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Scooter outrage could change UNC policy 

click to enlarge The menacing 50cc scooter - PHOTO BY OWLHERE (TRISTRAM BIGGS), UNDER CREATIVE COMMONS LICENSE
  • Photo by Owlhere (Tristram Biggs), under Creative Commons license
  • The menacing 50cc scooter

They're not hog-riding Hells Angels, but UNC's scooter riders are still a force to be reckoned with.

Last May, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill board of trustees quietly approved an amendment to a traffic ordinance that would require those riding mopeds and scooters on campus to purchase a parking permit and to put their vehciles in designated spaces.

The decision enraged scooter riders, and the outcry has prompted the board of trustees to possibly reconsider the issue next month.

The 45-page ordinance regulates traffic and parking on campus. The portion that is attracting attention expands a category of vehicles that must be registered from "motoped/ motorbike" to "motorized two-wheeled vehicles." Currently, any moped or scooter with an engine larger than 50 cubic centimeters must be registered with UNC, but the new language includes all mopeds and scooters.

The N.C. Department of Motor Vehicles requires only those with larger engines to be registered with the state.

The ordinance, which would become effective Aug. 15, also explicitly puts scooters in the same category as motorcycles. It would require a permit and parking space for scooters on campus and prohibit driving scooters on sidewalks.

Carolyn Elfland, associate vice chancellor for campus services, said scooter riders have caused problems around campus because they speed and drive them on sidewalks. She said that while UNC promotes alternative forms of transportation, scooters and mopeds still use fossil fuels, even if at a lower rate than automobiles.

Small scooters have fuel efficiencies of up to 100 miles per gallon.

"They do take up space on campus, which is already at a premium," Elfland said. "We're not saying you can't ride them."

Vincent Gonzalez, a UNC graduate student, started a Facebook group protesting the policy change. Last week, he discussed the decision with other scooter owners, including Gordon and Alvaro Gomez, at a meeting in Carrboro. Gonzalez said including scooters in the same category as motorcycles would be detrimental to both groups.

"Motorcycle riders will understandably not want all of us crowding their spaces," he said. "Not just scooter riders have a stake in this."

Scooter owners at the meeting called UNC's decision "regressive" and noted it contradicts the university's message of environmental sustainability. They also speculated the new policy could sour relations with the town of Chapel Hill and could make scooter theft more common.

Steven Gordon, a UNC employee, said the change would lead to greater scooter traffiic in downtown Chapel Hill, already heavily trafficked, as people look for places to park their scooters.

Since scooters with engines smaller than 50 cubic centimeters don't have to be registered with the state, their owners would likely park in town instead of on campus. He also questioned the environmental impact of more people driving cars.

"What's going to happen to [the University's] image as part of the community?" he said. "What about sustainability?"

In an e-mail to the board of trustees, Gordon pointed out possible complications with parking a moped in a regular motorcycle parking spot. There are no bicycle racks in these spots, and scooters would be parked, unlocked.

"I certainly do not want to leave my small moped parked unchained where it can be easily stolen and put into the back of a truck or van," he said.

Gonzalez said he has had two scooters stolen in three years, even though they were secured and in the middle of campus. He said that it would be even more difficult to secure his scooter in an empty parking space or in an isolated parking garage.

Gomez, the assistant director of UNC Disability Services, shares one car with his wife. Now that the couple has a 10-week-old child, Gomez has been leaving his car at home and driving his orange-and-brown SYM Mio 50 to work.

"The scooter is a godsend to get there," he said. "But we've thought about getting a second car now."

Roger Perry, board of trustees chairman, said he has received a number of e-mails regarding the change and forwarded the issue to Elfland to be re-examined.

"Enough people complained that Carolyn was surprised," Perry said. "Her initial reaction to me was that nothing onerous was being done to these folks."

Perry said UNC officials plan to look into the issue before the board of trustees' July meeting, adding that he hopes the ordinance can be changed if problems are found.

"There is no reason why the university would intentionally do something unfair or inequitable," he said. "There's certainly no reason to do it in this case."

Internationalist Books & Community Center in Chapel Hill has started a petition on behalf of scooter riders: www.UNCscooters.com.

More by Matthew McGibney

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