April 30, 2004

Motorcycle or Scooter?

Despite the occasional and mutual antagonism between scooterists and motorcyclists, there is actually a pretty fair degree of overlap. Walter Alter rode a Triumph T-6 Thunderbird (like Brando's in The Wild One before becoming an apostle of scootering, Rob Rice from the Digital Garage restores Lambrettas and Aermacchis, and I have owned more scooters than motorcycles, though more of my motorcycles actually ran.

Motorcycles and scooters each have their advantages. I see scooters as essentially though not exclusively urban machines. I have commuted from San Franscisco to Palo Alto on a scooter, and it was fun—sometimes; my Heinkel and I even made it to Sacramento once. But scooters really shine in the city, where traffic is bad and parking is tight. Few things in life are cooler than pulling up in front of a crowded cafe in North Beach or Uptown or Dupont Circle and parking one’s Lambretta prominently on the sidewalk. Very European. The step-through design makes mounting and dismounting a casual affair. With a little practice, people won’t even notice you getting on and off. On bigger streets, say the approach to the Golden Gate Bridge known as “Blood Alley” or Oak Street, traffic moves much more quickly, and I feel much safer with the extra horsepower of a motorcycle.

Just as it takes some effort to balance a bicycle at low speeds, both scooters and motorcycles are more stable the faster you go, due to the tendency of objects in rotation to keep moving in the same direction. (Remember the bicycle wheel / lazy Susan experiment from science class? Same thing.) Scooters compensate for their smaller gyroscopes by having a lower center of gravity. This means that scooters are more stable at low speeds (and easier to get put on their centerstands) than their big-wheeled cousins. However, at 50 mph, 18” wheels wheel give the motorcycle more stability than the 10” wheels of scooters. If all my riding was in parking lots (as many urban centers have become), I would always take the scooter.

A final distinction between big wheels and small is that scooters were designed to accommodate dress and skirt wearing people. This bit of gender construction is a product of the circumstance from which they emerged. Motorcycle design evolved when few women operated any kind of heavy machinery. But scooters became most popular in post-war Europe, where demand for mobility was unisexual: scooters were often the only vehicle many households could afford. Finally, motorcycles generally require one to shift gears with the top of the toe, and one's choice of footwear is somewhat limited to shoes you don't mind repeatedly scuffing the tops of.

Compared to my peers, I have had little education in the literature of gender-construction. But since we are talking motorcycles, let us break this out a bit. If you identify as male and seek to break down constructed genders, then by all means go for the scooter. If you identify as female, then riding a scooter tends to reinforce the status quo, ie "scooters are for women." Personally, I think women on motorcycles are hott. But then again I've always had a thing for androgynes.

I suppose this is why I have a special affection for the motorbikes that are neither entirely one nor the other: the Maicoletta is clearly a scooter, and yet it has largish (14") wheels, and its large displacement and long wheelbase make it legitimate competition for motorcycles. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Trail 90 has 17" spoked wheels, but it has a step-through design like a scooter. The Peugeot Mobilette likewise was something of a hybrid, though I have yet to see one actually running.

And so we have now come full circle: It is entirely normal to feel attracted to both scooter and motorcycle. The question for the itchingly curious is to which mode is the greater attraction felt? If there is any doubt in the matter, the best thing is to try them both out before you buy. Alternatively, one can turn to the people who ride them: Am I more like the scooter-people or the motorcycle-people? No matter which way you swing, you will be far cooler than the squares trapped in their cars (or worse, the bus). Riding any motorbike is the epitome of freedom, but the bike one chooses is also an expression of identity. So whatever you choose, choose something that you respect on some level.

Posted by webs0080 at April 30, 2004 8:04 AM