Rome, Italy – One of the most characteristic features of popular culture in Italy – the iconic Vespa moped – is at risk of disappearing from its roads.
Despite an enduring love affair between Italy and mopeds, sales of the vehicles made globally famous through such film classics as Caro Diario by Nanni Moretti are plummeting.
Economic crisis, demographic shifts, and the changing habits of the younger generation are all conspiring to end the moped culture widely associated with Italian life since World War II.
“The younger generation is just not as interested in mopeds as it used to be,” Claudio Deviti, head of the motorcycle unit of ANCMA, the National Association of Motorcycle, Bicycle and Accessories, told Al Jazeera.
According to data published by ANCMA, moped sales in Italy have declined from a peak of 600,000 in 1980 to 26,727 in 2014 – a vertiginous fall of 97 percent.
A similar negative trend has affected vehicles that have a higher capacity engine, with sales of 125cc scooters – which Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck famously drove around Rome in the 1953 cult movie Roman Holiday – dropping from 173,343 in 1955 to 37,388 in 2014.
This dramatic decline in moped sales means the story of Stefano Filauro, 29 – a committed Vespa enthusiast from Rome – is set to become increasingly rare.
When Filauro left the Italian capital two years ago to start a PhD in Barcelona, Spain, together with his books, clothes and shoes he also packed up his moped.
As Easter approached and Filauro prepared to head home, he decided he could not do without his Vespa – so simply shipped it back to Italy.
“The idea of being in Rome without my scooter just doesn’t work for me,” he told Al Jazeera. “I know the majority of people might think I am crazy, but that’s just the way it is for me at the moment. I won’t change it, now or ever.”
Ten days later, Filauro repeated the operation in the opposite direction – transporting his Vespa from Rome all the way back to Barcelona at a cost of about $225.
Deviti of ANCMA said a key reason for the decline in moped sales is that, as in other countries, Italy’s youth is experiencing a cultural revolution defined by owning a smartphone.
Whereas as recently as 10 years ago having a moped was synonymous with being able to hook up with your friends, today this role is performed by social media and having constant access to the internet – making owning a smartphone more important than owning a moped.
But not all moped devotees agree with such an analysis.
Outside the Cesare Beccaria high school in Milan, 18-year-old Pietro Falda said he still wants one.
“It’s not about having an iPhone, it’s just that my parents think it’s too dangerous for me to drive across the city. If it were my decision, I would ride one all the time,” Falda said.
Another factor affecting moped sales is the economic downturn since 2007, with Italian household consumption decreasing by nearly 10 percent since the start of the crisis.
Weaker spending power has combined with the rising cost of maintaining a moped.
In 1963, when the first Vespa 50 came out, mopeds were considered little more than bicycles and no licence plate, insurance, or helmet were required to use them.
Today, however, a moped costs on average $1,350 to which is added the expenses of insurance, stamp duty, and licensing – pushing up the total cost to about $2,250.
“Today mopeds are simply too expensive for the great majority of Italian households,” said Attilio Brisci, a moped mechanic in Cosenza, northern Calabria.
“People have two choices: renounce the use of the moped, or simply go without insurance at the risk of getting caught,” he explained. “I would say the average of those who do these is 50-50, with percentages getting higher the more one goes farther south.”
Although moped sales have plummeted, a small niche of hardcore moped devotees such as Filauro will always exist.
One die-hard Vespa rider is Giorgio Serafino, author of the books L’America in Vespa (The US by Vespa) and Paradiso di Polvere (Dust Paradise).
In memorable trips back in 2009, Serafino first travelled from Chicago to Los Angeles on a 1978 50cc Vespa Special and then across Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand.
The author described the experience to Al Jazeera as “breathtaking” and insisted defiantly: “Sales might be going down, but I can’t imagine an Italy without mopeds.”
Characteristically, the Vespa aficionado summed up the sentiment many Italian moped owners feel.
“The best response I have is through the lyrics of a song I love: ‘And now that I don’t have my scooter any more, how am I going to get around in a car?'” said Serafino.
“I hope this will always remain the spirit.”
This article was written for Al Jazeera