Wednesday, September 15, 2010


See this is the kind of post where I wish I had real statistics I could use instead of my own half-assed observations, anecdotes, and pseudo-statistics.  Terre Haute seems to me to have a lot more mopeds than any other city I've been in (or scooters or Deweys or whatever you want to call them, the little 49cc engine things that aren't really motorcycles).  There are a lot of potential reasons for this, including the fact that moped sales have skyrocketed nation-wide in the last few years, I think every town has more mopeds than it did 5 years ago.  Still, I persist in believing on no good statistical evidence beyond the truthy feeling in my gut, that Terre Haute has more mopeds than average for a town its size today, and I'm proud of that.

I bought my first moped within a few months of moving to town, and I loved it.  It was cheap, fun to ride in 3 seasons, and got great gas mileage.  It was an environmentally friendly commuter vehicle, and I could feel smug while looking ridiculous (as they were rare and kinda funny looking at the time, ooh wait I have a picture of me looking extra ridiculous on a moped somewhere ...). 

I am by nature a complete contrarian, but also mild-mannered, I'd have worn a "born to be mild" jacket while mopedding if I could have found one.  The main downside to my moped was driving in the winter which is extremely cold and unpleasant, and you need to bundle up a lot.  But although I am a total wimp, the one bit of machismo I DO have is left over from Boy Scouts, I can take it.  That first year or two I was almost the only moped on the road, and I got plenty of funny looks.  But I also got people rolling down their windows at stops and asking me what kind of gas mileage I got.  80-90 miles to the gallon, I'd say proudly.  I learned, maybe a year into driving a moped, that the local slang for them was "Deweys" because legend has it the only people who ride them have lost their license to DUIs.  But right from the very first, the attitude I got from others was a mix of derision and scratching one's chin to think about the possibilities ...

Well I never lost my license, and I suspect that there are plenty more Hautians riding mopeds these days even though they have licenses.  I've watched the number of mopeds on the road in Terre Haute shoot up over the past 5 years, and I've watched the city's attitude towards moped-drivers shift a lot.  For the first time this year, there are two people who use moped to pick-up and drop off their kids from our elementary school.  I saw someone else besides me on a moped in the dead of winter last winter.  I was still the only one who drove a moped to Terre Haute South High School last winter/spring (when I was student teaching there), but I bet there will be a few others by this year.  I got trained last spring and did an informal count of vehicles stuck there and estimated that in good weather Terre Haute is probably around 5% bikes, 5% mopeds, 5% motorcycles, 80-90% cars.

My guess is that the real reason Terre Haute is embracing mopeds is poverty.  A moped is a cheap even compared with most used cars.  If you just need something to get around, to get to work, to run errands in, a moped is an ideal solution.  Especially if you have a car, and need a second family vehicle, a moped is practical and cheap.  About the only things I can't do on my moped, are the weekly family grocery shopping (not quite enough cargo hauling), traveling the highways (illegal and low top speed), carting around the kids, and shopping at Circuit City (before it closed). 

So why be proud of mopeds?  Aren't they just a sign of poverty and perhaps drinking problems?  Well, they really are vastly better than cars on the moral and environmental fronts.  They use less gas, have lower emissions, take fewer resources to build and maintain.  Real motorcycles are famously more dangerous than cars (at least to their riders), but mopeds are actually safer than cars both to their riders and others, because they travel at slower speeds, and have so much less mass.  Mopeds have been a great boon to Europe, but the US has just never been able to shake its love affair/co-dependent relationship with cars, no matter how many people they kill, and how much damage they do, and how much tax money gets sucked into roads.  Mopeds are not as good as bicycles or buses on any of these fronts, but they are much better than cars.  It may be poverty that drives people to buy and use mopeds, but even that is Hautians being a little creative in their solutions to their daily problems, being willing to look a little goofy because it works.  As I have gotten deeper and deeper into environmentalism it is a constant amazement to me how often the most environmental solution is also the solution of impoverished folks trying to cope.  Not always, but surprisingly often.  And this is one of those cases.  Dealing with the shifting realities of America's economics and energy situation is going to require a lot of change, a lot of flexibility, a lot of adaptation.  And this is one case where it sure looks to me like Terre Haute is out in front of the learning curve, leading the way towards a future where many different kinds of vehicles are all part of our transportation system instead of just relying on cars for practically everything.  Terre Haute's willingness to slowly embrace mopeds as a transportation solution is

Just one more reason I'm proud of Terre Haute.

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