(Photo:  Chris Sequeira)

Steven Radt, the owner of the Ducati Motorcycles flagship in SoHo, was initially worried for his business once Governor Cuomo ordered a statewide pause in mid-March. But Radt quickly adapted to an at-home delivery system, and the result was Ducati’s “best April yet,” he said. He sold 29 bikes, compared to 22 last April.

Sean R., who owns Brooklyn Mayd motorcycle shop, says that his store sold 80 percent of its inventory between the months of March and May while doing appointment-only sales, an impressive increase from around 40 percent at this time last year. 

“Nobody wants to travel in public transportation, nobody wants to travel in a car, everybody wants to be free and ready to go,” he says. “So scooter sales and motorcycle sales have gone through the roof because people want to be on their own and it’s the perfect social distancing on two wheels.”

With the coronavirus crisis causing an aversion toward public transportation, motorcycle shops are successfully recruiting new riders as businesses and workplaces slowly start opening back up. But New York’s motorcyclists complain that the city isn’t doing enough to encourage ridership, even though it could decrease congestion and help social distancing during commutes. In fact, some complain that an otherwise enjoyable activity has become a panic-inducing nightmare. 

The motorcycle industry took a massive hit during the financial crisis of 2008 and remained relatively stagnant after a slight recovery in 2012. Generally speaking, motorcycles are considered luxury items, and less and less young people have been willing or able to spend a large sum of money buying them. With the coronavirus pandemic still underway, the global industry is expected to lose over 12 million sales worldwide. But in New York, motorcycle brands have reported an uptick in sales, as have scooter shops.

Vespa Brooklyn owner Andrew Hadjiminas notes that sales and web traffic rose by 25 percent and 45 percent, respectively, compared to this time last year. At a time when many people are looking for transportation alternatives, he says that there has been interest from both existing customers and new riders who are looking for a way – and a highly enjoyable one at that – to get back to work in the near future. 

(Photo: Andrew Hadjiminas)

“They’re starting to realize it’s a lot more fun,” says Hadjiminas. “When was the last time you got up in the morning to go get on the subway to go to work and were like, ‘This subway ride is gonna be awesome’? No one ever says that. But you get on your Vespa, you’re like, ‘Oh man, it’s a beautiful morning, this is gonna be an enjoyable ride to work.’”

Hadjiminas says he is considering maintaining the appointment-only model adopted during the pandemic for future sales, especially for newbies who appreciate the one-on-one attention. 

Bryan Grimes, the marketing manager for Triumph Motorcycles in Brooklyn, agrees that the one-on-one model makes bike shopping “a little more of a controlled experience.” Triumph does contact-less delivery as well as curbside pickup in order to heavily limit foot traffic within the store.

Grimes credits the escapist factor of riding a motorcycle as one major reason for the increased interest at the store. With the city’s collective trauma during a tumultuous time, it feels as though motorcycling can be the ideal way to clear one’s mind as long as he or she rides responsibly. 

On the other hand, Darrin Gitlitz, the general manager for New York Honda/Yamaha, believes it was pent-up demand, and not necessarily the virus, that led to his best May in 17 years. “The reality is, April and May are the two best months of the year, so everyone who wanted to buy a bike the last week of March, all of April, and all of May, all they had to do was come in May.”

Whatever the reason people are scrambling to buy motorcycles, the riding community agrees that these bikes can have a tremendously positive influence on New York City’s traffic: they reduce congestion on busy streets, can be parked virtually anywhere, and are a socially distant alternative for those who need to travel long distances but can’t handle having a car in the city. Plus, with the decline of new riders seen in previous years, this could be an appropriate push for people who have wanted to ride a motorcycle for some time and simply needed an excuse to do so. So, what’s the problem? 

According to several motorcyclists around the city, many NYPD-enforced policies are creating a non-conducive environment for motorcyclists across the city, and the lack of motorcycle-only parking only exacerbates the stigma against riding a motorcycle in New York.

Cheryl Stewart is a sculptor and freelance scenic artist living in Red Hook, which she describes as a “transportation desert” in New York. She has found a motorcycle useful for her job, which requires her to move around in highly industrial areas of the city where movies are shot while also carrying tools and supplies. An avid rider, Stewart, 57, is a founding member of the Sirens, the oldest and largest women’s motorcycle club famous for leading the New York City Pride March every year since 1986 (unfortunately, they will not be doing it this year due to obvious safety concerns). She is also a co-founder of the New York Motorcycle & Scooter Task Force, a volunteer-based organization that advocates for riders across the state. 

Cheryl Stewart at Pride

Stewart believes the motorcycle-only checkpoints located across New York State, where police stop motorcycles and scooters and sometimes ticket riders for equipment violations, create unnecessary traffic and stigmatize ridership.

“The thing is, that time is worth a great deal of money in New York and people can’t leave work to go fight that ticket. It’s a low-dollar ticket and their time is worth so much more,” Stewart says, “and then the police have all this data that they’ve invented to support their reasoning for the stops.”

“One problem the city is dealing with is the groups of illegal dirt bike and ATV riders moving through the city. However, the motorcycle-only checkpoints do nothing to address the problem,” says Eric Ramirez, a Bronx-based forensic biologist who uses his motorcycle as his primary transportation method. “The NYPD has a ‘no chase’ policy, meaning these dirt bikes ride right through the checkpoints while the vast majority of stopped riders are fully legal.”

Ramirez, 33, started riding his motorcycle regularly about two years ago. Since he had to continue working during the early stages of the pandemic, he described the lack of traffic as “surreal,” especially since it took him a third of the time to arrive at his office. But as traffic started to pick back up in April, congestion and erratic driving once again became an issue.

“Congestion has been increasing in the city over the years [and] it will only get worse as people avoid public transit,” he says. “I think the city has a unique opportunity to make a drastic change to how people move. We’ve already seen commitments to build bike lanes, a commitment to implement congestion pricing, Revel scooters greatly expanding its service area. I would love to see the city double down on getting people out of cars.”

(Courtesy of Maria Musei)

Getting more people out of cars and onto two-wheelers requires accommodations that New York City seems slow to accept. Motorcycles may not be exempt from the congestion pricing plan in New York City beginning in 2021, further dissuading riders from becoming a solution to the problem.

“I routinely take a route home that adds a few minutes and about a mile, simply to avoid a $3 toll,” says Ramirez, adding that London, Stockholm, and Milan have all built exemptions for two wheeled vehicles into their congestion pricing systems.

Although parking for motorcycles is a great incentive for new riders since the vehicle can squeeze into a fairly small space, the lack of motorcycle-only parking within the five boroughs is particularly discouraging for motorcyclists who not only look to save time, but also hope to keep their bikes in good condition. The only legal way to park a motorcycle in New York City at the moment is on the street, which can cause major damage to the bike as a result of reckless car parking and inattentive drivers. 

Stewart, along with the New York Motorcycle & Scooter Task Force, is currently advocating for end-of-block motorcycle-only parking to create “daylighting” visibility that will allow automobiles to see pedestrians and cyclists at a crosswalk. 

Chris Sequeira, an aviation consultant in Queens, says he has traveled to several major cities around the world, from Rome to London to Buenos Aires, which implement motorcycle-only parking on their streets and make it easier for people who ride to have access to parking spaces. It’s a very different story for New York City.

“The fact that lane splitting and lane filtering are not legal, I’m sitting in traffic with cars even though I’m much smaller than them. Then I have to find a parking spot because there’s no motorcycle parking,” says Sequeira. “The subway was actually faster.”