By Alan Prendergast
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Perhaps you've noticed "Land of the Lost Scooters," the newest art installation along Speer Boulevard.
If not, just follow Erik Koskinen and the small taillights of his 1979 Vespa with the black and blue paint job. After many years in the working world, Koskinen is getting a degree in dentistry at the University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center, and every single school day (weather permitting, of course), he leaves his Congress Park home and zips the ten minutes to the raised median at Speer Boulevard and Arapahoe Street.
Koskinen is just one of dozens of scooter owners who participate daily in this piece of unintentional installation art, lassoing their Vespas and Piaggios and Genuines and Aprilias and Peoples and mopeds to lampposts and signs and the guardrail that serves as a barrier between the street and Cherry Creek down below. Sometimes they simply leave them freestanding on the inner edge of the narrow sidewalk before hustling across the busy intersection to class.
And why? There's nothing particularly appealing about the location. Cars, mere feet away, charge past at thirty-plus miles per hour. The sidewalk gets crowded, and merging into traffic off the curb cuts can be tricky -- especially if you're on a machine that has the horsepower of something between a small dirt bike and a souped-up Weedwacker.
Koskinen would prefer to park more conveniently and safely near the bicycles on the Auraria campus's wide, brick-lined thoroughfares (which used to be streets themselves when the area was a working-class neighborhood a little more than thirty years ago). In fact, he tried at the beginning of the fall semester, when he first got his scooter. But when he was locking it to a bike rack, he was informed by a fellow rider that such an act would quickly earn him a citation, if not worse, from campus police. His kind are banned from mingling with the Treks and Schwinns and Huffys that fill up the racks. He would have to park in one of three motorcycle lots, which cost $2.75 a day, or become part of the Speer art project, overseen by Jonathan Borofsky's sixty-foot-tall alien "Dancers."
"The city will let me park for free just about anywhere," Koskinen says. "If [the campus] allows bikes, then they should allow scooters. The legal definition of both the state and the city is that you can park them at a bike rack."
But Auraria is a kingdom unto itself. It has its own police force and makes its own rules. So while the City of Denver defines scooters under 50 cubic centimeters as "motorized bicycles" and allows them to park on the sidewalks -- as long as they don't obstruct pedestrian traffic -- Auraria doesn't have to. Not even Denver mayor John Hickenlooper can make them, despite his scooter advocacy. Hick used his Aprilia in his campaign ads, and in April he was photographed on a red Scarabeo, scooting through LoDo with his tie whipping back in the wind, for a Time magazine profile that named him one of the top five mayors in the nation.
It's not a sight that moved Mark Gallagher, Auraria's director of parking and transportation. "A scooter, in fact, is not a bike," he says. "It is a motorized vehicle, and we've provided motorcycle parking. So, to be fair to people who drive cars and motorcycles, we feel that everything should be categorized the same."
Auraria's policy is nothing new; it's been in place since the 1970s. It's just that scooters' retro styling and excellent gas mileage have made them increasingly popular as fuel prices soar. In fact, Denver is sixth in the nation for scooter sales, according to Dealernews, a power-sport industry magazine, and last month, sales at local dealer Sportique were up more than 100 percent. "And it could even be higher than that, maybe 200 percent," says Adam Baker, the shop's co-owner. "But we're completely sold out of scooters. This is across the board; everyone in town is sold out."
Much of that demand is coming from college students looking to save money, says Baker, who's already taking deposits on his next shipment. "They are making a choice between a car, a bus pass or a scooter."
As a former student of Metropolitan State College of Denver, which shares the campus with UCDHSC and the Community College of Denver, Baker thinks that Auraria is unwilling to forfeit any of the $7.5 million it collects every year in parking revenue. "They want to make a lot of money," he says. "And that's why they charge starving college students almost four bucks to park their cars and $2.75 to park their motorcycles. They don't want to give up their cash cow, regardless if scooters take up less space."
Barbara Armijo didn't know about the parking rules when she bought her 49cc Kymco People from Sportique at the beginning of this semester. For the Metro physical-education student, it's more than just a quick way to school that doesn't require insurance or registration; it's a political statement about war and oil and the sustainability of resources. It's her way of contributing to less-congested city streets and parking lots.