“Can you fix it?” the customer asked, his hand on the bars of an electric scooter. The middle-aged mechanic knelt in oil-stained overalls to examine the torn brake lines of the two small scooters. Each was composed of little more than a standing board, handlebars, and two tiny wheels.
“Where did you get them?” the mechanic asked, looking more exasperated with each passing moment.
“I bought them on Amazon for my kid and me. They broke the first time we took them out.”
The two stood in the showroom of Scoot About in downtown Seattle, surrounded by gleaming new scooters complete with seats, headlights, turn signals, and rearview mirrors.
“I could try to solder them,” the mechanic mumbled, holding the wires together and examining the lack of play. He carried them into the garage on the back half of the building and laid them on a workbench.
Surrounded by scooters meant for the road weighing around 200 pounds each, the new arrivals looked absurd.
Their misunderstanding grows out of the way American culture regards two-wheeled vehicles, as novelties and toys, anything but a real form of transportation. The perception of riders as reckless and riding as dangerous keeps many would-be riders away. Yet, for millions of people, motorbikes provide an indispensable way of getting around and something more.
Susan Richardson, the owner of Scoot About, carries herself with the quiet reserve of someone who runs a small business. Yet, she still gets upbeat when she speaks about riding. “If I’ve had a rough day and I go out for a ride, I just feel better,” she explained.
In her interaction with new customers considering commuting on two wheels for the first time, she said she encounters “a car mentality where they think they’re going to get on the freeway… You’ve got to think city streets, back roads. Take a different ride that gets you out of the car traffic and into other areas where you can be free and clear.”
The reason for the “car mentality” can easily be seen on crowded city streets, namely America’s century long preoccupation with automobiles. Anyone can look across a tangled interstate at rush hour to see vehicles with a driver and a slew of empty seats in their car. For many commuters the daily car ride is a source of sequestration and stress.
The social life of Loren Cook, a Seattle-area metro bus driver, revolves around riding. When I met him at Smarty Pants, a motorcycle-themed café in Georgetown, he sported a Motorcycle Club vest over a black textile jacket and reinforced riding pants. He explained he picked up the nickname ‘Gandalf’ after he showed up to a club outing with a scraggly beard and his hair down to his shoulders.
Though his father rode and he was on the back of motorbikes before he could walk, he didn’t start riding solo until he was almost 40. In the time since, he’s racked up an impressive experience commuting year-round.
He’s also managed to make Seattle, known for its rainy winters, bearable riding in the winter. Between Gore-Tex, winter gloves, and even a wax coating on the front of his helmet to cut through rain, he’s found a way to stay comfortable on the roads despite the cold damp. For the few days a year when it snows and ice covers the roads, Cook said he takes public transit.
He shares a car with his wife and uses his motorcycle for his daily needs. “It is totally a lifestyle for me,” he said. “It’s my primary transportation, it’s my relaxation, it’s my hobby, it is most of my social life too.”
He said when he’s riding, he’s “more likely to have somebody give me a nod, a wave. Kids love waving at you on the bike. If I drive a car in my neighborhood, and my neighbors are out there walking, they don’t pay any attention to me. When I ride the bike out, they give me a little wave like ‘Hey, how are you doing?’”
For centuries, travel, whether by foot, horseback or wagon meant you would have to see people in your community when you went somewhere. In the climate-controlled recesses of a car, occupants are isolated from the world around them as it passes by in the windows. Riding on two wheels is about taking the backroads while seeing and meeting people in a way you would not normally get while sealed in a car on an interstate.
Riding to and from work has given Cook a unique perspective on road use. “The biggest problem with our roads, hands down, is the vast number of drivers care only about themselves and getting where they got to go. Not letting people merge in front of you, cutting them off because you missed your turn, dodging across four lanes of traffic on a freeway for your exit.” He admitted that unfortunately, “there are people in the motorcycle community who ride the same way.”
Reckless riding plays a part in the reputation of danger. Stephen Stewart, the General Manager of Pacific Northwest Motorcycle Safety explained, “Seventy percent of all [motorcycle accident] fatalities are in corners because of rider judgement, not because of other people.” The majority of rider accidents happen on rural roads because of riders entering a corner going too fast.
Cars certainly play a part in motorbike accidents, but Stewart said the image of the mangled motorcycle and blocked lanes on helicopter news feeds inflates the danger of urban riding over rural roads.
According to Stewart, he routinely gets students who “identify themselves as somebody that just wants an inexpensive commute to and from work and ease in finding places to park.” Yet in the U.S., only about six percent of the total driving population are motorcyclists. Figuring in their friends and family members, Stewart estimated maybe 20 percent of the population has some link to motorcycles or riders, leaving 8 out of 10 drivers without any connection to motorbike riders.
“It’s no wonder they don’t see us,” he said. “We have no connection to their lives and it’s really easy to filter us out. Not maliciously, it’s just not something you have any connection to so you don’t look for it in the same way. I think it would take a pretty significant increase in motorcyclists before that would change.”
Richardson said she was first in an accident a year after she started riding when she was on a freeway in the rain. She said she’s had close calls since then mostly from motorists who aren’t watching for people on two wheels.
Referring to motorbike riders, she said “the more that are out there, the safer it gets,” explaining that motorists tend to pay greater attention to people on two wheels when they encounter them more often.
Additional riders on the road not only makes drivers more aware of their presence, it can also make getting around in the city more efficient. A 2015 study by a Belgian transportation research company found more motorcyclists on the road even led to less traffic in cities resulting in better fuel economy and lower emissions on popular expressways.
Richardson said she gets lots of first time riders at Scoot About looking into scooters for commuting. For many who ride buses, motorbikes are an attractive option at night when a long wait in the dark is less desirable. She explained some people even downgrade from a car to a scooter, relying on various car rental services in the city for any large hauling they need to do.
She said she has had customer with large vehicles estimate that, between parking and gas, they spend anywhere from $200 to $300 a week getting around. A scooter or small motorcycle can pay for itself quickly for people facing the operating costs of a large car.
Richardson explained that when finding the right vehicle for customers, she usually asks what speed they’re planning to travel at. If a person only needs to go 35 mph, a scooter with a small engine is sufficient. For commuters who need to travel 45-50 mph, a small motorcycle or a larger scooter fits the bill.
Someone who sticks with a small scooter needs no special endorsement on a Washington Drivers’ License to operate the moped and can expect around 100 mpg or more. Electric models meant for the road are also available.
Cities with dense populations lead to more opportunities for two-wheeled commuting. Yet, “Compared to the European and Asian markets,” she said, “we’re just a blip on the map as far as two-wheels go.” Some countries have even experimented with electric scooter rideshares and two-wheel traffic only roads and lanes.
Riding certainly is not for everyone, but no one can deny the city, experienced sitting on the back of a motorbike, is a different place. You are aware your body is tilting with the ground under it when you go up and down hills. You feel the weather and you see the people on the street around you. It puts you in touch with your community in a way more akin to walking or bicycling.
For the moment, motorbikes represent a niche transportation demographic in Seattle and the U.S., but they present an interesting way to opt for everything you need and avoid everything you do not. It has been a long time since Honda staged its “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” motorcycle marketing campaign, maybe it’s time for another.
Will Sweger is a regular contributor at the South Seattle Emerald. His work has appeared in Seattle Weekly, Curbed Seattle and Borgen Magazine. Find him on Twitter @willsweger.