You WILL Ride a Scooter, and it WILL be a Piaggio

. By Gabe Ets-Hokin
Piaggio USA Announces Plan for Domination of USA Scooter Market

By Gabe Ets-Hokin

Here’s a number to blow your mind:
20 million scooters.

That's the number of U.S. commuters Piaggio USA's boss, Paolo Timoni claims
will be on scooters if the American population rides in the same proportions
as their European brethren.

“Ha!” I can hear you say. “We’re not riding scooters! They're gay, smell funny and make your ass look fat. It’ll never happen!”

Perhaps, but if you’re right, it won’t be because a certain Italian manufacturer didn’t do everything in its power to make scooters – and motorcycles – a palatable transportation choice for American commuters. That’s what I found out during a Piaggio media day at its brand-new Technical Center in Costa Mesa, California. There, Piaggio Group Americas CEO and President Paolo Timoni unveiled a new plan for aggressively growing the scooter market.

There are some serious problems with the North American market for scooters and motorcycles. According to Timoni, total unit sales peaked in 2006, but the problem isn’t exactly the slumping economy – although that surely doesn’t help. No, the problem comes when the ratio of sales numbers to total users is too high: eight million motorcyclists are buying about a million bikes a year. Those bikes, scooters and motorcycles alike, are being used for recreation, so like boats, golf equipment or other recreational products, “clearly we operate in a niche market.” And I would add that those recreational motorcyclists are predominantly aging Baby Boomers, who, let’s face it, won’t live forever, no matter how much fiber they eat or Pilates they do.

A glimmer of hope is the use of two- (or maybe three-) wheelers as transportation. As most other market segments, like sportbikes, cruisers and off-road shrink, scooters boast massive sales growth. In 2000, the major manufacturers (the Motorcycle Industry Council – MIC – only keeps sales figures for major manufacturers, ignoring the torrent of mainland Chinese scooter builders) sold between 13 and 14,000 scooters. In 2008, that number was 78,000, 220,000 if all manufacturers were included, according to Timoni. His inference is that the industry is shifting from recreation to transportation, spurred by rising fuel prices and urban congestion. After all, a family sedan costs $650 a month when everything is totaled up, where a scooter can be a breezy $150 a month to own. By ditching the second (or third) car –Timoli tells us 70% of U.S. households have two or more cars – a family can save $6000 a year. Oh, and most importantly, it’s much more fun to get to work on two (or three) wheels than four.

There are obstacles to this, of course. First off, the USA isn’t Europe. U.S. cities aren’t for the most part very moto-friendly, with little or no motorcycle parking and hostile traffic conditions. Also, lane-sharing is illegal in every state except California (although there is a bill in the Texas legislature to legalize it), and most states require a specialized license to operate even a small (150cc or less) scoot. But despite these obstacles, Timoni feels “the scooter market has the potential to grow as large as Europe’s.”

Wha’? Since between 4 and 10 percent of Europeans get to work on a scooter, that would translate into something like 20 million Americans buying around 1.5 million scooters a year, a massive increase of the current market. To make that happen, Timoni describes a three-part process: to get the message about using scoots and motorcycles as transport as often as possible, to work with local, State and Federal authorities to allow lane-splitting, streamline licensing laws and train automobile drivers to not run us over. The first part of the plan is already in motion: Vespa has been plugging its “Vespanomics” program for a while now, touting the ability of scooters to use less fuel, emit less carbon and reduce traffic congestion.

Still, these are big words from a tiny player in the industry, with just 3 percent of the motorcycle market (although Timoni claims a giant 36% of all the scooter dollars spent). But Piaggio Group Americas has expanded rapidly, tripling its workforce in the four years since it was established and growing its dealer network to 628 outlets. Showing off the latest facility, the National Technical Center, was the point of the media day. The 12,000 square-foot space has offices for the tech support, warranty, training and other staff as well as giving technicians access to the 12-month riding season Southern California has to offer. But most importantly to us moto-journos, who make a living by riding around on other people’s bikes while wearing free stuff, the press fleet is also kept in the Tech Center’s garage.

Piaggio Americas may not sell a lot of units compared to a bigger company, but it does offer a bewildering array of models, and all of them were available for the gathered media to ride. In addition to Piaggio scooters, Piaggio Americas also distributes Aprilia, Moto Guzzi and Vespa, with no fewer than 38 different models. I took advantage of the day to sample as many of these as possible.

My hour of test-riding (I know, but that’s all the time they gave us) showed a diverse cross-section of two and three-wheeled products. I first went out on Aprilia’s Dorsoduro, a supermoto version of the Shiver 750 standard. I found a bike that had a smooth and torquey motor, very good suspension, a comfortable seating position, and a loony streetfighter nature that seemed to benefit from Aprilia’s experience with building and racing its SXV V-Twin supermoto, a bike that was every bit as fun as Ducati’s Hypermotard. I also sampled the Moto Guzzi Griso 8V, a muscular ride with tons of power and a hulking, sophisticated charm that is Guzzi’s answer to the power cruiser.

I also got to ride the three-wheeled Piaggio MP3 for the first time. (Click here to read Bikeland's review of the MP3) The bizarre leaning twin-wheel front end took about a block to get used to, as the entire bike feels much like any other (very heavy) scooter at speed, except it could brake very hard and was so stable in turns it felt like it could do anything. A last ride on the new Vespa GTS 300 Super – Vespa’s biggest, fastest scooter yet – revealed traditional (that is, nervous-feeling but quick-steering) Vespa handling manners, good brakes and surprising midrange grunt. The guy in Quadrophenia would never ride one of these off a cliff.

Is bombarding consumers with choices and seeing what sticks the way to market domination? A more conservative approach may be to sell a small number of models to an established market and slowly grow sales.

But the Piaggio staff is hardly a pack of glue-huffing maniacs; they include plenty of industry veterans as well as Timoli, who came from the financial services industry before being hired by Piaggio after that company was reorganized in 2004. They have a solid product range as well as the resources and commitment from their parent company. Will it be enough to overcome the American obsession with solo car commuting? Maybe not with gas in the $2-a-gallon range. But Piaggio is prepared to wait, and $6 gas and increasing density in America’s inner cities may make Timoni’s dream of 20 million scooterists a reality.

Photos: Laurel Hungerford Photography & Piaggio

Click here to visit our forums to discuss this story