The Benefits of Becoming a Scooter Commuter

Text: James T. Parks • Photography: James T. Parks, Karen Parks, Heidi Parks

Back When Gas was 25 Cents A Gallon
As a youngster I remember our car's glove box held a little book in which my father dutifully tracked the gas mileage. Although gas only cost about 25 cents a gallon then, gas mileage was discussed among family and friends with an intensity that bordered on religious fervor. These discussions haven't changed that much over the years and they can generate just as much heat at backyard barbecues today, especially when the talk turns to that constant conspiracy theory involving the collusion of car companies, big oil and the government to keep gas mileage down and consumption up. But, because the cost of energy was so extraordinarily cheap back then, the thought of abandoning the beloved automobile for another form of transportation never seemed to occur to anyone.

Winds of Change
Although the energy shortages and gas lines of the seventies prompted conservation for awhile, a more plentiful supply, relatively low prices, and the absence of any serious national energy policy eventually returned gas-guzzlers to the roads in record numbers. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, however, gave consumers two big wake-up calls in 2005 when they blew gasoline prices past $ 3 per gallon. And while a comprehensive energy policy has yet to emerge from our glittering capitol in Boondoggle Land, DC, American consumers aren't waiting. They're taking matters into their own hands and discovering what people in many other countries have known for decades: It's hard to beat the fuel efficiency and practicality of a scooter.

Between 2000 and 2004, when the cost of gasoline was much lower than it is today, annual scooter sales in the U.S. doubled to approximately 86,000. Today, with gas prices in excess of $ 3 a gallon, anecdotal evidence suggests that scooter sales are now growing even faster. Where fashion, convenience and other factors drove scooter sales previously, budgetary concerns are now boosting the surge in sales.

Saving Money:Let's Do the Math
Since I own a gas-guzzler, a motor scooter and several motorcycles, and use all of them for commuting, I've compared their fuel efficiency. Behind garage door number one is my Toyota Tundra, weighing in at close to 5,000 pounds, with payload and towing capacities of about 1,500 and 7,000 pounds, respectively, and propelled by a 4.7 liter, dual overhead cam engine that gets about 14 miles per gallon in town. On most days, I am the sole occupant of this behemoth as I drive it through residential areas at about 30 mph on my way to work, loaded down with nothing more than my briefcase. I enjoy driving my truck, but it makes no economic sense for commuting.

Behind garage door number two is my Vespa Gran Tursimo. It weighs in at about 300 pounds (dry) and has a payload capacity of me, my briefcase, a rain suit and not a whole lot more. With just 6 percent of the Tundra's weight, the Vespa needs only a 200cc engine to propel it to a top speed of 75 mph, and it gets over 60 mpg on my commute.

I average about 10,000 miles commuting each year. Because I live in an area with cold winter months and have a job that sometimes requires four-wheeled transportation (my defensive lineman-sized boss won't be riding on the back of my scooter), I can log about 6,000 miles a year commuting on the Vespa. The higher gas mileage of the Vespa saves about 328 gallons of gas annually and, at $ 3 a gallon, puts an extra $ 1,000 in my pocket. Also, when you consider that I am transferring 6,000 miles of wear and tear (i.e., depreciation, maintenance, tire wear, repairs, etc.) from my $ 30,000 truck to my $ 5,500 scooter, the annual savings more than double. I estimate that the scooter will pay for itself in about two and a half years.

And finally, behind garage door number three is my Honda ST 1300 motorcycle, weighing in at almost 700 pounds, with a 1.3 liter V-four engine that gets about 33 mpg in town. Although the Honda is much more fuel efficient than the Toyota truck, its gas mileage is only about half that of the Vespa. The ST also costs over twice as much as the Vespa, so there's a comparable increase in the cost of wear and tear too. Bottom line, the ST is a costlier commuting vehicle than the Vespa.

For people fortunate enough to live in a warm climate, the savings of commuting year-round by scooter are much greater, particularly if they sell one of their gas-guzzlers. This, of course, is all predicated on $ 3 a gallon gas. If prices rise further, to $ 4 or $ 5 a gallon, the savings will be even more substantial.

Other Important Benefits
Beyond savings, scooter commuters can look forward to:

Helping Preserve the Environment and Your Wallet:

I've read that there are over 110 million automobile and truck commuters in the US. I don't know if this is really feasible, but if each one of them could save 328 gallons a year, gas consumption (and exhaust emissions) nationwide could be reduced by over 36 billion gallons a year. At $ 3 per gallon, the savings nationwide would be over $ 100 billion. And, as the late Senator Everett Dirksen once said, "A hundred billion here, a hundred billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money."

Reducing Traffic Congestion and Road Repairs:

Scooters require only a fraction of the roadway space of cars and, because they're much lighter vehicles, roadways aren't degraded as quickly.

Easier Parking:

With the growing automotive population in our country, parking spaces are becoming much more scarce and costly. The park-almost-anywhere ability of scooters is very attractive in today's urban environment.

No Gears or Clutch:

Stop and go driving is less taxing for commuters with a twist-and-go scooter.

Improved Maneuverability:

The nimbleness of scooters, particularly in urban areas, is unsurpassed by other types of vehicles and it gives riders an extra edge in avoiding dangerous situations in dense traffic.

Easier Home Storage:

Because scooters require less garage space than cars or trucks, more space is left for important additions, like new power tools.

Step-through Design:

This feature helps keep legs dry and allowed me to continue riding when a strained knee kept me off motorcycles for a few months.

Many Non-commuting Uses:

The Vespa is great for running weekend errands, saving even more gas, and thus constantly reinforces the wisdom of this purchase to my wife Karen - just in case she's ever had any doubts about it.

Best of All, It's More Fun:

Zipping around town on a scooter is simply a lot more fun than driving a car.

A Few Words about Safety
While riding my Vespa to work one day last summer, clad in boots, armored riding jacket, gloves and a full-face helmet, I was suddenly overtaken by a woman on a smaller scooter weaving through traffic. Dressed in a tight skirt, blouse, a half shell helmet, and, believe it or not, stiletto heels, she looked marvelous, simply marvelous, a lot like Sophia Loren in that vintage poster at the local Vespa dealership.

Because scooters have a more innocent appearance than, say, a big Harley Hog, many people don't think they're as dangerous. But, when a rider comes into contact with asphalt at 40 mph, the resulting injuries won't be any less than they would be for a motorcyclist. For this reason, scooter riders need the same protective gear and safety training as any motorcyclist.

Scooter commuting is a great way to save money and have fun, but be sure to always wear proper gear and ride with safety in mind.

My Estimated AnnualFuel Savings *

Commuting Miles 6,000
Divided by MPG 14
Est. Gallons 428

Commuting Miles 6,000
Divided by MPG 60
Est. Gallons (100)
Est. Gallons Saved 328
Cost per Gallon x $ 3
Estimated Annual Savings $ 984
Rounded $ 1,000

* Assumes the Vespa scooter is used for commuting only 60% of the time.