It has been called a steel city, a city of waterfalls and even the ambitious city — but some say Hamilton has another title: the city of scooters.

They’re mainstays on sidewalks and in parks, especially in the downtown core. According to the province, the Ministry of Health and Long Term Care has funded more scooters in Hamilton in the last four years than in Kitchener-Waterloo and Windsor combined. And that’s just scratching the surface.

That kind of uptake hasn’t gone unnoticed. For some, it’s a chance to ask important questions about links to social services and poverty issues. For others, it’s a niche business idea.

'Some people think they’re a nuisance. I hate that negative connotation' - Brandon Dean, producer, writer and director, Scooterville

The convergence of scooters and electric wheelchairs in the downtown core has blown up into a "mobility subculture," according to Brandon Dean, the producer, writer and director of Scooterville — a documentary on scooter use being shot in Hamilton right now.

“It’s one of those topics that when you talk to people, everyone has an opinion,” Dean said. “We’re trying to create a voice for people in wheelchairs and scooters.”

It’s a voice that’s seemingly needed. According to some mobility advocates, Hamilton is woefully inadequate at serving all parts of the population when it comes to getting around.

Dean is part of a team of seven Mohawk College students working on the Scooterville documentary as part of their television studies program. “The idea came from seeing my friend Paulo, who has cerebral palsy,” Dean said. He has a speech impediment and can only use one hand, making day-to-day life challenging at times.

“And there’s a connotation and a rhetoric that goes along with that,” he said. “Some people think they’re a nuisance.”

“I hate that negative connotation.”

A dumping ground for social services?

Michael Hampson knows all about that kind of negativity. He's been using an electric wheelchair since 2002, and says Hamilton has a long way to go when it comes to understanding people with disabilities.

“Some people are fabulous. But unfortunately, many aren’t," Hampson told CBC Hamilton. "In the mall or supermarket, people will climb right over me. Like literally climb over my legs to reach that ketchup.”

Michael Hampson

Michael Hampson lives in downtown Hamilton. He's been using a mobility device since 2002. (Courtesy Michael Hampson)

“I get yelled at I would say at least twice a week, and told ‘I know you can walk, I’ve seen you walk, you just don’t want to work.’ In the farmer's market, when I go up to the counters, they can't even see me."

"It's like they're not even thinking about us."

Some city councillors have said that Hamilton is a regional “dumping ground” for social services. Dean, for his part, says there is a “definite correlation with poverty” that he’s noticed as Scooterville takes shape — especially considering that at around $3,000, a mid-level scooter costs about half of what a powered wheelchair does.

Dumping ground or not, Hamilton does have more people who use scooters than other similar-sized municipalities.

There have been 777 scooters funded in Hamilton in the last four years through the Ministry of Health and Long Term Care’s Assistive Devices Program (ADP). There have been 40 in Kitchener-Waterloo and 50 in Windsor during the same time frame, while London is nipping at Hamilton’s heels at 772.

According to the ministry, Ontario residents with a disability of six months or longer can access mobility devices through the Assistive Devices Program.

Here’s a look at how sales break down by year:

Year Hamilton Kitchener London Waterloo Windsor
2010-11 146 8 197 9 16
2011-12 253 8 134 3 19
2012-13 244 9 298 1 15
2013- 134 2 143 0 8
Total 777 27 772 13 58

Even though Hamilton is leading the way, that number only represents a fraction of actual scooter sales, says Brett Nishizaki, a product specialist at Motion Specialties on the central Mountain.

“Of every three scooters I sell in Hamilton, only one is through ADP,” he said. It’s very difficult to pin down an exact number of users because scooters don’t need to be licensed, so anyone can purchase one.

Nishizaki says Hamilton “absolutely does” have a larger number of people using mobility devices in the downtown core than other municipalities. “But I have no idea why.”

Hampson sees it too. “I live downtown," he said. "There are tons of us. There are more and more all the time.”

A scooter festival

Nishizaki and Hampson aren’t the only ones who think that way. “It seems like scooter nation down here. We’ve gotten to the point where we’re talking about having a scooter festival” said Les Marnincic, the marketing manager for Lil E Go — a new line of “luxury scooter” his company is importing from Holland.

The Lil E Go isn’t your average scooter. It has a covered top, a heater, windshield wipers, headlights, heavy-duty shocks and suspension — it really looks more like a sidewalk car than a scooter.

Lil E Go Scooter

The Lil E Go is a luxury scooter that's been imported from Holland and is being sold in Hamilton. (Courtesy Little E Go)

Marnincic says the idea to start importing them came when he saw a woman on a normal mobility scooter in the rain, covered in garbage bags. “We said, 'It’s ridiculous that disabled people should have to do that.'”

So they did some research, and started bringing them in to Hamilton. “We’re just trying to get them to the people who need them,” he said. “We’re trying to show people you don’t have to catch pneumonia on a normal one.”

Marnincic has been showcasing the luxury scooters at festivals over the summer, but business has been slow. They’ve only sold a handful so far — and if there is a correlation between poverty and scooter use, the price is likely the reason. The Ll E Go costs $7,500.

“I wish I could make them more affordable,” he said. "But for now, we're that little train going up the hill."

When filming for Scooterville started, Dean quickly found out that he was “taking a lot of things for granted” about how easy it was for him to get around compared to people with disabilities. “As much research as I did, I just couldn’t know,” he said.

His group hopes to have the documentary done by the beginning of December, for a student showcase at Carmen’s Banquet Hall in April. Ten other student documentaries will be shown at the same time.

“The thing you really have to remember is if you make a city for eight and 80-year-olds, everybody can use it,” Dean said. “At the very least, this might wake some people up.”

Hampson is still waiting for that collective wake up call. “I would ask people to open their hearts and their minds and to inquire more and find out more about our situations,” he said.

“I just hope people are ready to learn.”