Scooting thru Vespanomics 101

December 11, 2008
Bart Madson
By Bart Madson
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Bashing away at the MotoUSA keyboard for nine years now, Madson lends his scribbling and editorial input on everything from bike reviews to industry analysis and motorcycle racing reports.

The Vespa name means scooter.
The Italian wasp is luring Americans who want to do something about high gas prices and ever-growing greenhouse gas emissions.

What is Vespanomics?

The ecological, economic and personal satisfaction one achieves after buying a Vespa scooter. Vespanomics promotes embracing motor scooters as an alternative form of transportation to reduce oil consumption, pollution and traffic congestion.

This definition above comes from Vespa’s own website. A clever marketing strategy for the brand synonymous with scooter, Vespanomics has been winning converts. Sales of scooters jumped this summer along with record high gas prices. MotorcycleUSA joined the trend with a Vespa GTS 250 test scooter as our summer commuter. It was an opportunity to put Vespanomics to the test.

Does Vespanomics Make Cents?

The bulk of Piaggio Group’s Vespanomics literature downplays excessive monetary savings, but the website homepage,, does mention “saving a boatload of money on gas.” The common wisdom says buying a scooter is a sound investment. But is it true?

While a rider does save money in gas purchases due to improved fuel efficiency, the savings would take multiple years to pay for the initial cost of the scooter itself. For those trading a car for a scooter, the fuel savings is significant. For those buying a scooter as a supplemental form of transport, the argument is more problematic. Let’s take a look at our numbers.

During approximately three months of riding, we tallied 802 commuter miles. To power those miles we burned 13.524 gallons of premium fuel, at an average price of $4.41. Our total fuel costs were $59.66. Not too shabby, and had I driven those 802 miles in my 24MPG 1998 Chevy Cavalier (the life of a journalist is glamorous), I would have burned 33.4 gallons. Subtracting 20 cents/gallon, to make up for the premium gas difference, we’d have spent $140.68. That makes for a savings of $81.02.

2008 Vespa GTS 250
Scooting around town was fun and fuel efficient, but does a rider “save” alot of money?

Being generous in our rounding (because our fuel receipts didn’t quite tally three full months) we saved about $30/month – $360/year if we could ride year-round. At 10 miles round trip, our commute is tame compared to most. Suppose we doubled our miles travelled, and saved $60 a month. That would make $720 a year. Excellent, but we’d have to ride that GTS 250 eight years to pay off the $5,999 MSRP!

Granted, at 59.8 MPG our Vespa isn’t as fuel efficient as other smaller-displacement scooters – some of which claim near triple-digit efficiency (although we gladly traded high MPG for the improved performance of the larger 250 engine). Comparing a higher MPG scooter to, say, a Hummer (the whipping boy of MPG rants) and the savings swell. It should be noted the value of a scooter’s efficiency rises with the price of gasoline. Conversely, our summer savings would be slashed in half this winter, with the welcome return of cheap $2/gal fuel. 

Based off estimated scooter MPG figures and $4/gallon gas, the following popular scooters per-mile fuel costs are compared against the current 27.5 MPG, 14.5¢ / mile CAFE standard car. (To compute your own particular savings, check out this free calculator).  

  MSRP  MPG  Fuel Cost Savings
Vespa GTS 250  $5999 60  6.7¢ / mile 7.9¢ / mile
Vespa S50 $3199 72 5.6¢ / mile 8.9¢ / mile
Yamaha Vino 125  $2899 85  4.7¢ / mile 9.8¢ / mile
Suzuki Burgman 400  $6199 54 7.4¢ / mile 7.1¢ / mile

Although the monetary benefits of a scooter don’t live up to the enthusiastic expectations of some consumers, there are benefits beyond the bottom line budget. We loved the psychological boost of filling up for under $10 as gas prices soared to more than $4.50/gallon this summer. Also, as individuals we have little power over things like gas prices, but riding a scooter is a tangible way to feel individual relief at the pump – whether the long term numbers justify it or not. Yet fuel prices aren’t the only thing that will bite into a rider’s wallet.

Cost of Ownership

The 250 delivers more palatable open-road performance for scooter lovers  opening the riding options to anything with blacktop.
Insurance costs for scooters are low.

Insurance costs for scooters are minimal, but still are an expense. When we looked for quotes on our Vespa, the monthly rates were less than $15. Similar quotes came in for popular rides like the Burgman 400 maxi-scooter and Ninja 250R sportbike. The super-fuel efficient 50cc Zuma, one of a handful of street-legal 2-strokes in sold in the US, was less than $10/month.

Other operating costs include regular maintenance service. Some enterprising owners will wrench on their own ride but most will go to the local dealership. Our local Vespa dealer charges $45 for an oil change, $115 for service without valve adjustment, $185 for full service, along with charges of $35 for rear tire change and $25 for front.

