NEWARK, N.J. — I’ve been on motorcycles maybe three times in my life. They were vivid experiences, so I think I remember them all. First, rural Maine, a long time ago. My friend Doc, who was “going back to the land,” had just rebuilt his Triumph, and I almost ended my life before it had really begun by revving it to max throttle and then starting to let out the clutch. Doc screamed, dived forward and cut the engine. Unlike Duane Allman, Richard Farina and T.E. Lawrence, I survived.

Second, another friend, this one an animal rights attorney who doubled as a biker, took me for a brief but memorable ride on his big BMW. He was in control. It felt safe. But even though I understand the intrinsic environmental benefit of 100-mpg two-wheelers, I’m still hampered by a low comfort level on motorcycles.

So if it wasn’t fear and loathing, it was at least fear and trepidation that took over when I got on a 50-cc scooter at, of all places, Newark’s Liberty International Airport. The bike was a Piaggio Fly 50, one of several brands offered by Italy’s Piaggio Group (including the better-known Vespa.) Yes, I know this is about as unintimidating as bikes get, but still … Vespa and Continental Airlines have just announced a collaboration designed to not only lower the carbon footprint of Continental’s 3,000 employees by getting them on bikes, but also save them roughly $6,000 a year in transportation costs.

The first order of business was getting the Continental folks comfortable riding motorcycles, and so Vespa set up a cone course at the airport and we all got to scoot around. Here's what it looked like: Not exactly the Hell's Angels, I know:

My instructor was the affable Michael Lee, who doubles as Piaggio’s accessories maven. “Think of it as a heavy bicycle,” Lee told me. “Take it easy — bad things happen fast. Lean into the corners. Think ahead and look ahead.”

I felt like an 8-year-old learning how to ride a bicycle. With the engine off, Lee pushed me around the course, getting me used to steering and staying up. These 50-cc bikes are simplicity itself, with a fuel-efficient continuously variable automatic transmission and only an accelerator and brakes to worry about. The Fly 50, weighing 220 pounds, has only one cylinder.

 

With an encouraging “Go!” Lee pushed me off and I made my wobbly way through the cones. I didn’t fall down, and I didn’t hit anything. By the third time around, I was confident and imagining a two-wheeled commute. The Piaggio Fly 50, one of a small fleet of 50-cc Vespa scooters, is $2,000.

The economy is turning people to motorbikes. While automakers are suffering, Vespa Brand Manager Kevin Andrews told me that the brand enjoyed sales of 20,000 last year, a 60 percent jump from 2007. According to a Piaggio-commissioned survey, if 20 percent of the vehicles in midtown Manhatan were scooters, it would:

  • Cut carbon dioxide emissions by 26,000 tons annually;
  • Reduce traffic delays by 4.6 million hours per year;
  • Avoid 2.5 million gallons in fuel consumption;
  • Save the city $122 million in fuel and labor productivity.
  • Cure cancer.
I made up the last one. But scooters do make sense for local commuting, and get better mileage than hybrids or Smart cars.

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