Friday, March 12, 2010

10,000 Miles on a Scooter — 22 Months — 10 Questions

As of about February 1, 2010, I have ridden roughly 10,000 miles on my scooter.  Here is a series of 10 Questions people might have about scooters and riding them.

1. What do you ride?

Kymco People S scooterI ride a royal blue Kymco People S scooter.  It is a bit different from many scooters, with a somewhat wider front (better wind blocking), a windscreen, a larger seat, and a bigger front wheel.  And the design doesn’t look like a Vespa knock-off (which I liked).

I have three helmets: a full-face with a hinged front (silver), a 3/4-face (silver), and a “skid lid” (black, for summer and buddy riders).  I have also added a Givi trunk on the back, which gives me a good amount of storage (but especially because only the “skid lid” helmet will fit under the seat, so I need it to hold the helmet when I park).

The engine size on my scooter is large enough that I can take it on pretty much any roads I need to.  Not all scooters at this lower end (especially 50cc engines, of course, which are limited to city streets) are able to actually deal with highway speeds, but mine can maintain 55–60 mph much of the time.  (I slow down on steep hills, and I’ve had it above 70 on descents.)  Basically, I just stick to the right-hand lane most of the time and cruise along right about at the speed limit (as opposed to 10 mph over it as many cars prefer to do); so long as I don’t impede other cars, I’m generally fine.

2. When and where did you get it?

I bought my scooter (which I have named “Donny”) in mid-April 2008.

Prior to buying the scooter, I spend a couple weeks checking out models at various dealers around the city (and even down in Kent, 30 minutes south of home; at the time, I was gong down there once a week, so it was reasonably convenient).  It seemed that every time I turned around, I was finding out about yet another scooter brand.  In addition to just checking out looks, visiting the dealers was important for physically sitting on the different models, to imagine myself riding one and seeing how they felt.  I settled on the Kymco becasue it felt bigger and more stable than many of the comparable engine size models.

Ultimately, I bought mine from Interbay Scooters in Seattle, on the recommendation from my manager, who had bought his from Interbay as well.  Some scooter fans I know don’t like Interbay (or didn’t; they have since closed when the owners retired), but I have had good relations with them and good service all along the way.

3. Why did you get it?

Remember the summer of 2008?  Remember the gas prices in the summer of 2008?  Between $4 and $5 a gallon?  In March of that year, I could predict that was going to happen, as prices were already climbing and they always jump further for the summer months.

My car gets about 15–18 mpg (it’s a small SUV, and never was high on the chain of MPG anyway).  About a year before this, I had done a rough calculation that each 5-mile trip to Capitol Hill and back (“to the bars”: shorthand for any in-city round trip further than the 1/2 mile to the grocery store, including the 6.5-mile trip to work) cost me about 2/3 of a gallon of gas.  When gas crossed $4 a gallon, that closed in on $2.50 a trip, which equates to “a beer”.  This meant that I started to evaluate whether trips were “worth” it; going for just one beer would double the actual price of that beer due to the overhead of just driving there and back.

My manager and several co-workers rode scooters and motorcycles, and the cognizance that they got really good gas mileage (like 4 times what my car got) made me ask more questions and start to do some research.  Our building at work has a large concrete area out back where the scooters and motorcycles park, and it turns out that parking is free, which beats the pants of the (subsidized) $90 a month I was paying to use the garage.  In other words, between gas and parking savings, the scooter would be paying for itself.  Saving money is good.
And of course, what boy hasn’t wanted to zoom zoom on a motorcycle, at least a little?

While I did some shopping around to look at different models and read tons of online reviews, my manager let me get some riding practice on his scooter a few times, just in the parking lot across the street from our building, down an alley, and around the block.  It was enough to make sure that I could handle a scooter and actually would want to.

4. Why didn’t you get a “real” motorcycle?

Yes, that’s the way some people phrase the question.  To them, “scooter” equates to “moped” which equates to “bicycle that you can cheat with,” I think.  At a minimum, they see a scooter as a “toy” motorcycle.

Without getting too defensive, such a question is generally clueless, although there is a germ of truth in the idea.

First, there is a legal definition of a “moped”, as defined by engine size (under 50cc) and speed (under 30mph).  Almost nothing you see on the streets that you would identify as a “scooter” falls under that definition.

