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Savings on 2 wheels

With the price of gas burning its way up, more people are turning to two-wheel rides.

Published April 13, 2005

[Times photo: Ken Helle]
Laura Rusnak, 26, rides an Express scooter to work recently. Rusnak, a health educator in student services at the University of South Florida in Tampa, rides the four miles from home to work via back roads. She saves on gas and says she has fun. Rusnak is among a rising number of Americans turning to scooters and motorcycles for their economy.

CLEARWATER - Mike Lynch made his first trip to Alaska in 2001 and vowed to go back. But with rising gas prices, he knew he'd never be able to afford the trip in his 1990 Buick station wagon, which gets 12-15 miles to the gallon.

So last May, at age 60, Mike Lynch bought a Vespa Grand Tourismo motor scooter, the first two-wheeled, powered vehicle he ever owned. He practiced on it for a month, took a test to get a motorcycle endorsement on his driver's license, and then, against the wishes of his wife of 41 years, he took off from his Clearwater home for the Arctic Circle the next day.

He came within 450 miles of Prudhoe Bay on Alaska's north coast before a flat tire ended the effort. But once it was fixed, Lynch rode the Vespa home, a 12,000-mile round trip in six weeks.

Lynch is an extreme case, no doubt. But he is one of a legion of new motorcycle and motor scooter riders who have doubled sales in both Florida and nationally in the last five years. One reason many new riders give for making the two-wheel choice is the escalating price of gasoline.

According to AAA-Auto Club South, the average price for self-serve unleaded regular on Friday was $2.27 nationwide, a little more than $2.30 in Florida and slightly more than $2.24 in the Tampa Bay area. In all cases, the price is up nearly 50 cents a gallon over this time last year.

That's what got the attention of Laura Rusnak, 26, of Tampa last year when she bought her first scooter, an Express, in Hyde Park.

"I wanted to save money on car insurance and gas and have a better commute," said Rusnak, an educator at Student Health Services at the University of South Florida. "The parking situation on campus is terrible, and you can put a scooter almost anywhere. And it costs nothing to run."

Rusnak said she spends about $2.50 a month on gas to fill the scooter's 1.2-gallon tank. The bike gets 150 miles to the gallon, and the fuel would be cheaper, but Rusnak uses premium.

"My husband and I have one car, which he drives," she said. "He gets the car and I get to have the fun."

She is undeterred by the approach of Florida's rainy season.

"I have rain gear, and I've had to use it a couple of times already," she said. "It's not a big deal. The bike handles very well in the rain."

According to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, there were nearly 219,000 new motorcycle registrations (this includes scooters) in Florida in 2000. Last year, the number nearly doubled to more than 417,000. While new motorcycle registrations were up almost 91 percent over the five-year period, new car registrations rose just 18 percent.

Frank Penela, a department spokesman, said there is no definitive data on why sales are soaring.

"There's probably anecdotal evidence that gas prices are playing a significant role," he said. "But it also could be the popularity of TV shows like American Chopper and Southern Chopper that draw people to cycles and scooters."

According to Mike Mount, spokesman for the national Motorcycle Industry Council, the sales spurt in cycles and scooters actually began in the early 1990s.

"In 1992, 278,000 units were sold nationwide," Mount said. "We just got the preliminary figures for 2004, 1.48-million. They're economical and they're a lot of fun. A cycle is the ultimate convertible."

Aaron Ross, assistant sales manager at Barney's, a motor sports dealer on Gandy Boulevard in St. Petersburg, said cycles have become mainstream.

"A lot of people are getting into it to save money on gasoline. We hear that a lot," Ross said. "They feel comfortable doing it because it's more acceptable than it used to be. There's still that hard core out there, but now there's something for everyone."

Motor scooters tend to be smaller, lighter and less powerful than motorcycles. Most scooters have automatic transmissions that don't require shifting like motorcycles, though cycle fans say shifting is half the fun of riding.

Scooters have a step-through design, making them easier to mount and dismount than cycles that require riders to throw a leg over the bike. For women who commute, the step-through design makes scooters easier to ride in a dress.

Scooters with engines smaller than 50cc don't require a driver's license to ride, though they do require license tags. They are legal on streets, but have top speeds of 40 to 45 mph. Larger scooters are capable of top speeds in excess of 100 mph.

Rusnak paid $900 for her used Express. New scooters start at under $1,500. The largest scooters, a 582cc Honda and a 638cc Suzuki, run around $8,000 new.

"There are a lot of choices now and more coming," said Ross. "We're seeing motorcycles with automatic transmissions and scooters with larger and larger engines."

Mike Wolf, general manager of the Vespa motor scooter store on Spruce Street in Tampa, said a lot of his customers mention gas prices as a reason for getting scooters. Lynch says that when he was shopping for a scooter for the Alaska trip, fuel economy and comfort were his main concerns.

Lynch, who bought his 150cc Vespa from Wolf, said he routinely gets 70 miles to the gallon in Florida, where the terrain is flat. He averaged 55-60 mpg on the Alaska trip.

"At today's prices, 70 miles to the gallon sounds a lot better than 17 to 20," Wolf said. "We've been selling a lot of units to people who've never owned a cycle or a scooter before, or haven't had one in 20 years. And age doesn't seem to matter. I've got one customer who's 70."

According to the Motorcycle Industry Council, 7.5 percent of scooter owners in 1990 were retirees. In 2003 it was 22 percent. While most riders of all ages are men, nearly one in four is female. More than half are married, and 38 percent went to college.

As for Lynch, he is now preparing to leave - on his scooter - for Ushuaia, the capital of Tierra del Fuego, located on the southern tip of South America where the Atlantic and Pacific oceans meet. He will be 61 when he makes the attempt in the fall.

Said Lynch: "I want to be able to say I've ridden from the northern edge of the world to the southern edge."

[Last modified April 13, 2005, 01:29:17]

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