Motorcycle v. Scooter?

Have you ever wondered about the various advantages of owning a motorcycle versus owning a motor scooter? Here’s the brief story of how one urban commuter who confronted that problem and how he got some advice about the issue. There’s some good advice for you, too, here—if you’d like to check out some information about the relative economic impacts, social advantages and other significant differences between motorcycles and scooters for urban commuters. Scooters and cycles are often seen as diametrically opposed, but they have similarities as well as differences. To see how one ordinary guy evaluated how he might decide between scooting and cycling—just check out our story “Cycles Versus Scooters: Independence in Transportation.” It may give you some insight into a few new ways to look at ways to get around your city. Just keep in mind—whatever you do—protect your investment with a good car or motorcycle cover.

You’re heading out the door of your apartment toward the bus stop, wondering once again if you should take the plunge and buy a car. Your good friend Charlie is there is the parking lot, taking the car cover off his great little sports car—you head over to give him a hand.

“Hey, Charlie, what’s the gas mileage like on this baby?” you ask, as you admire the sleek little car, helping to remove the car cover.

“I get about fifteen in the city and twenty on the road,” Charlie answer, smiling. “I just love it. Thanks for the help. See you later—want a lift to the bus stop?

“Sure,” you answer, and you jump in, and you get a quick ride the block to the bus stop.

On the way to work, you’re mentally doing the math—car payments, insurance payments, gas costs, parking payments near where you work. Nope, it just won’t add up. Not quite yet. As you get off the bus, you sigh. It’ll have to be the bus for a while yet. Then you see your co-worker Ann Greene pass you as you walk the last half block to your office building; she’s riding a motor scooter! She waves as she passes you and enters the company’s parking structure.

Later that morning you see Ann in the coffee break room.

“Ann, what’s the thing I saw you riding on this morning?” you ask.

“Oh, that’s my scooter!” she laughs. “I’ve had that thing for years! I wouldn’t part with it. I just love it. It’s just great for running around the city. I actually do have a car, but I prefer to use the scooter when the weather’s OK, and I just need to get to work or run a quick errand. I got it when I was in college, and I’ve had it ever since. I’m in love with it, I’ll admit it.

“Really,” you say. “Tell me more. “

“Well, I’ve got to get back to work right now, but if you’d like to meet after work—we could talk then, and you take a closer look at it as well, if you’d like to—

“Hey, that would be great,” you say. “I’ll meet you here at five.

“At five, then,” she smiles.

At five you meet and the two of you head to the parking garage where Ann shows you the scooter.

“This is my Honda 250 scooter. I’ve had it for nearly six years, and it’s got many, many miles on it! I rode it all over my campus, of course, but it’s also been my work horse here in the city. I really like it because it’s so easy to ride, and of course, it’s so cheap to operate,” says Ann, as we reach the small blue machine parked in the motorcycle section of the indoor parking area.

I’m looking at a small blue scooter. I’ve never really thought much about them. Kind of like kid’s toys, y’know—but maybe—there might be something here.

Ann takes out a key, lifts up the seat of the scooter and unlocks a storage compartment.

“It’s got a trunk,” she smiles. “Holds my helmet and some other stuff—rain gear if I need it and other junk. Lots of room. It’s handy if I run to the store for a few things. Not so good if I need to stock up, but OK for a loaf of bread and a dozen eggs, stuff like that. OK for a picnic lunch at the beach, y’know?

Just at that moment, Charlie Fields, from Purchasing, walks up. 

“Hey, guys, what’s up?” he asks. “She trying to convince you that scooter is the greatest thing since sliced bread?” he jokes.

“I don’t know,” I say. “Why do you ask?

“Well,“ he says, “If you want a real man’s ride, you gotta get a real bike. A motorcycle—like my Harley here,” he says, walking up to a Harley-Davidson motorcycle parked nearby. “It’s the only way to go.

As a kid, I had had my dreams of having a motorcycle (didn’t everyone?). In fact, I have been giving it a little thought lately. Bike were cheaper to buy and run than cars; cheaper to insure as well. Maybe I should really give the two two-wheeled options some real thought.

