High gas prices propel a new 'moped madness'

Scooters and mopeds see a rise in sales - and cachet - thanks in part to a youth energy ethic.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

How it happened, Devin Biek still isn't exactly sure.

Infatuation with an Italian Vespa scooter led this resident of Elkhart, Ind., to an ad on eBay, a trip to Iowa, and a triumphant return with a 1978 Rizzato Califfo moped that wouldn't start. After its carburetor was de-gummed, the creature roared to life in a puff of blue exhaust.

Four years later, Mr. Biek is still hooked. "Once you ride one, you have to have one," he says. "It's consumed my entire life, and I have no real explanation for it."

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The moped and its bigger, flashier cousin, the scooter, are swarming out of Jimmy Carter's America and into George W. Bush's republic - a movement propelled by soaring gasoline prices surpassing those of the late 1970s and by legions of Americans who take seriously the call for oil independence. If the serious intent is mixed with a little fun from "moped gangs" who call themselves the Heck's Angels or the Hardly Davidsons, so much the merrier.

Though Gen-Xers and baby boomers are among those flinging a leg over these two-wheelers, the vehicles may owe their newfound cachet to their embrace by a younger set. Sometimes called "the millennials," they are said to embody a sense of social purpose, adopt a "team" approach to life, and rebel from their elders by hewing to the small-scale. It's an attitude with a simple message: Small-bore is cool.

"This [moped resurgence] is a reflection of a deeper generational shift going on," says Neil Howe, a cultural historian and coauthor of "Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation." "The idea of a big, bad, dangerous gas-guzzling machine is not the millennial style. They prefer something that is not only socially responsible in a big sense, but also in a little sense: It makes less noise, and it's less likely to get them into an accident."

Though mopeds have conquered most of the globe, their acceptance in the United States has sputtered, at best.

But places like Atlanta - a temperate, young-blooded city where travel through interconnected neighborhoods is safe, and where Euro cool is evident in clothing shops and restaurants - the small-bore engine is increasingly seen as a fun, practical choice.

Scooter dealer Bill Gornto knew he was onto something after hurricane Katrina, when some gas pumps around Atlanta read $9 a gallon and people came in "looking like zombies." He said he became a "scooter therapist," selling a record 20 scooters that week. "I almost felt guilty about it," he says, "but then people were telling me, 'No, man, you're doing a good thing.' "

Atlanta commuter Jeff Smith never really saw himself as a motorcycle guy. But four months ago he bought a used Vespa and soon purchased a second, larger one that's fast enough to take on the interstate. "I worried people were going to say, 'Why are you riding your girlfriend's bike?' " says Mr. Smith. "But instead people stop me every day and ask: 'What is it? How many miles to the gallon does it get? And how much does it cost?' "

To be sure, US sales of small-bore cycles aren't yet at their peak - 300,000 units in 1978. But sales are up 500 percent since 1999, and rose from 83,000 units sold in 2004 to 130,000 in 2005, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council. A new moped starts at $1,000, and fancy scooters go for more than $5,000. What distinguishes the scooter from the motorcycle is mainly its small-bore engine and small-diameter tires.

In fact, the tattered denim jackets and faux toughness of moped enthusiasts are boldly tongue-in-cheek, open invitations to small-bore envy. While the age of the average scooter owner has nearly doubled in the past five years to over 40, cultural experts credit mopeds' acceptance to the cachet of the kids, who often travel in packs.

The Creatures of the Loin gang out of San Francisco's rough-and-tumble Tenderloin District grew from 25 to nearly 100 since 2004. In Chicago's Ukrainian Village, the Peddy Cash gang, bundled in wool caps, often ride into the wee hours. The Moped Army was founded in Kalamazoo, Mich., and boasts about 300 members. The subject of a documentary film and a comic book, the Army draws about 10,000 regular visitors to its website. Its motto: "Swarm and destroy."

The "millennial" generation, born just as the moped faded from American roads in the early 1980s, is the vehicle's perfect arbiter, some experts say. Coddled and safety-conscious, it also has an unapologetic sense of civic awareness. "This is a generation that has no need to prove themselves by riding around on a big motorcycle on the weekends; they're already cool," says Ann Fishman, CEO of Generational Targeted Marketing Corp. in New Orleans.

So far, the moped remains a stranger in a land where a full-size truck is a top-selling passenger vehicle. Fatalities of moped riders have doubled since 1999, to 100 in 2005. But nonfatal accidents dropped over the same period, from 6,000 to 5,000, says the National Safety Council in Itasca, Ill.

To many riders, everything about the moped makes sense. "There's the price, the gas mileage, the whole retro thing, belonging to a unique group," says Biek. "Besides that, they're phenomenal machines."

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