Most scooters that you will encounter are in the 49–150cc range.  49cc scooters are appropriate for in-city use, topping out their speed between 30–40 mph (slower with more weight and uphill, of course).  I have been told that 125cc and above are allowed to go on the freeway and highway, although not all are appropriate for such; some really don’t have the power to sustain highway speeds, and some are small or light enough that they just don’t belong in traffic at that speed or are prone to wind issues.  But scooters go up from there: 250cc, 500cc, 650cc, just as big and suitable for traffic as any motorcycle.  (In fact, some of the large scooters end up looking not too far off from the larger engine motorcycles used by the police.)

There are few practical differences between a scooter and a “motorcycle”.  (When you say “motorcycle”, think about the visual and physical differences between a cruiser and a sport cycle, yet they are both “valid” motorcycles, right?).  Most (but not all) scooters are automatics, and most (but not all) motorcycles are manual.  Scooters generally have the gas tank under the seat, except that the larger ones have the tank between the riders legs (like a motorcycle).  Handlebar controls and displays aren’t notably different.

Ultimately, the biggest differences between a scooter and a motorcycle are (a) the physical floorboard that scooters have, which encourages a standard seated posture vs. the leaning forward or reclining back postures of sport and cruiser cycles.  (If anything, having a posture between the other two should help prove scooters are part of the larger motorcycle continuum.)  And (b) scooters have a physical cut-through from side to side which motorcycles do not.  (Which can actually be seen as a safety feature, reducing the risk of leg injuries and being trapped beneath a fallen vehicle.)

So, having argued that a scooter is a “real” motorcycle, why did I choose a scooter over another type of motorcycle?  Why didn’t I want something more traditional for a leatherman?  Ultimately, the answer lies in my goal for getting the vehicle — primarily for in-city commuting, to work and the bar and other short hop locations — plus the influences I had around me from co-workers, most of whom rode scooters rather than motorcycles.  Oh, and the price: scooters with small engine sizes are priced less than motorcycles.

One final note is that my initial intent was purely for in-city commute riding, for which I was initially looking at the 49cc options — lighter and cheaper — but I was advised to get at least a 125cc due to the greater power and options it would give me.  As I was told, “Get the bigger one, because in two months, you’ll want it.”  And that was very true.

5. Did you need a special license?

You need a Motorcycle Endorsement for scooters over 50cc (in Washington state; laws may differ elsewhere).  This isn’t a separate license, but an add-on to a regular motor vehicle license.  Obviously, it’s hard to get that endorsement before you get (and get used to) your vehicle, so like with auto licenses, you pass a written test and you can get a temporary permit.  (This shows as a letter on your license, which means you get a new picture and new license, $15 please.)  This allows you to ride the vehicle for three months, but with a couple reasonable limits: no riding after dark, and no passengers, both of which take a level of skill that brand new riders do not have.

(No, of course I didn’t strictly adhere to those limits.  Before the three months was up, I had ridden after dark a few times and with a passenger once.  But those were after a solid two months or so of riding on a daily basis, and I was really careful.)

The recommended path to a endorsement, and the one pushed by the state, is to attend a riding course, typically two 8-hour days on the weekend and about $100, where you can either use your own vehicle or they will supply one for you.  Once you successfully complete the course, you automatically get your endorsement.

The classes are popular.  In spring of 2008, ramping up for the summer and with lots of people on two-wheeled motorized vehicles for the first time, the classes were packed.  Want to take one?  You get your choice: register for one three months from now (which you’ll notice is after the permit would run out), or pay $300 (triple) to get in one only a month out.

You know something?  I’m cheap, my weekends are busy, and I’m a believer that I can do it myself, so I said “Fuck that” and decided to ride the scooter as much and as often as I could.  I rode it to work every day (except one day when I needed to take the cat to the vet).  Once it got light enough later in the evening, I rode it to dance practice, and by June, even to dancing (although, yes, it was twilight and beyond when I would get home, shame shame).  I also rode it to Kent once a week (15 miles, half of it on the freeway; riding to work also had a short stint on the freeway, depending on the route I took).  I even rode all the way to Union once (50 miles each way, plus a ferry trip).

In short, I got lots and lots of experience, riding on all kinds of surfaces, in all kinds of weather, at all speeds and traffic levels.  I also prepared for the riding test bywatching YouTube videos of tests and finding where the test was done locally so I could practice the course (as best as I could figure it).

The course involves tight cornering, straight driving, fast braking, and dead slow weaving in and out among cones.  It was revealing to watch others take the test before I did.  (People had arrived as much as an hour early, so I was like 20th that morning.)  Some were massively unprepared for the test (both scooter riders and those on standard motorcycles), to the point I wondered if they were trying to take the test with mere hours of riding under their belts.  The cones was especially difficult for many people.

