I don’t own a car. I would like to, and I probably will eventually, but it isn’t in the cards for where I’m at in life. At the moment I live in a city that is small enough to walk pretty much everywhere, and where it isn’t, I have a small-engined, two wheeled vehicle known as a moped. Public transit exists here, but it’s crowded, sloppy, I generally dislike it. The term moped itself is confusing because at the moment it is used to refer to two different things. The most common use is something like the Vespa Scooter (google, for the curious) where the rider puts his or her feet in the front of the vehicle and sits like someone would in a chair. The other thing the term refers to is the vehicle I have. Colloquially, the vehicle is referred to as a “no-ped” among the people who ride them due to the fact that it starts with a kickstarter and not with pedals the way a motorized bicycle would. Overall, the vehicle is much closer to a motorcycle, with the obvious exception of the engine size. Most motorcyclists would probably scoff at a 50CC engine. That being said, the owners manual for the bike calls it a motorcycle, so maybe I’m just fine using the term despite the potential objections.
Regardless, this isn’t about what I call the thing, this is an argument for a different mode of transportation. Having a car and a all four wheels is great and all, but there is a very different experience you get when you go through your city on two wheels, and it is an experience I think that most people should have. Motorcycle folks will probably understand, but motorcycles might be cost prohibitive due to the initial cost of buying one, the upkeep, or possibly the price of insurance, so this is an argument for the moped.
First, let’s talk cost. This can range wildly for mopeds (the scooter types, being newer, will be more costly), but generally, a good moped can cost anywhere between the low hundreds to the upper thousands, but one can be purchased for, generally, less than a thousand dollars if you go for an older model. For the record, mine is a 1985 Suzuki FA50, pictured at the start of this piece. Of course, there are secondary costs to any vehicle, so maintenance becomes important here as well. Here, the cost splits into two categories: time and parts. Parts are generally inexpensive, but, depending on the work, can get you into the upper hundreds. The time is the fun part. Maintaining a bike on your own takes time and ingenuity. It’s possible to find motorcycle repair places that will do work on a moped as well, but that misses one of the main parts of being a moped owner: the tinkering. Some people hate this kind of a thing. The vehicle should work, and they shouldn’t have to think about it. Those people are small minded (in my opinion). Through tinkering, reading, and learning, it is possible to come to new and interesting understandings of the machine which are not achievable without thinking through problems. Essentially, the moped is an exercise in rational thought and problem solving. It will cost time, but the exercise is worth it. This alone is a good reason to have and own a moped, but there is another thing I want to get at here; a much more ephemeral price of moped ownership: joy.
I’ll leave it to the philosophers and lexicographers to pin down a definition for the term, but there is a certain amount of joy that comes from riding through back roads and side streets on two wheels that I will try to capture here. Part of the experience is environmental. In a car, you’re shielded from the elements. If it’s raining, you are dry; if it’s cold, the heater keeps you warm; if it’s warm, the air conditioner keeps you cool. A car doesn’t give you any kind of direct interaction with your environment. Even rolling down the window to feel the air doesn’t really do much: it just becomes a fourth-wall break in a play– a hint that there is extra context, but not much interaction with it. On a moped, you’re part of the environment. The way you drive and the speeds you can go are dependent, in part, on the climate. Rain, for example, doesn’t prevent you from riding necessarily, but it can make it unpleasant enough that you don’t want to. A cool day in the 40 to 50 degree range is perfect as long as things are dry. These are the kinds of things that are impossible to notice and thus impossible to appreciate in a car.
The environment and getting to know it is part of the enjoyment, but so too is the knowledge of the city or town. Speed is the factor at play here: a moped, without special modifications to the engine, typically can’t go more than around 30 mph. This makes it necessary to keep off of most of the main roads (at least it does here, anyway): the roads that people drive when they are in a hurry to get from point A to point B. Since moped rides miss the main roads and the people that drive them, it’s possible to see an entirely different side of a city. The shops aren’t put up along side streets, and generally people’s places of employment aren’t here either. Along side streets you find neighborhoods, parks, and other people who aren’t in a hurry. All of this is to say that there is a certain mentality that comes with being a point-A-to-point-B-as-fast-as-possible driver, and there is a certain mentality among those who can take their time, wander, and explore. I’ve had people angrily honk when I have to cross or (god forbid) drive on a main road; I’ve never experienced that on a side street. Basically, you see a different mindset in people.
For example, I took my moped to work all summer long because it gets hot and humid here, and walking gets unpleasant very quickly. Each wednesday because of the route I would take and the time I would leave, I would pass an old man walking two small dogs. It was almost ritualistic after a while. He would smile and wave, and I would nod back and since we were both going opposite directions, we would continue on our way. That person-to-person interaction, that so much of society relies upon, isn’t something that happens in a car. On four wheels, all anyone sees is the vehicle: on two, it is impossible not to see the person. Two wheels both humanize and individualize in a way that is increasingly at odds with a social system that, at times, seems intent on homogenizing everything. This, then, is the main joy of moped riding: it both sets you apart as an individual, and it provides for a way of connecting with others if they and you should choose. It’s an experience that is impossible to get on four wheels, and it is an experience that in a society riddled with divisions, groupthink, and demonizing of others, we could probably all use a little more of.