The Small-bike Revolution

By Kristi Mexia

February 22, 2013 5 min read

The series finale for the reality television show "American Chopper" recently aired on TLC. Just as audiences were forced to wave goodbye to 10 years of watching custom chopper builders Paul Teutul Sr., "Paulie," and his son Paul Teutul Jr., "Junior," so, too, must big-bike enthusiasts bid farewell to muscle motorcycles. The demand for big bikes, such as Harley-Davidsons and Big Dog Motorcycles, is being replaced by a need for a nimbler and more energy-efficient machine. Enter the increasing popularity of small bikes and scooters.

The cost-saving and timesaving advantages of a motorcycle are numerous: fuel efficiency, affordability, quick parking and easy traffic navigation. The economic benefits are further increased when a customer buys a small motorcycle or scooter. A small bike is lighter and easier to handle, increasing user-friendliness and adding more miles per gallon.

The most recent figures from the Motorcycle Industry Council confirm the rising popularity of the light bike. According to the MIC, for the first time since 2002, sales were up across all motorcycle sectors, but "scooters posted the most significant rate of growth, with an increase of 7.7 percent."

The rise of gasoline prices is one of the contributing factors to this steady purchasing trend. Numbers from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show that on average, the price of gasoline rose by 10 cents a gallon from 2011 to 2012, increasing the national average to $3.63 per gallon in 2012. For reasons such as this, the cost of owning and operating a car is increasing. The motorcycle is a good choice to avoid pricey gas pumps and save hard-earned dollars. The consistency of rising gas prices is also one of the main reasons the trend toward smaller bikes is likely to stay.

MIC President and CEO Tim Buche says, "We know that Americans are still enjoying themselves a great deal on bikes, as tire sales have increased over the past three years. Estimated vehicle miles traveled were 29 billion in 2009, an increase of 8 billion miles since 2003. All of this signals that motorcycling is an increasingly mainstream mode of transportation." As the small motorcycle becomes an increasingly popular and efficient form of transportation, it is also being cited as a solution for traffic congestion.

A study from Transportation Alternatives, New York City's leading transportation advocacy organization, shows that 15 to 45 percent of drivers in Manhattan are circling blocks in search of parking. The study suggests that many drivers pass up parking spots because they lack parallel parking skills. These numbers could easily represent many U.S. cities. Small motorcycles and scooters are an easy solution to many city centers' traffic congestion. Transportation Alternatives and other transportation advocacy groups are striving to increase small motorcycle and scooter use as a solution to traffic and testy parallel parking situations.

The MIC and transportation advocacy groups are not the only ones noticing the trend toward smaller bikes, though. Huge motorcycle and automobile companies are picking up on and benefiting from the trend, as well. Companies such as Kawasaki and Honda are creating lighter and smaller bikes geared toward first-time users and baby boomers who are re-entering the market.

Most of the smaller bikes the companies are promoting are less than $5,000, and they tend to be lighter and more fuel-efficient than previous models. "The entry-level market is very important to Honda and a segment where we're seeing a lot of growth," said Bill Savino, manager of Powersports PR at the American Honda Motor Co. Inc., to Cycle World magazine. "A lot of the younger buyers are coming in and looking for high-quality, inexpensive, fuel-efficient machines ... but we are also seeing a lot of people re-entering the market after being off of motorcycles for three, five or even 10 years."

The trend toward smaller motorcycles looks as if it is here to stay. Though big-bike cruisers will always have a spot in biking culture, the usefulness and cost-saving efficiency of smaller bikes and scooters have made an imprint on the motorcycle market that both consumers and companies will continue to benefit from.

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