While here in the U.S. you may not see motor scooters regularly, in the rest of the world they are a primary form of transport for most people as a personal mode of transportation. The are small, light, and able to negotiate traffic more readily than expensive cars. Since they are relatively inexpensive to buy, this accounts for their popularity with most of the world’s population. Bicycles are by far the most popular option after foot traffic but scooters allow you go to much further, faster, and be able to carry more than you can on a bicycle, e.g. more luggage or a passenger comfortably. Not seen that much in the U.S. they are starting to catch on as more people recognize their more economic benefits. Whether scooters are environmentally better depends on the type of scooter you are talking about.
In Britain and western Europe, you will see contraptions called Mopeds. This is a small gasoline powered engine (generally less than 50 cc) on a very light motor-bike frame that can be boosted when needed by pedaling, especially on up-grades and when needing to take off faster from a stop. In most cases the Mopeds run about 25-30 mph and are too heavy to pedal without the engine running.
The next powered step up are the Motor Scooters. They are usually gasoline powered engines (up to 250 cc) although newer models now have rechargeable electric motors. They are less powerful than Motor Bikes, which can have engines as high as 1250 cc (engines the size of small cars). In many Asian countries, scooters are a primary form of transport, especially in the cities. The gasoline models tend to be less polluting then a gasoline car but they tend to be noisy – like a high-powered lawn mower. The sheer numbers of scooters can cause as much if not more pollution overall with only one rider per scooter rather than car-pooling or larger public transportation options. Obviously, electric powers scooters are quite and produce almost no pollution. Motor bikes are a common option in states where sunshine is more prevalent. In California recently, I was surprised at the numbers of motor bikes running fast along the roads. In heavy traffic these high-powered bikes are allowed to travel between the congested lanes (along the lane lines) which makes them a potential danger since they can appear suddenly in the rear-view mirrors as a car is attempting to make a lane change.
Pros and Cons of Scooters and Motor Bikes
Scooters are highly affordable (less than $1000 in many cases) while higher powered general motor bikes range between $5000-$10,000. Specialized bikes like motor cross and Icons like Harley Davidson can be between $20,000 to $45,000. Motor bikes therefore fall into the category of enthusiastic ownership while scooters fall in the category of cheap transport. Other advantages are in general, gasoline models produce less pollution than cars, but as mentioned several thousands of them on the same rush hour road can be a pollution problem in themselves. They require little parking space and are less damaging to roads – therefore less need for multilevel parking garages and road maintenance. They are easy to maneuver in traffic and can go places cars cannot. In general motor bikes can be twice the miles per gallon (mpg) of a car, and scooters can get up to 100 mpg. They cost much less to insure, license, and have minimal maintenance compared to cars. Electric scooters are quiet and better for air quality, especially when recharged from renewable sources.
While scooters are a great option for travel of distances of less than 100 miles. Motor Bike enthusiasts will travel cross country on big bikes. But they can be uncomfortable and even dangerous in wet weather. My motor bike enthusiast cousin once rode all the way back from Albania to Britain in heavy rain the whole way. He sold his motor bike on returning home and have never ridden one since. In general, these options suffer many of the same disadvantages of bicycles. These powered options with their higher speeds do not fare well in collisions, especially with automotive traffic. There are no dedicated lanes for higher powered motorized two-wheel (or three) bikes, enforcing the need for riders to be ultra-visible to other traffic and to be extra diligent in awareness of what is happening all around them – even more so than for bicycles. As emphasized by my cousin’s story, riding in bad weather sucks, so dedicated bike users need to have plan B for bad weather days unless they have the fortitude and outer-clothing to brave the elements. In winter conditions of course they are impractical and dangerous to the rider.