So how did I do?  100%.  Aced the test.  (I braked a bit too hard/too fast for my own tastes in that piece of the test, but it was still fine for the test monitor.)
Guess there’s no harm in being cheap and busy and practicing a lot.

6. What about insurance?

Yes, insurance for a motorcycle or scooter is required by law (although you don’t have to show proof of insurance to get your endorsement or vehicle license, I think).

Remarkably, it’s both easy to get and cheap.  I got mine via Geico (they do my car insurance as well).  First year was something like $165 for the year, and then it dropped to like $120.  $10 a month!.  For a year.  Damn!  My car insurance costs that much for a month!  (Actually, it also dropped a little last year, but still….)

Of course, when you think about it, a collision in a car is going to do a lot of damage to the car, and to whatever you hit, perhaps fatally if that’s a person.  My scooter weighs, what, 300 lbs?  Probably weighs 1/8 of my car, cost 1/8 of my car, and would only do 1/8 the damage if I hit something.  Although 1/8 fatal might still be fatal, I guess.

7. Are scooters safe?  Have you had any accidents?

Erm, um, well…  That depends on your definition of “safe”, doesn’t it?  I have had no injury worse than a sprained wrist (knock on wood).

About six weeks after I got the scooter, a motorcycle rider waiting for the same Southworth-Fauntleroy ferry as I was told me “There are only two kinds of motorcycles in the world: those that have been dropped, and those that haven’t been dropped yet.”  (I had dropped mine earlier that day, pulling into a gravel parking lot.)

As best I can recall, here are my scooter boo-boos:
  • April 2008: made too tight of a U-turn; dropped it rather than hit a parked SUV
  • May 2008: parked on a downhill sloping cobblestone street; couldn’t hold it up when I took it off the stand
  • June 2008: pulled into a gravel parking lot
  • August 2008: a woman hit the parked scooter in the QFC parking lot and knocked it over
  • October 2008: went down on wet pavement while riding, avoiding a car blindly changing lanes; abraded my leather jacket and scraped my elbow
  • March 2009: another too-tight U-turn (and I may have been tipsy, shame one me)
  • March 2009: someone backed into my parked scooter in West Seattle and knocked it down; I got a small insurance settlement on that
  • August 2009: miscalculated the slope of my steep driveway and tipped over from parked position; sprained my wrist trying to stop the fall (and I’m still having problems, 6 months later)
  • December 2009: hit black ice while riding; wrenched my shoulder
So while I’ve had my share of dropping the scooter, my worst injury has been a sprained wrist (which is still bothering me know and then, five months later), a total of a few hundred dollars in mostly cosmetic damage to the scooter, and no damage to other vehicles/buildings/people.  (It’s hard to compare to the car, since you can’t “drop” it in the same way.  But if you count bumper taps on up, on my car I’ve been living with a crushed bumper corner for 4.5 years and a slowly growing crack in the windshield for 4 years; fixing those would be over $2000, so I haven’t bothered.)

