I wrote a post awhile back about Vespa and Harley-Davidson cultures, so you can see why a couple of funny images I came across recently are sort of cracking me up. The first one was in a discussion thread on ModernVespa, the second I found on Pinterest. Obviously these are both Vespa-centric, but they bring up a question that’s pretty universal for scooterists, no matter what brand we ride:
Why not a motorcycle?
I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that as a woman, I get fewer inquiries along these lines than men do. According to the Motorcycle Industry Council’s most recent survey (2015), only 14% of riders are women, and 33% of those women riders choose scooters over motorcycles. Google hasn’t helped me in finding any statistic that separates scooter riders by sex, or even a breakdown of motorcycle riders vs. scooter riders sorted by sex. So there are going to be some assumptions and anecdotes here, because the good old World Wide Web isn’t giving me much to work with.
I’ve gotten the question from classmates in my MSF course, from guys I work with who ride motorcycles, from friends who ride neither. My response tends to be something along the lines of “because I do what I want” but of course there’s a little more to it than that.
Something about the choice of a PTW seems a little more personal than the choice of a car. Maybe it has something to do with having it between our legs all the time. I mean really, why do any of us ride what we do? There are the usual factors in play: it’s comfortable, it’s the right size, it’s the right price, I like how it looks. Same stuff we think about in our car purchases, right? But with the exception of a few brands (Jeep, I’m looking at you), car culture doesn’t seem quite so important in purchasing decisions. Oh sure, there’s a lot of brand loyalty at work, but that’s the sort of thing that makes you buy another Honda when you had a good Honda before. It doesn’t make you buy Honda t-shirts and go to Honda meetups and join Honda forums and choose usernames like “HondaGRRRL1992” and put Honda stickers on your laptop and pose suggestively on the hood of your white Civic sedan.
I mean, that’s cool if you do. No judgement here.
People who ride smaller scoots have some obvious convenience reasons for choosing those, checkboxes that simply can’t be ticked with any motorcycle on the market. In most states, they don’t require a license plate or registration with the DMV, saving the owner time and money. Most states don’t require a motorcycle license to operate them, and give them privileges accorded to cyclists like sidewalk parking. A 49cc is great for getting around town, parking where parking spaces are scarce for a quick dash into the store, and so on. You can’t really compare the choice to own a Honda Metropolitan with the choice to own a Honda Shadow.
But when you get into the bigger scooters – Vespa GTS 300, Aprilia Scarabeo 500, Piaggio BV350, and the granddaddy of all touring scooters, the Suzuki Burgman – the lines start to blur a little. Bigger bike? Why not a motorcycle?
There’s the obvious reason: some of us (raising my own hand here) don’t care to have a bike with a clutch. I’m so uncoordinated, it’s just one more thing to worry about while I’m learning, so no thanks – yet. I won’t rule it out. But some people will never care to learn, just like most people never learn to drive a manual transmission car. Storage can be a lot more convenient on a scooter. So can the step-through frame for riders who might have physical limitations making mounting a motorcycle tricky.
Getting back to my earlier point about the PTW being more personal than a car, it seems like a lot of people learn to ride with a vision in their heads of what kind of rider they will be. That vision is usually cobbled together by what they already know of two-wheeled culture, the look and feel and lifestyle of it more than the mechanics and the price point. Certain brands have culture around them, but so do the body styles of bikes in general. Cruisers vs. sport bikes vs. scooters vs. cafe racers…. you probably had an idea in your head of what you wanted before you ever rode, didn’t you? How many of us had a say in the purchase of our first vehicle? Not me. Not any of my friends. We learned on what our parents gave to or shared with us. But how many of us were the decision-maker about the purchase of our first motorcycle or scooter? Probably most. From the beginning, the ride is a self-selected part of our identity. It makes you a rebel. A badass. A mod. A rocker. Stylish. Tough. Fast. Green. Free.
There’s a bit in Quadrophenia where Jimmy, our scooter-riding protagonist and a devoted “mod,” is talking with his childhood friend Kevin, a motorcycle-riding “rocker” about the way their paths and lifestyles have diverged. They’re admiring each other’s rides and exclaiming over features when Kevin drops this insight on us.
“It’s not the bikes, man. It’s the people, innit?”
It doesn’t really turn out so great for Jimmy in the end and Kevin gets his face smashed by a bunch of mods, but that’s irrelevant. It’s not about the bike you ride, it’s the person you are and the life you choose.
Awhile back I was riding pillion with a friend through some gorgeous scenery in perfect weather. Everything about it was a heady feeling and I loved every minute. “Why do people even have cars?” I asked as we sped along.
“Snow. Rain. The usual reasons.”
“But it’s perfect out here!” I turned and shouted to the cars in the other lane as they drove by. “Hey! Why are you in a car?!”
The bike that’s right for you is the one that gets the best of what RevZilla calls “smiles per hour.” The emotional aspect of why we ride what we ride can lead to some pretty animated conversations defending our choices, but the Brighton Run is long gone and I think of the motorcycle/scooter debate as good-natured teasing, all in fun. After all, we have a lot in common at the end of the day, don’t we? We ride because we love it, not just because we need to get somewhere. We’re vulnerable and brave and foolish. We’ve got the wind in our faces, the feel of the lean into a curve, and the self-righteous smug when we pass the driver enclosed in his white Civic sedan while we get to breathe the air of a sunset.
This post is featured on the Vespa Club of America blog here.