Speaking of which, owners will have to periodically replace tires, running upwards of $100 for a set. On top of it all, there is safety gear to purchase. Assuming a rider opts for the minimum of an open-face helmet, jacket and gloves – it easily crosses over the $100 mark. Those extra charges bite into fuel savings.

Scooter as Viable Transportation

The majority of riders can only source scooters as supplemental transportation, so cost of ownership is in addition to those same costs for keeping a car/truck. For many, scooters are flat out impractical. Got kids? Try picking up your infant from daycare on the Vespa. Before you could bungee the car seat down you’d be taking state-mandated parenting classes with Britney Spears. Errands like grocery shopping are limited too. While the convenience of underseat storage works for the lone gallon of milk or six-pack, it can’t resupply a week’s rations for a family of four.

SINKS and DINKS are prime scooter candidates (Single/Dual Income No Kids if you aren’t hip to the lingo). For college students, or young urbanites, a cheap small-displacement scooter makes perfect sense. Still, most scooter-only households are able to do so because they live in metropolitan areas where mass transit acts is a viable supplement – on those rainy days in particular.

All this, of course, doesn’t take into consideration the real risks associated with riding. Though they are cute and seem tame enough, scooters are dangerous too. Riding down the road at 30-plus mph can be lethal and debilitating. There are no airbags. No seatbelts. Just the rider perched on top of, many times, an underpowered two-wheeler, all while literal tons of rolling steel breeze by. Drivers making the switch should go in with eyes wide open to the risks.

Real Benefits of Vespanomics

2008 Vespa GTS 250
Higher MPG rates equate to less gas guzzled. Less gas guzzled means lowered demand. Lowered demand triggers a drop in gas prices. It’s Vespanomics!

Alright, enough raining on the scooter parade. We are, after all, big fans. Let’s talk about the real benefits of scooter ridership: reducing oil consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. The stated goal of Vespanomics is to switch 10% of America’s total mileage to scooters. Vespa claims the result would be 14 million less gallons of fuel used and a 324 million-lb reduction in CO2 emissions every day.

How much planet did we save this summer? The EPA figures 19.4 lbs of CO2 are released for every gallon of gasoline burned. We saved 19.9 gallons, so 386 lbs of CO2 was spared. Not earth-shattering, by any measure, but 1544 lbs a year. If a couple million drivers follow suit, the potential environmental benefits are significant. And in case you think green concerns aren’t relevant, a 2007 Vespa survey conducted by the International Communications Research firm found that 70% of Americans are concerned about global warming.

As far as reducing oil consumption goes, less demand = lower prices. Granted, the wild fluctuations of 2008 oil prices have been influenced, in part, by commodities speculation and the world-wide economic downturn (barrel oil prices have plummeted from a July high of $147 to the current rate of $43). Oil, however, still follows the law of supply and demand. By riding our Vespa this summer, we consumed 20 less gallons of fuel. Start multiplying the riders and, again, the cumulative effect is significant.

A third big-picture benefit of Vespanomics is that scooters relieve traffic congestion. Idling engines in traffic gridlock waste efficiency and dump more CO2 into the atmoshpere. On its website Vespa touts a traffic model for midtown Manhattan in which 20% of the vehicles were scooters. The claimed benefits would be dramatic: Less congestion would decrease transportation delays of 4.6 million hours a year (100 hours per person), CO2 emissions would drop by 52 million lbs and more than 2.5 million gallons of fuel would be saved. Bottom line savings to NYC would be a claimed $122 million in fuel and productivity.


2008 Vespa GTS 250
Riding isn’t all about saving money. It’s plain fun too!

Making a scooter purchase from a strict financial point of view depends entirely on the rider’s individual circumstances. How much will they ride it? What vehicle is the scooter replacing? Is it a practical year-round/daily option? For some the investment will pay dividends. For others, it may never even pay for itself.

As a progressive choice in alternative transportation, scooters make a whole lot of sense. The benefit to American cities is worthwhile and municipalities should take steps to encourage scooter use. Governments could also stir sales with tax credits, as California is already doing for ZEV (Zero Emission Vehicle) scooters like the electric-powered Vectrix.

As a marketing device to attract new owners, Vespanomics is a definite success. Campaigns like the “Go Green Vespa Video Challenge,” saw eager Vespanomics disciples submit videos promoting their own take on the scooter lifestyle. Vespa’s biggest boost may have been perfect timing as Americans experienced the highest gas prices on record. The bottom line is where the motorcycle industry as a whole is reporting 2008 losses, scooter sales are booming.

So, while cheap gas is back for the short term, scooters are here to stay.

Agree or disagree with our author? Share your own take on Vespanomics in the comment section below.

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