Three months ago I traded my four-wheel station-wagon with reclining buckets seats, AM-FM radio, and air-conditioning, for a two-wheel motorized bicycle with a one-foot-square wire basket and a horn that sounds like a cow with indigestion.
It was not current events in the Mid-east but my own financial crisis that induced the switch. I sold my 1974 Dodge Colt for $1,800 and bought a new Vespa Ciao Special for about $550 including taxes, a $30 lock and a helment. Now I spend $2 a month on gas, and maybe $1 on the speical oil that must be mixed with the gasoline.
I love my moped and I save money getting around town, but I also risk my life every day on the streets of D.C.
Mopeds seem to inspire hostility. On my very first day as a moped rider, I was cruising along Columbia Road on my way to show it off to a friend. As I veered around a double-parked car, a VW deliberately cut me off, very nearly knocking me flat. This little Bug, ordinarily a most unassuming vehicle, became, from my vulnerable position, a giant metal monster eager to devour me.
I rode up to the beast at the stoplight and yelled, "Hey, you could have killed me doing that!"
The driver turned. "I know," she said coldly and drove off.
Human beings encased in 2-ton mobile metal boxes display more savage behavior toward mopedists than toward bicyclists. I haven't quite figured out why. Maybe we are seen as cheaters. Bicyclists, like athletes, attract sympathy and admiration. They defy gravity and nature to propel themselves forward by their own muscles, while we mopedists buzz blithely alongg without so much as a drop of sweat on our foreheads.
I must confess that those cyclists in those red stretch racing suits give me urge to shout, "I swim every day!"
To my surprise, statistics on moped accidents do not match the risks of my first-hand experience.
"Moped safety compares favorably to other two-wheel vehicles," says Joseph Wolfe, the Moped Association of America's director of communications. Wolfe cites statistics from California, the state with the most mopeds now on the road. In 1978, with more than 100,000 in use, there were 17 moped-related deaths in California. This is compared to 82 for bicycles and 774 for motorcycles and scooters.
Here in D.C., the big problem is that no one -- neither policymakers, nor drivers, nor even many of we who ride them -- understands the limited capabilites of mopeds and treats them accordingly. Most run on 50ccs or less, two-thirds the power of the average family lawnmower. Yet, most people treat them like motorcycles. This is a dangerous mistake. Mopeds have few advantages of other motorized vehicles -- neither the speed and agility of a motorcycle, nor the size and weight of a car.
Even worse, there is general confusion about which traffic regulations mopeds are supposed to obey. Even the police do not know what the laws are, notes J.W. Lanum of the D.C. Office of Transportation Safety. "We are very concerned," he said. "We think there will be a big increase in the number of moped accidents."
While D.C.'s laws are better than most, there are several unfair restrictions inhibiting our freedom of movement in the city.
In D.C., the maximum permissible speed on a moped is 25 m.p.h., and we are not allowed to use the bike paths. But at that speed we cannot keep up with traffic on many roads. So this means I can't safely use Rock Creek Parkway, or even the underpass at Dupont Circle. I am obliged to use congested downtown streets where risks are greater.
If a moped can exceed 25 m.p.h. on level ground it is no longer considered a moped under D.C. law. It is a motorcycle. My Vespa's top speed is 40 m.p.h., and while I never ride it that fast, 30 m.p.h. is essential in heavy traffic.
There are other inequities. If I am caught riding a moped on the sidewalk in downtown D.C. the fine is $50. The same offense on a bicycle would cost $10.
Mopeds, unlike bicycles, do not have to ride to the far right alongside the cars. But whatever the law, with so few of "us" and so many of "them," there is no safe place to ride a bike in this city. When I take my own lane cars almost brush my leg as the straddle the lanes to pass me. tWhen I ride next to the parked cars I risk getting smacked down by an opening car door, or a driver who pulls out of a space without loking over his or her shoulder.
There are advantages. I can park on the sidewalk -- no small benefit in downtown Washington. I can clean off my spark plug (singular) with a nail file. At rush hour it is a joy to sail past rows of idled automobiles. And, on a nice day, it is a very friendly, relaxed way to enjoy the city.
In many ways, the moped is the ideal form of urban transportation -- that is when the weather is warm and dry, and when and if we command more respect from others on the road.
Certainly if there is strength in numbers, drivers better be prepared for a powerful moped lobby. Our popularity is soaring. In 1975, there were only 50,000 mopeds in the U.S. Sales in 1979 put 325,000 more mopeds on the streets, mostly in cities and suburban areas.
Despite the dangers, I am pleased to be part of the new trend toward fuel-efficient, simple transporation. Three weeks as a courier for a downtown delivery service taught me how to survive on the streets of Washington. I command my own lane instead of cowering by the curb. I accelerate at my own pace instead of waiting at the side for cars to pass me. I also wear my helment -- and keep my fingers crossed.