Ann laughs—“That’s just like some tough guy—all that Harley talk! Well, I’ll take my nice, civilized scooter any day; you can have your Harley, Charlie.

Charlie gets on his Harley, and in a noisy blast, rides away.

“So, Ann, what are the big differences between scooters and motorcycles? The advantages and disadvantages of one over the other?” I ask.

“I’m the wrong one to ask,” she answers. “I’ve obviously got strong opinions one way. You’d better go do your own research if you want unbiased answers. Just remember—Whichever way you go, you’ll have to get a good cover for your vehicle; when you park your scooter or cycle unattended it’s fair game, and a vehicle cover is not an expense, it’s insurance for your investment. I keep mine in my little “trunk,” and whenever I park anywhere outdoors, it gets covered. That’s one reason my scooter has lasted me so long.

“I’ll remember that if I decide to get one,” I say. I start off to the bus, stop, head full of ideas about two wheeled transportation.

So-- what is the difference between scooters and motorcycles?

It seems that there are quite a few, as well as a number of similarities. The similarities that struck me immediately were their disadvantages—you were stuck out in the elements, at the whim of the gods of weather. Was I willing to take that risk? Fortunately, my city had few days of awful weather, and for the days when the forecast was truly awful, I could still rely on the buses if I chose not to ride scooter or cycle. Secondly, both scooter and cycle seemed to be less safe than the bus. Helmet notwithstanding, a rider seemed rather unprotected in city traffic among autos, pick-ups, and (gulp) semi-trucks. But there was Ann Green, 125-pounds if she was an ounce, having survived years of scooter-riding—could I not master this as well? Certainly, I could! Far be it from me to admit that I was a bit timid in the face of city traffic!

The differences between the two were somewhat greater, although they depended somewhat on the models of individual vehicles you compared. But typically, there are a few major differences that loom across all models. 

Scooters have automatic transmissions, making them almost universally easier to ride. Motorcycles have manual transmission, with shifters mounted on handlebars. Mastering the transmission is more or less complicated depending on the make and model of the individual bike, and this may not be an easily transferable skill from one bike to another. This may or may not be perceived as disadvantageous; many motorcyclists enjoy shifting their bikes, seeing it as part of the process of controlling the bike. However, if the goal is just getting around in traffic, it may be less fun to be always down-shifting, etc. Depends. Do you want a ride or an exercise in manual dexterity? For many people (and, no it’s NOT just a “guy” thing), it’s a pleasant, daily activity “to ride the bike.” And, no, no black leather jackets are required, but many riders do prefer to wear more protective clothing than just a T-shirt.

Then there is the posture thing. On a scooter, you generally are seated upright. To get on a scooter, you step across the center board, sit down on the seat, grab the handle bars, look straight ahead, and prepare to go. On a motorcycle, you must begin by flinging your leg over the bike to straddle the bike. Rarely do you sit upright. Most of the time, you are leaning forward into the bike. While we do call motorcycles “bikes,” it’s not quite like riding your old two-wheeler, at least not the one I rode to grade school. While neither posture is necessarily perfect, one should consider which one prefers. This will take more than one test ride, perhaps of more than one model of each type of vehicle. And do remember that shifting of motorcycles can be tricky from one model to another.

Depending on where you plan to use your machine, you will find different licensing requirements as well as differing insurance requirements. The good news is that in every case both licensing and insurance are very much less expensive than they are for automobiles. Licenses do require road tests; these vary from state to state; check your state’s web site for details and localities of test sites. Ask local owners for their stories about how it’s done. In most states, if you have auto insurance, a rider can be added to your policy for scooters/cycles for a few dollars unless your new vehicle is a vintage or otherwise weird one.

Other operating expenses are phenomenally lower than auto expenses. Scooters are the distinct winners here. Because of the generally smaller size of their engines (most street size scooters range from 250—500L), they get incredibly high gas mileage—some as high as 150 mpg, even as they can travel at highway speeds of 50-60 mph. While most people probably would not recommend traveling on American freeways on a scooter, some people have been known to do so. And, in fact, there are some larger scooters that may facilitate freeway travel, especially between four-thirty and six-thirty in the evening, when freeway speeds average 35 mph. That’s an editorial comment.