8. What is great about riding a scooter?  And specifically your model?

Where do I start?
  • No cage.  Motorcyclists sometimes refer to cars as “cages”, to indicate that the people in them are stuck in a box.  This is very true.  Not having the roof, the doors, the hood, and the backseat/trunk/tailgate around you increases what you can see immensely.  Did you see that house over there?  How about the raccoons by the side of the road?  Did you get a look at the flowers down that hillside past the guard rails?  See how cool the shadows of the telephone poles are?  Did you catch those clouds racing by overhead? You miss massive amounts of stuff just because the cage of the car blocks your view.
  • Sounds and smells.  You can smell the rich aromas of the coffee roaster or the bakery with no rolled-up car windows in the way.  (Okay, you can smell the dairy farm, too.)
  • The freedom for small jaunts.  Ever feel guilty that you’re firing up the SUV to go a mile to the store for milk and butter, because it would take an hour to walk, but you need just that couple of things?  (You should.)  Much less guilt on the scooter.
  • The freedom for pleasure trips.  During the height of the gas prices in 2008 (and they are creeping up again in 2010!), driving somewhere just for a jaunt, a Sunday drive, was expensive and thus not to be done.  Riding a scooter for a 4-hour round trip?  It cost me like $20 including two ferry fares and an ice cream snack.  Even my trip to Vancouver in August 2008 was only like $30 in gas.
  • Parking.  Ever drive around for 20 minutes trying to find a space, and end up paying through the nose for a garage or pay lot?  Now try it on a vehicle that takes 1/3 the space of a car (1/4 the space of an SUV).  Oh look, there’s a fractional space now, and it’s right in front of where you were going!  Any time cost in putting on coat and gloves and helmet are made up on the arrival end by parking being way easier and needing to walk less far after you park..
  • The cost of gas.  Actually, the cognitive difference in the cost of getting gas.  Even putting the gas mileage difference aside, when filling your tank costs $5 or less and takes only a couple minutes, it feels very inconsequential.
  • The cost of the ferry. My mother lives on Bainbridge Island, a ferry ride away.  For the past several years, I have done walk-ons to visit her, having her pick me up at the dock.  Here's how things stack up in peak season: car and driver is $14.85 each way; motorcycle and rider in $6.45 each way; walk-on is $6.90 to Bainbridge, no charge returning.  In other words, for a one-way trip (I could always ride down to Gig Harbor and back up I-5), a motorcycle is actually cheaper than walking on, and it's about 40% the price of driving a car, so it is instantly a lot easier on the wallet to visit Mom or go to her vacation home near Hood Canal.  And what's almost better is that motorcycles (and bicycles) load on the ferry first (or they can squeeze you on at the end; and they unload first, too!), so there's never a worry about not getting on the next ferry when visiting on busy holidays.
Is there anything specifically cool about my Kymco People S scooter?  That’s a lot harder to sum up.  It’s always easier to name things you don’t like, and even things you do like can have a negative angle to them. Is the larger size and non-“Italian” styling of my scooter, which makes it look more like a full motorcycle and less like a Vespa wanna-be, “cool”?  Do I mention the power converted plug under the seat, which I can use to charge a phone or laptop while ridin (finally used it just the other day)?  Do I mention the windscreen, which not all scooters (or even motorcycles) have, but which makes a difference riding and highway speeds and in keeping the Seattle rain off me while riding?

I definitely make mention of storage space, since there's more than you might expect.  On that trip to Vancouver, I took clothing for the weekend — including boots and some leather gear and toys — and a laptop and other needs with me, getting them all stuffed under the seat or in the helmet-sized trunk (which I can detach and carry like a suitcase).  If I were to lasha carry bag on the seat behind me (which would do double duty as a back support), I could do a week-long trip or carry a tent and sleeping bag for camping.

Makes you think about the volumes of wasted space we lug around in cars.  (Which was one of the stoppers for me years ago when I got my current car: I liked little pickups, but somehow the open nature of the truck bed made me that much more aware of the typically empty chunk of metal I would be dragging around everywhere.)

9. What is less-than-great about riding a scooter?

  • No phone!  No boat!  No motorcar!  Not a single luxury!
  • More seriously, no heater.  It can get damn cold when the weather dips below 40!
  • No defroster for the inside of the helmet when it fogs up from my breath.
  • No windshield wiper for the face shield on the helmet.  This can get nasty on a rainy night.
  • No radio or CD player.  I can’t listen to that new CD I bought or enjoy listening to radio hosts jabber in the mornings rather than playing music (okay, that’s a whole ’nother rant).  Driving by yourself is already a solitary activity; riding a motorcycle without tunes is three steps beyond that.  I do have speakers in my helmet that I can plug into my iPhone, but even at top volume, I get little more that a hint of the song when I’m moving (and less than that when I’m on the highway).  Maybe if I can get some powered helmet speakers…
  • Can’t use the cell phone.  Okay, maybe that’s not really someting bad, now that I think of it.  Except for those times when it would be really good to make a quick call, to tell someone my ETA.  I’m sure there are hands-free Bluetooth solutions out there, but my need to use the phone while on the road is infrequent enough to not warrant the cost.  (Aside: a couple years ago, with my old flip phone and driving on city streets in Vancouver, I did wedge it into the helmet to make it a hands-free device for the duration of the one call.)
  • Cost of parking.  While parking for a scooter is fairly easy to find, you still usually have to pay full price for it, even though you are only using 1/4 to 1/3 the space of a car.  For parking garages, that’s really dumb, although a handful do have a dedicated motorcycle parking area and a reduced price for such vehicles.  There was talk a couple years ago about ways to fix this in Seattle, with some permitting sticker, but I think the impetus evaporated.
  • Design flaw in the system: Gas Gauge.  The fuel display is totally whacked.  While I get 100+ miles to the tank, the gauge sits on Full for the first 40 miles and then starts dropping, so that the 1/2 tank mark is really about 1/3 of a tank left and so on.  You can actually visually watch the gauge very slowly drop through the last 1/4 tank when you’re on the highway.  I’ve learned to adjust to this, but how hard is it to make a gauge reflect reality?
  • Design flaw in the system: Speedometer.  Speaking of reflecting reality: the speedomter is always about 5 mph faster than I’m actually travelling, so you have to know how to mentally adjust to get the true speed, and then its an approximation (although isn’t is always?).  A more significant design flow, though, is that the speedometer has an inner circle for miles, in red, and an outer one for kilometers, in white, but only the white circle lights up at night, so you have to know how to convert kilometers to miles (or memorize dial locations) in order to check your speed. 
  • Design flaw in the system: Speedometer Cable.  In August 2008, the speedometer cable broke and had to be replaced, and it took Interbay two months to get a replacement.  Then in August 2009, it broke again and I had no speedometer for another month.  Since that also controls the odometer, my scooter shows about 1600 miles less than I’ve actually traveled.  Should I expect this to fail again in August 2010?
  • Design flaw in the system: Parking Lights.  The parking lights for the scooter are apparently too high voltage (or whatever) for the scooter’s electric system, and they started causing starter issues (I would have to try two or three times) in December 2008, and the battery itself failed in September 2009.  Interbay replaced the bulbs with dummies, which should prevent the issue, but I lose my parking lights as a result.

