Monday, July 7, 2014

"Alternative" transportation

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This is my Kymco People S250 motor-scooter.

Since May of 2013, it has been my primary transportation (well, it and my Specialized bicycle). It gets around 65–70 miles to the gallon; I still fill up about once a week or so, but I pay about $6 (compared to the $50–$70 I paid to fill my Toyota Highlander before). With the top-case and saddle bags, I can bring home as many as 10 bags of groceries; Molly and Jack love to ride on the back, so I can even pick one of them up from school when I need to. It has an automatic transmission, a 250cc engine, and can get me up to 75mph easily (it can go higher, but I’ve never done it; 75 is the speed limit on the interstate here, and I went that fast once—usually I prefer to stay on much slower roads).

Since June 13, it has been in the shop. It’s still not fixed.

This is my second motor scooter in 10 years; in both cases, we reached a point in our family life where we realized that we didn’t need two cars—we needed one and a half. A scooter has been a great alternative to buying another car for us.

Scooters are safer and more comfortable than motorcycles: I sit upright, which is better for my back and also increases my visibility; I don’t have to straddle a large machine, but have a floorboard for my feet; the automatic transmission means I’m not futzing with changing gears and have more attention to focus on the road; and the center of gravity is much lower, so it’s easier to balance and take corners with. Yet, my scooter is just as powerful as many motorcycles, and goes faster than I’ll ever need it to go (and yes, you can get scooters with 500 and 750cc engines, especially for touring and carrying bigger loads). Most of my (so-called!) friends who chuckle when I tell them that I ride a scooter are surprised at how big it is (I think they’re thinking about Vespas, which are fairly tiny).

I have wondered why these are not more frequently considered as viable alternatives to car ownership, especially in more dense urban areas (such as when we lived in St. Louis) or in areas where the weather permits year-round usage (like here in Arizona).  They get amazing gas mileage, are easy to drive, easy to park, and fun. They are immensely popular in Europe and Asia; why not the U.S.?

But now I’ve figured it out—or part of it, anyway.

It’s the shop’s fault

The bottom-line: if those who sold scooters told themselves more seriously, then others would take their products more seriously too.

I bought my first scooter (also a Kymco, and also from their People line) from a shop in St. Louis called—I’m not kidding—the “Extreme Toy Store” (they are out of business now). They also sold ATVs and jet skis. I bought my current ride through a shop in Tucson called ScootOver Tucson. ScootOver’s slogan is “fun in motion” and the front page of their website features a playful (if a little goofy) video featuring a Fine Young Cannibals song that auto-plays when you land there.

In both of these large cities (Tucson has about a million people, metro), these are/were the main dealerships for a scooter like my Kymco. If you’re looking for something more than a beat-up Vespa, you have to go to ScootOver. To be fair, they have a very nice inventory, especially given the somewhat limited showroom space that they have.

When you compare ScootOver’s self-presentation to another dealer in Tucson—let’s look at RideNow, which sells motorcycles (and, yes, some ATVs and the occasional scooter)—you should instantly notice a difference. RideNow looks like a place where people looking for a new vehicle might go. ScootOver looks like a place where folks with some disposable cash might find a new toy.

Repairs matter

While in St. Louis—and within the first few months of owning my brand-new Kymco People S125, my first scooter—it had a problem with the starter. I took it back to the Extreme Toy Store (they had a mechanic on staff), and they took it in for a repair (under warranty). After nearly two weeks, I hadn’t heard anything from them; a call revealed that they were “waiting for a part.” Two more weeks went by, and they still stalled. Only after I filed a report with the local Better Business Bureau did I hear back that the bike was fixed (within three days of filing the report, too! Coincidence?).

Jump ahead to now: I took my People S250 in to ScootOver (again, a mechanic on staff—two, actually) for a repair almost three weeks ago. Also a starter issue, though this was more widespread through the whole electrical system. The mechanic who took it in suggested that it might take a while to get the part, but that he should have it ready in a little over a week. I was going out of town for a week, so that was fine—and I told him that. He reiterated that it wouldn’t be long after I got back for it to be ready; probably that Tuesday (June 24). 

He called on Thursday, June 26, to say that the part would be delivered on the following Tuesday, and he would have it ready on Wednesday—over a week after his original quoted time, and more than 2½ weeks after he received it for repair! I told him that I needed it for transportation (it is my primary vehicle, after all), and that I needed to be able to pick it up on that Tuesday instead. 

That Tuesday came, and around mid-day they called to say it was ready. I go to pick it up and—surprise!—it still won’t start. They fixed part of it, but not all of it. So they took it back into the shop and now (several days later) I still don’t have my scooter.

Fixing the greater problem

Back to my original thesis: if scooter dealers want Americans to take scooters more seriously as a regular means of transportation, they have to start taking themselves seriously. Here’s what that looks like (or at least, a start):

  • Quit presenting scooters as toys. As it is, scooters are almost universally seen as something less than a serious daily vehicle. This is because the dealers show them as a hobbyist’s item. They are portrayed as something like the urbanite’s version of the ATV. 
  • Take repairs seriously. One way that the U.S. is very different from Europe and Asia is that public transit is fairly unreliable—or at least, relegated to underclass status—in most major cities. So Americans need to know that their vehicles are reliable, and that they can have them repaired quickly if they break down. It is the rare major repair that requires a car, truck, or minivan to be in the shop for more than a day; you can drop it off in the morning, the shop might even give you a lift to work, and pick it up at the end of the day. It is ridiculous that a repair for a scooter (or any vehicle) should take more than a couple of days, or at most a week—even for major repairs. Several weeks is simply embarrassing.
  • Figure out the parts issue. It makes sense that no shop has all the parts for every vehicle that they might need to repair; so, sure, a scooter shop will need to have some time to acquire the parts they need. What should they do? Pay for overnight or two-day delivery and factor that into the cost of the part, just like every other serious repair shop would do. Probably the counter-argument to this point is that some of these parts have to come from overseas, and overnight and even two-day delivery isn’t possible. I can accept that for something very heavy and expensive, like an engine or transmission. But smaller and fairly lightweight parts (like my ignition switch) can be shipped from Taiwan in two-day delivery; it might cost $60 or more, but it can be done. This should be an option offered to customers.
  • Network with other shops. One way to cut down on shipping costs and times would be to form a network of dealers and shops that can share in these costs by shipping things in bulk, and before they are needed. You need an ignition switch for a Kymco People S250? You may not have one, but a shop in Colorado does—you can get it tomorrow for $28 overnight delivery. Meanwhile, a shop in Seattle needs a part that you have on the shelf, and you sell and ship it to them for another $28—and your costs for shipping are essentially zeroed out; it’s like you had the part on your own shelf, which you sell to the customer for cost + $28. 
  • Scale out your business. As the above four issues are addressed, the market for scooters should slowly increase. Maybe your shop is the only one in Tucson, and that positions you perfectly to become not just a retail shop but also a wholesaler for parts for your region. This generates additional profits for your shop, and also improves the market generally, so that the market is positioned to continue in improvement.

These ideas won’t solve all of the obstacles to motor-scooters becoming strong contenders as alternative vehicles—but I promise that, without them, it will never happen.

Scooters could be, and (I would argue) should be, a viable alternative to car ownership in the U.S.—they are relatively inexpensive (I paid just over $2000 for my current scooter, and insure it for less than $100 a year); they are gas-efficient (more so, even, than a Prius); and they are nimble and fun ways to get around town. But some fundamental issues have to be addressed before it can happen.

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