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Scooter Commuters: A New Force in the Workplace

Among high-tech and urban hipsters, the vehicles become wheels of choice to zip to--or around--the office.

September 17, 2000|RENEE TAWA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It wasn't enough for them to spit in the face of corporate seniority (Colossal stock options for everyone!), of stuffy dress codes. (Just dressing is good enough for them.) They don't stop, this digital crowd, forever upending workplace culture in their land of the freewheeling, home of the unconventional. Now they must zip around in a way that is different from you and me.

A low-tech way, really, and the irony suits them.

These days, they are whizzing by the rest of us in their own dress-down version of the commute and the walk down the long hall.

At high-tech start-ups in the Silicon Valley--and, lately, in other urban areas and workplaces--the company car of choice is . . . the scooter. Top executives zoom into work on a PTV, or Personal Transportation Vehicle, some with a cell phone or latte in hand. Recruiters use the idea of their corporate scooters as a selling point, the very phrase "scoot to work" implying levity. For meetings across the way, techies jump on company scooters, usually powered by foot or electricity, liability be damned. (Warns one executive's tongue-in-cheek memo on scooter riding: Don't crash into Richard's Mercedes-Benz, injuring yourself, or worse, the car.)

In the past year or so, the scooter has evolved from a kid thing to an adult "destination vehicle" sold by specialty makers including Zapworld.com, which calls itself an "alternative transportation developer." The company that makes the Xootr Street trumpets its scooter's bulletproof deck and its design, dreamed up by a team that used to design race cars. An e-technology company in Mountain View boasts a 16-scooter fleet, souped up by their employees in special ways. One brand of kick scooter, which is pushed along by foot, folds up to the size of a tennis racket.

At a downtown Los Angeles skyscraper, receptionist Micah Kirton, 23, rides a foot-propelled scooter along the far-flung fourth floor offices of Hiwire Inc., an Internet services firm. The company, which has a 75-member staff, bought 10 Razor scooters after an employee who had one raved about the ride. "At first, it was cute; something different in the office," says Kirton. "Now it's transportation."

The scooter is the latest metaphor for the play-hard, work-hard ethos of the wired workplace, says Ellie Rubin, who worked in the Silicon Valley as co-founder of the Bulldog Group, an international software company. Scooters save walk-about time at high-tech companies, which often rent funky office spaces in places such as converted warehouses.

At start-ups, where hours are long and the staff is young, scooter wheelies can take the edge off a hard day and leave 3-foot-long burn marks in the carpet, points out an executive at Station X Entertainment digital effects studio in Santa Monica. And for techies, who tend to be green-conscious, the nonpolluting scooter is a practical way of hugging a tree.

"[The scooter] complements the lifestyle and the look, and it's also pretty pragmatic," says Rubin, a business columnist for Universal Press Syndicate. "It's like, 'I'm one of those people who are connected and wired. I don't drive a car; I drive a scooter.' "

The scooter-in-the-workplace craze, she notes, like so many other Silicon Valley whims, is spreading. According to industry estimates, 2 million to 5 million scooter sales are expected this year, totaling $200 million in business, up from virtually zero in 1999. High-end electric scooters generally sell in the $600 range, while adult kick scooters go for $100 to $500 or so. (Motorized scooter riders must be at least 16.)

High-end scooter makers hope a growing part of those sales will be to adult commuters such as C.E. Raum, a visual effects editor in Santa Monica. "You hop on it, and people are looking at you, and you're getting thumbs up, and, 'Hey, that's cool.' It makes you feel like a kid, and it makes you feel like you're doing the environmental thing," Raum says. He used to commute by bicycle but would get to work hot and sweaty and have to park and lock the thing. Now he pulls up to the door, cool as a breeze, and totes the scooter inside; he can fold his Zappy to fit under his desk.

And then there's the Snoopy factor, says Julie Nunis, a Hermosa Beach actress.

"The most fun about it is being outside with your hair blowing in the wind, kind of like Snoopy when he's flying on top of his dog house," says Nunis, 33, who rides her red Zappy to auditions and gigs in a Harley helmet, bombardier goggles and reflector vest. "You can't help but have a silly smile on your face."

Though serious scooter accidents are rare, manufacturers, police departments and others are issuing safety reminders.

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