10. What other thoughts do you have about scooters and riding them?

Our society is so heavily car-oriented that if you are a regular driver, it takes a huge leap to get out of that mode and into walking, bus, bicycling, or even scooter/motorcycle transport.  Take that jump!

The scariest thing with riding a scooter was the first few times I got on the freeway.  You really have to have a sense of bravado and self-invulnerability to do that, to allow you to not think about the speeds and the other vehicles and the concrete barriers.  Channel the comic book men-without-fear: Green Lantern and Daredevil.  (As opposed to the Men Without Hats.)

One of the biggest concerns that people have is “crazy other drivers”, that is, car drivers who either don’t see/react to people on scooters and motorcycles (and bicycles), or who actively try to cut us off, make us crash, whatever.  I have experienced a couple cases of unaware drivers.  The one who cause my crash in October 2008 was coming off the freeway (and thus probably going over the speed limit) and rapidly crossed all the lanes of traffic; I doubt that he ever saw me and even if he did, I’m sure he didn’t know I went down  And I’ve had a couple times where a car will pull just past me on the left and stay in that lane, where I’m probably in his blind spot; he won’t speed up to see me, he won’t slow back down, and he doesn’t change lanes, although I have to assume he plans to and thus need to be extra guarded.  In general, though, Seattle drivers have been sufficiently courteous, giving me enough room to ride and not generally cutting my safety space or otherwise being badly aggressive.  (People who know Seattle drivers know that they can be, if anything, too polite, to the point that they will hamper both their own and other people’s driving in an effort to let other people have the road.)

Any of the West Coast, South, and Southwest cities are great for scooters pretty much year round, given the usual lack of snow.  The hills in Seattle (or San Francisco) make scooters that much more attractive over walking!  I’ve been surprised, though, to not see nearly the number of scooters that I see in Seattle when I go to Vancouver or San Francisco.  Those cities should be just a scootered up as we are here.  (Amsterdam and New Zealand, on the other hand, there are a couple places which have embraced scooters.)
I participate in events from the gay scooter club, Sqream, including a few in-city rides a year and one or two longer ones.  It’s great to have that added level of support, and none of the people I’ve met in the club are people who overlap into other activities in my life (which is both refreshing and little weird to realize that there are a bunch of other circles in the gay community which apparently never intersect with mine other than in this way.

I have this increasing itch to upgrade my scooter.  The car will be paid off in less than a month.  I expect that I’ll (try to!) wait until at least fall, maybe early spring next year, though.  Larger scooter, or full-on motorcycle?  My boyfriend rides a sport cycle, I see myself as much more of a cruiser man.  (Fits that leather image better that a sport bike.)

Between lower gas costs and free parking at work, but including the cost of jacket, gloves, three helmets, and insurance, the scooter will have roughly paid for itself by the time it is two years old.  That’s a good deal!

Updated on March 15, 2010
Added moped definition, made a couple other changes.

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