Scooter sales zoom as drivers look for cheaper ways to get around

LYNNWOOD — When fuel prices get tough, the tough get scooting.

Woody Robinett has a Toyota Tacoma pickup truck, which is useful for hauling everything from groceries to furniture. But the Tacoma gets about 22 miles per gallon, which hurts with gasoline prices well above $4 a gallon.

Last year, he bought a Honda scooter for his daily commute be­­­tween Lynnwood and Bothell, im­proving his average gas mileage to between 80 and 100 miles per gallon.

“It was kind of a mix between wanting to help the environment and wanting to help my wallet as well,” said Robinett, an ultrasound technician for Philips Healthcare.

He’s not alone. Between 1997 and 2007, sales of new motor scooters rocketed from 12,000 to about 131,000. The average scooter rider is no longer a student or twentysomething looking for cheap transportation. Professionals and retirees are buying them as efficient alternative transportation.

Mike Mount, spokesman for the Motorcycle Industry Council, said U.S. sales of motor scooters in the first three months of this year were up 24 percent over the same period of 2007.

That’s not news to Pat Neland, sales manager at the Cycle Barn in Lynnwood. “There’s been a definite impact from fuel costs,” he said, estimating 99 percent of customers shopping for scooters or full-sized motorcycles, which still get 40 to 60 miles per gallon, mention that as a big issue.

His store sells Honda and E-Ton brand scooters, which start just below $2,000 and run to nearly $9,000.

“We have a lot of people coming in and saying, ‘You know, I take a pickup truck to work and it’s just costing me so much,’” said sales manager Thad Stanley at Everett Powersports, which also sells new and used scooters.

In addition to getting better gas mileage and creating less pollution than other vehicles, motorcycles and larger, highway-rated scooters can use the carpool lanes to avoid rush-hour backups, Stanley said.

One of Everett Powersports’ recent customers was Father Bryan Hersey, who bought a used Honda Ruckus for the short, frequent trips he makes between the rectory and his offices at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Everett. He was using his Jeep.

“The Jeep never even warmed up in that drive,” he said.

He experienced riding and driving motor scooters while studying in Rome, so he bought the Honda, which he figures he’ll need to fill up just once every three to four weeks.

As with other scooters with engines smaller than 50 cubic centimeters, Hersey didn’t need any special motorcycle endorsement on his driver’s license in order to drive it. Larger scooters, rated for highway use, still require that, however.

Some scooters don’t use any gasoline. Steve Ahmann, president of Everett-based Pacific Power Batteries, said he sold all but one of the few electric-powered Evader 1000 scooters he had in stock. Two went to Michael Smith, who works for the Chelan County Public Utility District in Wenatchee.

“It’s time to stop talking about electric vehicles, and time to start using one,” said Smith, who still needs to get his red scooter licensed before he parks his full-sized motorcycle and uses the electric vehicle instead for this commute. He’s already braced for derisive comments from a few co-workers, he said.

“Showing up to work in this little red scooter, I’m going from macho to mini,” he said.

But the scooter should work for his short commute — 2 1/2 miles each way — from his home to his office, he said. He may have to change his route slightly, though, as the scooter has a top speed of about 30 miles per hour. It can go about 30 miles on one charge.

Unlike the hot-selling gas-powered scooters elsewhere, Ahmann said the Chinese-made Evader scooters haven’t flown out of his store. Despite lowering the price to $1,500 each — below the wholesale cost — he still has one left.

“They scoot right along, they’re quiet, they’re a lot of fun,” Ahmann said.

Robinett’s scooter tops out about 45 mph, which means he also has to take back roads between Lynnwood and Bothell. Despite the slightly longer drive, he said he finds riding his scooter more relaxing than commuting in his pickup.

Since he bought his scooter last year, Robinett’s sister also has bought one. They notice many more scooters joining them as well.

“There’s just a huge amount of them out there,” he said.

Mount, from the Motorcycle Industry Council, said that as long as fuel prices remain relatively high — a trend that doesn’t show signs of reversing in a meaningful way — he thinks more commuters will abandon four-wheel vehicles in favor of two wheels.

“I think you’ll continue to see more two-wheel vehicles on the road, whether they’re motorcycles or scooters,” he said.

Reporter Eric Fetters: 425-339-3453 or fetters@heraldnet.com.

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