmouth, which sells Kymco scooters.
“Scooters aren’t a large portion of our business, but we do sell some and I would say the interest is up the last few years,” Thompson said.
“I think it’s a good, inexpensive alternative form of transportation. Smaller scooters get about 100 miles per gallon. For local commuting it makes a lot of sense.”
If you are considering a scooter of your own, you’ll want to make sure you have a mechanic who works on mopeds, or at least learn how to do the work yourself. That advice came from Stephen Pamboukes, founder of Port City Mopeds.
While Honda dealerships will typically service Honda vehicles, for example, not all repair shops will take on a moped repair, he said. He started the Portsmouth moped repair business in 2008 by putting ads on Craigslist.
“When I put an ad out there, the response was immediate,” Pamboukes said. “Every year has been better than the last.”
For now the city seems to be tepidly embracing these new vehicles as part of the city’s charm and it looks unlikely that city leaders will enact new regulations to keep sidewalks clear of mopeds.
If any changes are to be made to help pedestrians, business owners and moped drivers better co-exist in Portsmouth, officials have a few months of cold and snow to do the work before that moped motor buzz can be heard in the air again.