When in Rome, if you care to adhere to the old saw, ride a scooter. The Italian capital is rife with Vespas, Aprilias and Piaggios carrying silk-suited and nylon-stockinged middle managers whose sex appeal stems from exposed Armani and flesh rather than carbon fiber and billet.
The city has horrific traffic and bottled-up parking, so motorcycles and scooters are a popular, efficient way to get around. While Americans may never quite match the Italians’ style, they could embrace two-wheeled solutions as gas prices soar, freeways clog and measures are enacted to reduce emissions.
The Romans aren’t the only people in the world who appreciate the efficiency of two-wheeled travel. In South America and much of Asia, motorcycles are simply the cheapest way to get around.
One of the industry’s earliest advocates for a more practical approach to motorcycles hails from Duluth, Minn. Andy Goldfine founded Aerostich in 1983 to create practical, safe clothing for people who ride everyday. His Roadcrafter suit was and is the gold standard for people who want to ride to work in first-class safety gear and arrive without bugs splattered on the knees of their chinos. He used then-new materials Cordura and Gore-Tex, and his highly durable waterproof garments came with a four-page owner’s manual.
Goldfine’s belief that motorcycles were more than just a past-time—that they were, in fact, an efficient, responsible way to travel—was radical in the mid-’80s. Motorcycles were, and to a large extent still are, considered toys. In an industry built for well-heeled 14-year-old boys, Goldfine’s unadorned simple logic was a fairly radical stance, and his contrary pragmatism has great appeal.
People quickly took to and came to love Roadcrafter suits. They wear like iron and will keep you dry in a typhoon. They are a staple of motorcycle travelers and commuters. The weedy fellow from Duluth in the smart-guy glasses and wild hair wasn’t alone in his convictions, and the company has become one of the most respected in the industry.
One of the initiatives that Goldfine’s pragmatic company philosophy led him to was Ride to Work Day. He spotted the saying “Ride to Work” hand-painted on the gas tank of an old Japanese bike at a motorcycle event. He liked the saying and paid the owner of the bike for using the slogan with a free jacket (or something like that—he doesn’t remember for sure). Then he slapped the line “Work to Ride: Ride to Work” on t-shirts, a few of which he gave away at Christmas to his best customers.
Some of those customers included Bob and Patty Carpenter and Fred Rau, editors of Road Rider magazine (which is now known as Motorcycle Consumer News). They loved the line, and called Goldfine to ask if they could use the slogan as part of a call for a “Ride to Work” Day.
“I think that’s a great idea,” Goldfine responded. “I’ll give you guys all the t-shirts and stickers you want. How can I help?”
So in May 1992, Rau wrote a column calling for a national Ride To Work Day on July 22. Dunlop, Aerostich and Road Rider combined to promote the day, and a small underground movement was born.
In 2000, Goldfine created a Web site and offered information so dealers and other motorcycle advocates could help promote Ride to Work day. Buzz began to build, and people started to create events around the country to promote awareness of the fact that motorcycles are good for the world.
How many people take part in the event isn’t entirely clear. Events around the country range from informal gatherings at coffee shops before work to company-wide efforts that put hundreds of machines in parking lots. The impact is hard to gauge, and Goldfine admits the entire thing is grassroots and low-key. The mission is simple: to help people see that motorcycles have a place in the daily lives of Americans. Like Aerostich’s products, this simply pragmatic view is revolutionary.
“It’s a social good to ride and Ride to Work Day is demonstration of that,” Goldfine says. Motorcycle dealers can support the cause by selling Ride to Work merchandise (www.ridetowork.org/store/wholesale). Margins are 30-50 percent.
Which takes us back to Rome, a place where two-wheeled travel is accepted and even stylish. Italian native Paolo Timoni, the colorful CEO of Piaggio Group Americas, believes that the Roman example can and will carry over into America. That’s not to say he thinks we’ll all be wearing $700 leather boots while riding, but he makes a compelling argument that the use of motorcycles in America will change and grow in the years to come.
