Moped sales humming along at a 120-mile-a-gallon clip

Ray Dubois runs a Honda automobile dealership here on Boston's South Shore. But it's not the booming small-car sales these days, or even the conventional motorcycle sales, that bring a hint of incredulity to Mr. Dubois's voice.

"See those," he says, pointing to slim two-wheelers with less-than-lawn-mower-size motors. "The're taken off in the last two years."

Mr. Dubois is referring to mopeds, the pedal-assisted motorbikes with a 1- to 2-horse-power engine and a gas mileage of 120 m.p.g. and up. While sales of conventional motorcycles have risen 60 percent at his outlet in the past two years, moped sales have rocketed 300 percent in the same period, he reports.

In neighboring Quincy, Arthur Schatz talks in similar vein of the Puch and Batavus mopeds his bicycle outlet sells. They used to be lined up and ready to wheel out at a moment's notice, he says, but now heavy chains and padlocks tie them to the showroom floor. "They've become such attractive merchandies that the professionals [thieves] have made them a high-priority item," he explains. The store was cleaned out twice, he said, "so we introduced the chains."

Similar tales are being told in many parts of the country. What was once purely a recreational vehicle -- a toy, in some eyes -- is increasingly being seen as a practical machine for American roads, taking office workers to town, homemakers to the corner store, meter readers on their appointed rounds, police on patrol, and couples to the local movie house.

In fact, any journey of 10 miles or less is appropriate for the moped.

What accounts for the rising popularity? The economy factor, obviously, says Joe Wolfe, communications director for the Moped Association of America. Put very simply, a consistently used moped puts money back in the user's pocket, "money that he would otherwise spend on gas for the car."

According to US government figures, 50.6 percent of auto journeys in the United States involve a single motorist (the capacity of the moped), and a 4 out of 5 auto trips are under 10 miles (the comfortable range for a moped rider).

"In other words," Mr. Wolfe points out, "the overwhelming majority of motorized journeys taken in the US each day could very comfortably be done on a moped."

According to one calculation, if Americans used mopeds for all short trips -- in good weather only -- it would save some 85 billion miles of auto travel a year. Consider the slice that would take out of the nation's oil-import bill. Of course, such a nationwide saving could never be practically realized, Mr. Wolfe says, "but it does indicate the possibilities."

From the individual's point of view, if he used a moped in place of his car -- and rode an average of 12 miles a day -- it would represent a gas saving of about 240 gallons in a year (less if the family car is a small one). At current rates that represents an average saving of $300 a year. Put another way; the cost of an average moped (prices range from $300 to $900) can be recouped in 2 years.

Mopeds are still a relatively new item in the US, but European experience (there are 7 million mopeds on the roads of France alone) indicates a life expectancy of 8 years.

It's reasonable to expect the same longevity on American roads, according to Mr. Wolfe.

Anyone who can hold a wrench and read an instruction manual should be able to do the necessary maintenance, he believes.

The moped is principally a suburban vehicle. Yet a new surge is expected from cities where parking is a problem and where it is generally quicker to go by moped anyway. Most states limit moped speeds to 25 or 30 miles an hour, ideal for city driving. Their size and maneuverability give them the edge over autos in heavy traffic.

Thus, messenger services are incorporating them in their fleets, and the New York Emergency Medical Services has found it can get a moped to an accident scene in an average of 4 minutes, compared with the 18-minute average of an ambulance. Some public agencies, noting the obvious, find costs can be drastically cut when meter readers take off in a moped saddle instead of a truck seat, as is done these days in North Reading, north of Boston, and Mount Vernon, Ill. In Denver, they are being used to pull ice cream carts; and in Rehoboth, Del., police are using them for crowd control on the boardwalks.

So far the moped is popular with two age groups -- the young and those at or nearing retirement age. Teen-agers enjoy them because they are lot cheaper to buy and run than a car. Young marrieds see them as a practical form of transportation that doesn't cut deeply into a tight budget. Folks in their 30s and 40s are the least enamored with the moped, but outlets detect a marked pickup in interest among men and women who are 50 and older.

In Ray Dubois's experience, these are folks whose children are off their hands and the need for more than one car in the family no longer exists.

"So they opt for mopeds instead of a second car," he says. For many of them, too, the moped goes partway toward fulfilling a long-cherished desire to own a motorcycle.

An 1 in 5 moped buyers is a woman, a trend that is rapidly on the rise.

A follow-up story, How to Be Safe on a Moped, will appear two weeks from today, July 30.m

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