The Stateside Scooter Argument
In May, I packed my bags and boarded a flight to Asheville, N.C., not knowing what to expect in the least bit. There is a legitimate reason for that—I was born and raised in Southern California.
Most of my sensibilities reflect that sort of upbringing, and I’ve spent precious little time in the south, so my understanding of it comes from dated pop-culture references, specifically, Deliverance. I’ll admit, it was a limited, if not ignorant understanding of the south.
Prior to this trip, my experience with scooters was limited to a 50cc Yamaha Zuma that I’ve ridden around Buttonwillow Raceway several times, and was subsequently yelled at by Buttonwillow staff on every occasion. Alas, that is a story for another time.
Asheville is an undeniably culture-rich community dating back to the 19th century. Architecture buffs will be keen to notice stunning Romanesque Revival, late Victorian, Neo-Gothic, Neo-Georgian, Classical Revival and Art Deco styling throughout the city. To me, the layman, it just equated to lots of interesting stuff to stare at while putting food in my mouth.
It’s that hotbed of architectural diversity that seems to have become a theme extending into the area’s lifestyle. Asheville is a forward-thinking home to a thriving arts community with countless breweries, live music, and interesting cuisine; with everything surrounded by an unending natural beauty that works harmoniously to set the tone of the quaint little town.
With that as my backdrop for two days, I saddled up on one of the bikes and set off towards Blue Ridge Mountain Parkway and adjacent roads, which should immediately ring a few bells in the ears of any motorcycle enthusiast.
When first assessing a motorcycle new to me, I run through a mental check list. It’s the process I take, and I do it on an almost subconscious level as it helps me become acclimated to the machine.
But that didn’t occur on this day, and in truth, it’s the reason I’ve woven this tale. My first thought when pulling out onto the roads of Asheville was “Why don’t more people use scooters?”
I felt thoroughly confused, and went through the full spectrum of human emotions, now that I’d discovered the ease with which a scooter can be operated. Over the course of the ride I realized that someone with even the most limited motor-skills could operate a scooter without fear.
The automatic continuously variable transmission eliminates shifting, a surprisingly common deterrent for those who have never given motorcycling a chance; the handling is virtually effortless, and either of these maxi-scooters could easily commute on the freeway. All this while having the capacity to hold a few days’ worth of groceries, books, or whatever else.
Of course, many of the same dangers of a motorcycle lurk within the scooter, but I would actually be impressed if a novice was able to highside a scooter in normal conditions because of a greedy throttle hand.
From that perspective, the scooter has to be the vehicle of the people—the proletariat, the tool for working masses. In other parts of the world, it is exactly that. In the US, many men and women in my age group have chosen to saddle themselves with even greater debt in the form of expensive cars or dubious lease agreements, even though we are not earning more.
Statistics show that our cost of living has grown disproportionately in relation to our expected earning potential, so in some cases, we don’t have a choice. But in terms of transportation, we might.
On the same note, the motorcycle industry, at least in my time, has done little to push the scooter to the American consumer. From what I can see, it is a bit of a chicken and egg argument. The industry as a whole fails to push the scooter, and the US market fails take to them. So naturally the market is blamed, and countless executives throw their hands up in despair, professing that they’ve tried everything.
But all hope is not lost; the US market has been responding well to lower displacement machine. The success of the Honda Grom and the Kawasaki Z125 are indications of that. Yes, those mini-bike machines have more in common with a standard motorcycle than a scooter, but just like a scooter, the learning curve is leveled dramatically and those skills are directly transferable to larger machines.
Perhaps we need to look at the scooter and the mini-bike in a different light or at least a light that was cast on it a few decades ago: the gateway vehicle. It is a pathway to mobility and independence, while also a step shy of motorcycle ownership.
In a few years, those same owners would pass their scooters or mini-bikes on for larger displacement, yet financially obtainable motorcycles. In many cases, that is how the current crop of riders was developed. The motorcycle industry grew with its fan base, providing motorcycles that matched their interests, skill levels and growing incomes. But then incomes began to slow just as the industry needed a new crop of riders to fill the impending void.
Let’s face it, the modern motorcycle is a wonderful machine, even if we move all the way down to bikes that share similar price points as the Kymco Xciting 400i ABS, Xtown 300i or the even more affordably priced Like 150i and Spade 150. However, one could argue that the skillset associated with a scooter and that of the equivalently priced motorcycle, while not miles apart, are certainly disparate.
The entry price for any modern superbike off the showroom floor starts at about $13,000. For many Americans, that number alone is exclusionary, but when we factor in the cost of safety equipment, insurance, maintenance and other consumables the prospect of new motorcycle ownership in the modern age becomes unattainable—or at least fiscally irresponsible—for many Americans. The top-tier motorcycle from any brand or category can be seen as an aspirational piece of kit – yet that doesn’t change the fact that middleweight motorcycles are only a few thousand dollars cheaper.
According to US Census Bureau numbers from 2014, roughly half of US households earn less than 53k. With living costs raising at what many would argue is an exorbitant rate, a large portion the next generation was priced out before they even had a chance to buy.
The scooter and mini-bike haven’t fallen victim to same types of inflation. Yes, the average maxi-scooter will set you back several thousand dollars and it will require insurance, as well as gear, but the upkeep and consumables are much cheaper and far more reasonable.
There are roadblocks for the scooter in the US, and we’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about them. Firstly, unlike (essentially) the rest of the world, in the United States, lane-splitting is legal in California alone. Yet the scooter is a utilitarian vehicle, and it most certainly comes into its own when faced with gridlock. That ability to squeeze between traffic is dramatically hindered when the right to lane-split is taken away.
Secondly, one has to commit to buying and wearing some level of protective gear. As of now, I don’t need a helmet, gloves, boots, or even pants to drive my truck. So in some cases, the truck will win out in terms of sheer convenience (I’d strongly encourage people to wear pants in public).
Another hurdle for scooters is that culturally, they are often mocked within the motorcycle community. It isn’t up to spec with the top tier sport or off-road machine; it’s a sensible vehicle for reasonable people. Interestingly, it’s mocked for being proficient—which is comparable to chastising classmates for achieving merely adequate grades in school.
The scooter shouldn’t be chastised; we need to see these entry-level scooters and motorcycles as a vessel to foster the next generation of two-wheel enthusiasts. We all had humble beginnings; the motorcycle’s relatively short history is a testament to that fact.
Perhaps the biggest cultural hurdle is that the US sees motorcycles, and to some degree, scooters, as toys—illegitimate modes of transportation. Yet that couldn’t be further from the truth. By the same token, men and women who feel the need to overcompensate will ridicule scooter or mini-bike owners as an almost instinctive response. Unfortunately, that’s a much larger problem the US has to come to terms with on many issues, not just with scooters or mini-bikes.
I’ve never been a fan of long-winded internet rants that don’t present a solution, so here it is: America, it’s time to embrace the scooter and mini-bike. They’re affordable, allow for mobility both short and far, and will undoubtedly be a gateway into the motorcycling world.
In many ways, this is comparable to my time in the south. My understanding of it was developed by film and pop-culture alone but after having the opportunity to visit it, I immediately understood the reverence that locals have for the south.
So do yourself a favor, go get some time on a scooter or mini-bike, and also make your way to North Carolina. And don’t constantly reference Deliverance. Yes, everyone in the south knows what it is, and yes, they thought I was an ass for bringing it up.