It's surprising to me that scooters aren't more popular in the US. After all, scooters can handle the distance and hills of suburbia more easily than bicycles, and can wind through jammed city streets (and find parking) pretty effortlessly. They don't have the power and machismo of motorcycles, true; perhaps they'd be more popular if they were seen not as weak cousins of motorcycles, but as showing how future bikes might evolve.
Honda seems to be taking that path, as it is exploring bringing both hybrid-electric and fuel cell technologies to its scooter line, and is promoting them on its motorcycle web page. The 50cc hybrid scooter gets 60% better mileage than the standard 50cc gas model; the fuel cell model is bigger (125cc), and runs on the same fuel cell stack used in their FCX car. Both are prototypes, naturally; if it turns out there's little interest in hybrid or fuel cell scooters, Honda never has to mention them again...
But what if you do want an advanced technology scooter?
Vectrix is now making the VXe, an all-electric scooter, and has plans to introduce a fuel cell model real soon now. The Honda scooters, while nicely styled, still look like scooters; the Vectrix VXe, conversely, looks like the offspring of a sport motorcycle. It's big -- almost 200 kg in weight -- and maxes out at 100 km/h, almost enough to take on the freeway, and certainly enough to scoot down city and suburban streets with confidence. At least until your battery runs out, that is. As with all currently-available electrics, range remains an issue. Even with regenerative braking adding charge back to the battery, the VXe only goes about 68 miles, less if you drive close to top speed.
Still, it's good to see this kind of technology exploration. It's entirely possible that the limited range of an electric is a non-issue for most scooter riders. Abundant interest in the VXe could, in turn, prompt Honda (and other makers of scooters and motorcycles) to bring their prototypes to market. Scooters are wildly popular around the world: in Taiwan, for example, there are 10 million scooters for a population of 23 million people; Italy has 6 million; China bought 10 million and India bought 3 million in 2000 alone. It wouldn't be a bad idea to start to turn those numbers green.
I think the primary reason that scooters aren't as popular as they might be is because they're dangerous. Bicycles and motorcycles generally have much larger wheels, so they're a lot more stable, especially in difficult conditions (slick roads, crossing grates, etc).
Honda makes a three-wheel scooter called the Gyro which they don't export to the United States. You can see all five models on this page.
The Gyro Canopy, in my opinion, would be a much more suitable vehicle for places like Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco, as they have a roof, a windshield, and decent lockable hauling capacity. It seems that if you married that design with a fuel cell or hybrid electric drivetrain, it would be a great urban vehicle.
Many years ago, I investigated the possibilty of importing those vehicles, but Honda wouldn't allow it. It'd be nice to see a campaign to lobby them to bring them to the United States.
Even without a hybrid or fuel cell engine, the current Gyro Canopy gets 99 mpg and costs about $4,000.
Scooters have become all kinds of popular here in Seattle over the last couple of years; you see them zipping around the city, parked all over the place. I think they fit into a niche that transit would fill in a place that had it, or bikes might fill in a flatter, drier city.
Scooters are fairly popular as a "teenager in suburbia" thing around here (near Ottawa, Canada).
I've heard of too many people rear-ended at stop lights for me to try it. Maybe in a more rural area ...
Heck, my neighbor got full disability because someone didn't see him on his big Highway Patrol bike and drove right into him.
I do ride a bicycle fairly often, but I can at least get up on the sidewalk at crazier intersections.
(Orange County, California)
Actually, the vanguard for electric scooters & other green transportation in the US for over fifteen years has been Zap (zapworld.com). For the last several years, they've sold the Lepton (http://www.zapworld.com/products/lepton_clearance.asp) moped, as well as several models of small stand-up scooters (http://www.zapworld.com/products/zappyexp_scooter.asp). There's also "Electric Vehicle Technologies" (http://evtworld.com/), that make three different models of electric moped, the Helio / "eGO" (http://www.scootelectric.co.uk/helio/index.html) bike-like moped, the Caprizzio (http://www.infineon.uk.com/html/caprizzio.html) and ItalVel (http://www.granbyscooters.co.uk/itavel_scooters.htm) from Italy.
Those are just mopeds, though (top speeds around 25-30 mph.) For fast vehicles, there's the Esarati Blackhawk (http://www.motobykz.co.uk/Esarati/The_Esarati_400_Blackhawk.htm) (don't know if these are still made, though)
Vectrix has offered all-electric motorcycles for at least six years now (they used to call it a motorcycle and claim 75 mph top speed, I see they've scaled down), as well as hybrid ones. ..though perhaps they were more in-development then and now they're getting past small-time one-off manufacturing into actual production. I'm kind of surprised to see them still in business, since so many of these places go belly-up.
One problem with scooters is they are amazingly expensive buggers for thier size.
Don't forget Ego Vehicles, which are electric bikes-- They go around 25 miles, can go 25 mph, and are pretty rugged.
I test drove one a couple of years ago-- blog entry is here:
It's all about the wheel diameter. Many of the "rat bikes" that people ride in San Francisco are underpowered and heavy compared to scooters, but their taller wheels make them easier and safer to ride. Some of the scooter manus have figured this out and are making scooters with taller tires.
Another issue with the popularity of both motorbikes and scooters is weather. In the bay area one can ride most of the year, but daily riding the entire year in a place like Houston or New Orleans is only done by the hardcore.
One doesnt ride a scooter where it hails baseball sized hail;/