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High Fuel Costs Have Some Downsizing to Two Wheels

Many retailers of motorcycles, scooters and bicycles report that sales are up this year.

May 23, 2006|Cynthia H. Cho | Times Staff Writer

Praktan Kokila and record gasoline prices arrived in California at about the same time this spring.

And that's why the Redlands resident, newly relocated from Washington, found himself navigating through hundreds of motorcycles one day last week in the San Bernardino showroom of Chaparral Motorsports. Fed up with spending as much as $60 a week to fill his Infinity G35 with premium, Kokila was ready to move from four wheels to two.

Kokila was following in the tire treads of friend Mike Devi, who the week before had put away his BMW 330i -- that's now reserved for weekends -- in favor of a black Yamaha sport bike. After four hours of shopping, Kokila rolled out with a blue version of the same cycle, which gets about 40 miles per gallon and holds about $15 worth of premium fuel at current prices.

"I've wanted one for a while," Kokila, 27, said of the $9,200 motorcycle. "And with the high gas prices, now's a good time."

Steep pump prices are driving some motorists to forms of transportation that sip or eschew gasoline, and many retailers of motorcycles, scooters and bicycles report that sales are revving up. Although most buyers, including Kokila and Devi, aren't ready to dump their cars, a good number are complaining about their fuel bills as they make their purchases, retailers say.

When fuel prices spiked in the third quarter of last year, U.S. motorcycle sales jumped 16% compared with the same period in 2004, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council. Third-quarter sales of scooters soared 65%.

"We can't say for sure that fuel prices were driving that," spokesman Mike Mount said. "But it would appear that with the amount of activity and media attention on fuel prices, that it has had some effect."

In the first three months of this year, motorcycle sales rose 8.6% and scooter sales gained about 2% from the year-earlier period. Those numbers show a "strong start to the year," he said, because sales are typically highest during the spring and summer.

At Chaparral Motorsports, whose showroom has row after row of shiny and colorful Hondas, Suzukis, Kawasakis and other makes, sales manager Jon Gerwin said cycles were zooming out the door at a 30% faster pace than at this time last year. Motorcycles that get good mileage are the most popular, he said, and many customers say that they're afraid gas will hit $4 a gallon.

Chaparral salesman Eddy Raisch said scooters had been popular among young people, especially college students, who want to leave their cars parked when traveling short distances.

For the maker of Vespa, the iconic retro-chic scooter from Italy, it has been pedal to the metal since last fall, said Paolo Timoni, chief executive of Piaggio Group Americas, Piaggio's New York-based subsidiary.

"Since September 2005, when gas prices first hit $3 a gallon, we have seen acceleration in the market," Timoni said. Last year, the company sold 10,000 scooters in the U.S. It expects to exceed that by 25% to 30% this year, he said.

Sales of bicycles began pumping higher last year, rising 7% to nearly 20 million in the U.S., as fuel costs rose, said Tim Blumenthal, executive director of Bikes Belong Coalition, a national group of bicycle suppliers and retailers.

"I have talked to bike shop owners all across the country, and they have all said sales were excellent" so far this year, he said. "I am sure that not everyone has experienced that, but we think that April was very good and ... new interest in bike commuting is a key factor."

The group's members described a new breed of customer: those who are frustrated over pump prices and looking for an alternative mode of transportation, especially for short trips, Blumenthal said. The coalition plans to launch a marketing campaign in June to encourage people to ride bicycles for trips shorter than 2 miles.

At Beverly Hills Bike Shop, there had been a "huge increase" in people wanting to buy bicycles to commute to work, manager Eric Romney said.

"Once a day, we have someone coming in wanting a bike to ride to work," he said. For these people, he said, his staff will equip the bicycles with gear such as lights, fenders and baskets or racks.

Gas prices are just one "piece of the puzzle" when it comes to sales, said Fred Clements, executive director of the National Bicycle Dealers Assn. But Clements also said his members had reported that more people were bringing their bicycles in for repair.

That is what's happening at Bicycle Kitchen, a nonprofit in east Hollywood where people can rent space to repair their bicycles. Volunteers are on hand to offer guidance and assistance. Although springtime weather tends to bring more people to the spot, volunteer Thomas Gotschi said they had been "super busy" lately.

Even the Segway, the battery-powered, self-balancing "human transporter" that was dismissed as a fad when it debuted in 2001, has received a boost.

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