Motorcycles, while generally not as fuel efficient as scooters, are far more efficient than their four-wheeled cousins, autos. The smaller ones can approach 100 mpg, but on average they average 50-60 mpg, easily besting automobiles. When you consider the added economy of reduced maintenance, insurance, even storage—the advantage of using a motorcycle for basic transportation becomes evident. And it’s lots easier to take a friend on the back of your bike than on a small scooter.

The other advantage of the bike over the scooter is its greater speed. Depending on the model, a motorcycle can really get up and go—much faster than it’s legally allowed to do. (The fastest motorcycle clocked on a track has been recorded at 249 mph—the Kawasaki Ninja H2R) There are at least ten models that can be legally licensed that can break 150 mph. In the hands of a skillful rider, a motorcycle on the highway is a beautiful thing—if a bit frightening. And it can do that while still getting a whole lot better gas mileage than a car driving at 150 mph! If you care about such things.

Now—while we’re discussing motorcycles flying along superhighway—consider where you’re going to put your lunch. Or your motorcycle cover. Or your rain coat. Unlike the scooter, the motorcycle has no storage under the seat. Under the seat is the drive shaft. In front of you is the gas tank. Behind you is the engine. The whole damned thing is a machine. There is no place for anything but an operator perched on top. You. Anything else must be attached in separate compartments that you add. Guess what? There are endless varieties of just such things! Saddle bags, other sorts of attachments—you just check out the websites, Amazon, etc –you’re gonna find a way to hang it on your bike, up to and including adding a trailer! A motorcycle can become a veritable traveling recreational vehicle! There are trailers—with beds, even some with—gasp—toilets! These requires rather large motorcycles, of course. 

Back to just transportation. Motorcycles to get you to work or class or whatever. Let’s talk a little bit about basic cost. Those bikes that go 150 mph? Forget it. A bike that will top out at freeway speeds of 70-75? You can get one new at under $8000, used way less. It won’t break you to insure it. You will have to insure it. You will have to buy a very good helmet. You may need to pay for a good parking space. You MUST get a good motorcycle cover to use, even if it’s parked in a secure parking space, and always if it’s parked outside.

If you decide a scooter is for you—you will invest much less up front. A very nice 250L scooter runs $2500—$3000; a 500L--$4000. The longevity of these machines is well-documented. Maintenance is low and fairly easy. The machines are much lighter weight than motorcycles, so they can be managed by smaller people; hence their popularity among women and older people. However, the larger models are suitable for travel on city streets at higher speeds. One of the major advantages is the cargo capacity under the seat—allowing carrying of rain gear, vehicle cover, as well as additional gear. It’s lockable as well. Some of the larger models may allow carrying an additional passenger—this is unusual. Fuel economy is a huge advantage.

All of the models I looked at were, without saying, street legal. That is, they had headlights, taillights, rear view mirrors, and were capable of being licensed in the states of the United States and the District of Columbia. That is, I didn’t look at any mini-scooters or motorcycles or mopeds; only those vehicles that I could reasonably consider as a possible means of transportation to work. I work 3.6 miles away from my place of work; it’s a slight uphill grade to get there. No freeways are involved. On most days it takes about 12 minutes or less. The bus ride costs $1.50; it takes 30 minutes. There is a closed parking garage at work where I can park a two-wheeled vehicle for free (I would have to pay have $2 per day for a car).

The differences? Well, there are many—and there are few. Scooters are smaller, they are cheaper, they are less “aggressive.” Many “guys” think they are not masculine enough for consideration—but you may want to take a closer look. The newer, larger ones are tough enough. Unless you’re into racing or dirt, sitting up and facing traffic has its advantages. So has getting 132 mpg.

On the other hand, there are advantages to making your transportation do double duty as your hobby. There’s nothing wrong with that, so long as you recognize that’s what you’re doing. If you want to have a motorcycle be your transportation-- as well as your weekend run-up-the-hill fun thing—maybe you want to take a look at some kinds of multiple use bikes. But that’s a whole different thing. Motorcycles are so much more than scooters—I can hardly begin to go down the road of everything that “bikes” evokes. I just know that I have decided I’m going to become a two-wheeled rider—I just don’t know yet if it’s going to be a scooter or a bike!