There's a distinct whiff of Rome about Sydney these days. It's not the sunshine or the ubiquity of focaccia and prosciutto at fashionable inner-city cafes, but the appearance of swarms of Lambrettas and Vespas buzzing round the streets like angry wasps.
The trend is being driven by the rising price of petrol, which is hurting motorists. The owners of gas-guzzling four-wheel-drives have been particularly badly stung by the price rise, much to the delight of the anti-4WD lobby. In contrast, running a scooter can cost as little as A$10 ($57) a week in fuel.
Sydney's worsening congestion, and the difficulty of finding a place to park, has also convinced many locals to ditch the car and take to the roads on a two-wheeler, on which they can smugly weave through the traffic jams. In the posh suburb of Mosman, renowned for its high concentration of shiny 4WDs, recent converts to the joys of scootering have been dubbed the Mild Bunch. Last year, more than 10,000 scooters were sold in Sydney, up from just 3,000 in 2002.
New South Wales requires car drivers to undergo a fresh examination before they are let loose on a moped, and there is now a three-month wait for training courses.
Scooter clubs are popping up all over the city, including one for women called the Vespa Vixens. A sleek website shows a tanned girl in a mini-skirt sitting astride a bike, cafe latte in hand.
There's a gallery of colour photographs showing someone's beloved silver scooter posed in front of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and at the beach. Emphasising the 'cool' factor, there are classic black-and-white pictures of movie stars on Vespas or Lambrettas, including Dean Martin, Ursula Andress and - of course - Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. Scooters are as much a fashion statement as a means of transport, their sleek lines, retro look and chrome fittings hard to resist. There's even a quote on the website from writer Umberto Eco, who came to associate the nippy little scooters with 'the subtle seduction of faraway places where the Vespa was the only means of transport'.
Two scooter-themed cafes have sprung up in Sydney in the past couple of years, both in trendy Darlinghurst - Gasoline and Vesbar. In Gasoline, a converted mechanics' garage, you can sip imported Santa Vittoria fizzy drinks amid a collection of new and vintage Vespas and 1950s Italian posters.
'We've had a 30-per-cent increase in sales each year since 2001,' said Gasoline's Ben Stevenson-Wright. 'People are becoming more friendly to scooters on the roads.' As for the expense, top-of-the-range models can cost more than A$10,000. 'But,' he said, 'you can buy a bomb for 100 bucks and do it up.'