Joined: 03 May 2005
Beating the $3-a-gallon game
Irritated commuters leaning toward scooters
BY JOE KAFKA
PIERRE, S.D. — Gasoline pushing $3 gallon? Why worry? Buy a motor scooter like thousands of other Americans and stretch that single gallon of gas a week or more.
"As people start driving them, they start finding more reasons to use them," said Doug Day, owner of Scooter Centrale and Vespa Hartford in Plainville, Conn. "They're practical, easy to park and get great gas mileage. I put $5 worth of gas into mine when it's totally empty, compared to $50 in my SUV."
As gasoline prices soar, the popularity of peppy, fuel-sipping motor scooters — most easily get 50 miles per gallon, and some of the smaller ones get up to 80 mpg — is soaring. Sales, estimated at 86,000 in the U.S. last year, have doubled from 2000, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council.
"I put about 20 miles a day on mine, and I only have to fill it up twice a month," said Jessica Meuchel, 23, who uses a scooter to deliver daily newspapers in Pierre, S.D. She bought the two-wheeler this spring because it was costing her $200 a month to fuel her truck.
Even the larger scooters are more economical to drive than cars, says Day. He says sales at his shops climbed nearly 200 percent last year and are doing well this year, too.
MIC spokesman Mike Mount said the market gained momentum when upscale Italian scooter maker Piaggio re-entered the U.S. market with the legendary Vespa scooter in 2001. Motorcycle makers such as Honda and Yamaha also began offering new lines of scooters in recent years.
Scooters were pioneered in postwar Europe by Piaggio, which made the first Vespa in 1946.
Gary Christopher, an executive with American Honda Motor Co. in Los Angeles, said Honda heavily promoted U.S. scooter sales in the 1980s, but annual U.S. sales peaked in 1987 and slumped after advertising was pared. They have long been popular in coastal areas and warmer climates, but more also are being sold in states with colder weather, he said.
"It looks like this new resurgence of interest in scooters is something that can stand on its own without massive injections of advertising and promotion," Christopher said.
Although scooters are economical, the fun factor cannot be overlooked, Christopher said.
"There's just something about a scooter that invites you to jump on it and go," Christopher said.
Dwight Turner, owner of GS MotorWorks in Frisco, Texas, a large seller of imported motor scooters from China, attributed the fad in part to rising gasoline prices and the coming of age of youngsters who have graduated from popular foot-propelled sidewalk scooters.
"Many 10- to 13-year-olds bought those scooters and then got hooked on the idea of riding scooters instead of bicycles and are moving up the scooter food chain," Turner said.
Scooter sales at his firm climbed 300 percent last year, and they increased 50 percent this past April alone, primarily because of high gasoline prices, he said.
"We sell to many teenage customers, college students, as well as people in bigger metro areas looking for more economic travel and parking options," Turner said. "I would estimate that 50 percent of our customers buy scooters for primary transportation, and 50 percent buy them as a toy."
Ross Petersen, a motorcycle and scooter dealer in Pierre, said scooters have turned into a fashion statement for some teenagers.
"It's kind of cool," he said. "You'll see a little group of them riding around together, and that feeds it."
Small scooters, especially those made in China, Korea and Taiwan, sell for as little as $800-$900. Larger scooters, capable of legal highway speeds and more, can cost $4,000 to $6,000.
Scooters, while fun to drive, also can be dangerous. Other motorists often don't notice the small two-wheelers, and that can land scooter drivers in the hospital — or the morgue.
Inexperienced and young scooter drivers should be especially careful, Petersen says.
"I see a lot of people driving scooters with shorts, flip-flops, no helmet, two-up on a machine that shouldn't ride two people," he says. "Scooters are pretty small, and the headlight's always on for safety, but sometimes people driving bigger vehicles don't see them. We've all seen those drivers with a cell phone in one hand, a cigarette in the other. I don't know how they can drive."
Motor scooters are usually regulated by state laws as either motorcycles or mopeds. If classified as motorcycles, special licensing endorsements are required. Several states require young drivers to wear helmets, Mount says. As for liability insurance, some states require it and others don't, he said.
While parking his scooter at an annual motorcycle rally that draws hundreds of thousands to Sturgis, S.D., Fred Hathaway said he uses his scooter to avoid traffic congestion. Hathaway, 70, a Dover, Del., silversmith who travels around the country to fix jewelry, said he finds it easier to ride a scooter than a motorcycle.
"This is a good-riding scooter," Hathaway said. "I've got two plastic knees, and throwing them over the seat of a motorcycle doesn't work for me."
Mount says the median age of scooter owners is 46, but they have wide appeal to both young and old, males and females. One-fourth of scooter owners are women, he says.
"Scooters are an easy entree into the world of two-wheeling for many people and are less intimidating than motorcycles," Mount says. "And if you're getting 50 to 70 miles per gallon, that's a lot better than pretty much any car you can buy."
Joined: 03 May 2005
Pump prices push to $3 in Minnesota
BY CHARLES LASZEWSKI
Gasoline hit $3 a gallon in Minnesota on Wednesday and it began to look like the 1970s again, save the lines at gas stations.