Timoni recently said 20 million scooters will be on American roads in the next 10 or 15 years. His ambitious numbers reflect the fact that the social changes Europe faced during the past 30 years are now happening in America.
The three key factors changing our market right now are rising gas prices, global warming and rapidly increasing urban congestion. The 2008 surge of scooters and small motorcycle sales in a down market is ample evidence that high gas prices will increase sales of small motorcycles and scooters; if gas prices go back up to $4 per gallon, sales of the small bikes will increase.
Climate change is the toughest of these factors to quantify. As this becomes more of an issue, the industry could benefit from the fact that many modern motorcycles and scooters generate less carbon emissions than cars. Their engines are not terribly efficient in terms of emissions, but because they burn less fuel, they emit less harmful pollutants overall. So increased use of motorcycles and scooters can help the environment. Yet, the question is: How bad will things have to get before the government creates incentive programs beneficial to motorcycle riders, buyers and manufacturers?
The current administration’s tax incentives in the stimulus plan are a start down that road and an indicator of how global warming can actually help the motorcycle market.
Congestion drove Europeans to scooters, and America’s traffic levels are increasing rapidly. The U.S. is the second-fasting growing population in the world, and a study by the highly regarded Texas Transportation Institute estimates that transportation demands in America’s cities will increase by as much as 75 percent in the next few years.
“We will have issues of space. You cannot make roads larger,” Timoni says. “You can only have so many cars on the road.”
Motorcycles and scooters can help offset congestion by reducing the space taken up on the highway and in parking garages. In cities like Los Angeles, lane-splitting gives bikers a big edge over those stuck in cars. Many places have advantageous parking slots for motorcycles that allow you to park for less on prime real estate.
Today, there are about 1 million scooter owners and 8 million motorcyclists on the road in America. The current U.S. population is about 303 million, meaning about 0.3 percent ride scooters. The population is predicted to be about 335 million by 2025. In order for Timoni’s math to work out, the industry would have to sell more than 1 million scooters per year for ten years. And 20 million scooter users would mean that 5.9 percent of the population rides them, rather than the current 0.3 percent.
The world is changing rapidly, and small motorcycles and scooters offer solutions to the problems we face, but perhaps Timoni is being a bit over-enthusiastic about his projections.
Long-time rider and industry sales rep Darrick Anderson’s response was less diplomatic. “There will be that many scooters on the road,” he says, “when Piaggio gives them out for free. Americans are power-hungry freaks.”
His point is a popular one in enthusiast circles. America is a freeway society, and urban commuting typically requires powerful machines. Scooters like the new Gilera GP800 and Suzuki’s freeway-capable Burgman 650 address this issue.
Motorcycles oriented toward daily use may also help on this front. The sales of small motorcycles during the gas crunch are indicators, and motorcycle chat areas are clogged with discussions about the need for a machine that is designed for practical buyers. The niche is awkwardly filled with motorcycles like the Ninja and KLR 250, BMW F650, and small cruisers. But none of those bikes are designed specifically for transportation, with price point and efficiency as the primary concern.
The lines between scooter and motorcycle may very well blur as the industry (we hope) builds machines to address this need. One of the problems is sex appeal, as we all have come to understand that a successful motorcycle must be fun to ride and drive. Electric motorcycles could provide some of the solution here, as when they sort them out, they will be quick and could certainly have a high-tech gizmo appeal. But a practical electric motorcycle needs better batteries to scratch all the motorcycle itches. Piaggio expects hybrids to work in the scooter market and will have one out in the next several years.
Timoni dismisses the concerns of industry insiders who believe that scooters lack appeal. For enthusiasts, this may be true, but that problem is not reflected in the general public.
“Americans have no issues using scooters,” Timoni says. The support for his statement is numerical. The trend to move towards small motorcycles is already happening. Small motorcycles sold terrifically in 2008, and scooter sales were up 41.7 percent. Timoni has seen Piaggio’s sales of scooters grow 102 percent since 2005.
The problems of Rome are coming to America. As traffic worsens, gas prices skyrocket, and emissions plague our society, a practical solution may be the two-wheeled sport we all love.