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In Love With Wheels and Reinventing Them

The world's foremost automobile culture, the nation that got its kicks on Route 66, the home of Walt Whitman and Jack Kerouac, is--surprise--having a fling with the scooter.

September 10, 2000|JACK SOLOMON | Jack Solomon is professor of English at Cal State Northridge

"What is it with all these scooters?" a neighbor asks me. "You know, the ones that look like the sorts of things we played with in the 1950s? What's the deal?"

What's the deal indeed. If you haven't already guessed, we're talking about Go-Peds, Razors, Zips, Micros and all the other scooters (both motorized and unmotorized) that are sweeping the nation while providing new headaches for traffic control officials in the suburban communities where they are especially popular. Scooters suddenly became hot this summer, with college students adopting the unmotorized versions for campus transportation, and children everywhere choosing both motorized and unmotorized varieties to zoom around their neighborhoods, often in spite of motor vehicle regulations. There is even a Go-Ped racing circuit.

So much for the facts. But what does this fad mean?

Since the scooters are marketed as an environmentally friendly transportation device, one might be tempted to conclude that their current popularity reflects a kind of greening of America, but I really don't think so. For one, they don't strike me as being particularly environmentally friendly: The motorized boards can be both smelly and noisy. As for the unmotorized versions, well, they are more used for play than for transportation and seem to have become status symbols for their youngest fans. And where they are used for transport, as on college campuses, one can always walk. At any rate, it would get pretty chaotic if everyone at my campus decided to tool around from class to class on a scooter.

So if the scooter fad doesn't reflect an environmentalist ethos, what does it represent?

Let's start with the basic fact that a scooter runs on wheels, wheels that require smoothly paved surfaces to operate efficiently. In short, a scooter is a creature of the road, just as automobiles, motorcycles, bicycles, roller-skates, skateboards and all the other wheeled contraptions that Americans so love to get about on, are creatures of the road. Which makes the scooter a particularly American gadget, a new entry in our long fascination with wheeled mobility and the roads that make such mobility possible. The nation that got its kicks on Route 66 is, after all, the home of Walt Whitman and Jack Kerouac, who expressed so powerfully the peculiarly American penchant for the open road in their literary classics "Song of the Open Road" and "On the Road."

So it is no accident that America was the world's first, and is still the world's foremost, automobile culture. With our eyes forever on the horizon, personal transportation, the means of getting from here to there as quickly and conveniently as possible, is a national obsession. And with so much of our national energy invested in wheeled mobility, it is little wonder that so much of our inventive genius is devoted to new forms of wheeled locomotion.

But a country that has embraced the wheel with such fervor has rejected something else: the lowly foot. And here too scooters are particularly American, for they give us yet one more way of keeping our feet off the ground. Americans do walk, of course, but we seem to try to avoid it wherever possible. Golfers ride in golf carts, students skateboard or roller-skate from class to class, parents drive their children to destinations that may only be a few blocks away, we take the elevator rather than the stairs, take Sunday drives rather than Sunday walks . . . we even invented the mountain bike so that wheels could carry us on trails that were once reserved for feet.


It is not surprising, then, that while an American, Lance Armstrong, is currently the best bicyclist in the world, the U.S. Olympic team that will compete in Sydney cannot boast of a single truly world-class male runner at distances over half a mile. Americans were once the best middle-distance runners on earth, and in 1972 and 1976 Frank Shorter showed the world what we could do in the marathon, but no longer. We'd rather ride.

What is it, then, about our national disdain for the ground, our desire to put something between ourselves and the earth, be it automobile, motorcycle, bicycle, skateboard, roller-skate or scooter? It isn't only a love for the road that makes us this way but a love of technology, of sheer gadgetry as well. Such a fascination meshes well with a consumer culture in which consumption is so much a part of our daily lives. In one sense, the scooter just gives us something more to consume--until the next fad comes along.

The fact scooters are primarily gadgets for the young reveals what may be the most profound lesson of all we can learn from them. For in joining the long list of machines that help us get from here to there faster than walking can take us, scooters reflect the consciousness of an optimistic, speculative culture that tends to focus on the future (where we are going), be impatient of the present (where we are now) and be forgetful of the past (where we came from). And that is the formula for a culture that is itself still very young.

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