Bus ridership is up, motorcycles and scooter sales are soaring and people are talking about changing their driving habits, just as they did 30 years ago.
"I might think before I go anywhere,'' said Mark Schindeldecker of Eagan, as he filled up his company's truck in Cottage Grove for $2.99 a gallon. "If I can combine trips, I will."
Already, he is leaving his 20-miles-to-the-gallon Ford Aero-star minivan in his garage as often as he can. Instead, he borrows his girlfriend's Volkswagen Fox, which gets 31 mpg, he said.
Experts dismissed fears of shortages and rationing due to the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina.
Though an estimated 10 percent of the nation's refining capacity is down, that still leaves more refineries running than after Hurricane Ivan tore up the gulf last year.
"There's no reason, judging by the levels of inventory, levels of imports and even production why there would be any shortages in the near term or mid-term,'' said James Beck, an economic analyst at the American Petroleum Institute.
"If we didn't produce any more gasoline, we have stocks that last us three weeks.''
An unscientific look at east metro gas stations Wednesday found no lines and none closed down as happened during the price shocks of 1973-74 and 1979-80.
"We haven't seen any stations having to shutdown,'' said Jason Toews, co-founder of twincitiesgasprices.com. "In various places around the country, there are lines for gas. I haven't heard of or seen any long lines here.''
After declining bus ridership through July, Metro Transit saw a 2.5 percent gain in rides when they compared long-distance express buses the third week of August with the third week of July, said spokesman Bob Gibbons. Call volume at the transit information center was up 7 percent over the same period last year, he said.
Still, at the end of July, the agency was on pace for 67 million bus rides. In contrast, bus ridership peaked at nearly 94 million rides during the 1979-80 price shock.
At the same time, bus service will be cut 3.5 percent starting Sept. 10 because of a state funding shortfall.
Metro Transit plans to launch a modest direct mail campaign after Labor Day to entice people who live near park-and-ride lots to try the bus.
The real growth industry appeared to be scooters.
Bob Hedstrom, who owns the Scooterville retail and repair shop in Minneapolis, said the question of fuel efficiency only came up sparingly when he first opened the store four years ago. Not anymore.
"Oh my gosh, it's crazy," said Hedstrom, as he kept an eye on a prospective first-time scooter buyer from Wisconsin who was looking to save money on her commute. "When things turned over to $2 a gallon, the phone started ringing: 'What do you have? What kind of gas mileage?' With $2.50, it happened again. And now this week, people are sweating. They're a little more panicked about it. People are saying, 'With this hurricane, it will be $3.25.' "
Andrew Hine, who lives in St. Paul's West Seventh Street neighborhood near Randolph Avenue, used to make the eight-mile commute to his job at 3M in a Land Rover Discovery or Nissan pickup, neither of which got more than 15 miles to the gallon. Now his scooter gets 75 miles to the gallon, and he plans to bundle up to stretch the season because "$3 a week is better than $3 a day."
Darwin Holmstrom, an editor with Motorbooks International in downtown St. Paul, did the pencil and paper calculations for the 23-mile commute from his Crystal home.
"I'm an acquisitions editor,'' he said. "I don't make much; I just have a liberal arts degree. It is getting to where the price of gas has really taken a chunk out of our disposable income. The price of gas is almost to a lifestyle-changing price.''
In fact, the average gasoline price in the Twin Cities on Wednesday was $2.87, up from $2.17 a month ago and $1.16 cents more per gallon that one year ago, according to twincitiesgasprices.com. The highest reported price Wednesday to the Web Site was $3.45 at a Chanhassen station. In the east metro, a Roseville station was above $3.10.
J. Drake Hamilton, science policy director at Minnesotans for an Energy Efficient Economy, faulted Congress for taking no action on raising the fuel efficiency levels of the vehicles manufactured in the United States in the recently passed energy bill.
She said the state Legislature should consider providing incentives for Minnesotans to buy more-efficient vehicles and make sure the state's vehicle fleet is filling up on E-85 fuel, which is made from 85 percent renewable corn ethanol.
That is happening, said Gov. Tim Pawlenty's spokesman, Brian McClung. This year, Pawlenty signed an executive order requiring the state government to reduce its fleet vehicle use of gasoline by 50 percent by 2015, mainly through the use of E-85 fuel and the purchase of hybrid and other fuel-efficient cars. He also mandated that petroleum diesel use be cut by 25 percent by 2015, primarily through the use of bio-diesel, McClung said.
"Gov. Pawlenty has been very aggressive, and Minnesota is a leader in renewable fuels,'' McClung said.
Some saw an advantage in the rising gas prices. Andrea Pretasky was filling up her minivan in Cottage Grove with a mid-grade fuel costing $3.10 a gallon. She called the price "disgusting'' and said it would really hurt people like her 18-year-old daughter who just bought her first car and has to fill it up with wages that are just above the minimum.
Pretasky, however, wants to replace her minivan. She thinks she'll buy an SUV because with everyone else trying to sell theirs, "the prices should be down,'' Pretasky said.
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