Five suggestions on how to make American motorcycling great again

Every other week or so, I spot yet another article lamenting that motorcycling is doomed. Fewer people are riding. Riders are getting older. The self-driving cars are taking away our precious bodily fluids. The Millennials are doing nothing to stop it. And so on and so on.

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Increasingly, I view these articles with skepticism. Firstly, it seems the thing that’s in trouble is the moto-journalism industry, rather than motorcycling itself. Secondly, motorcyclists are sometimes a conservative-minded lot—be that politically, socially, or just personally—which means they are prone to working themselves into regressive panics. Thirdly, there’s evidence to suggest these lamentations are incorrect—people may not be buying new bikes in as great of numbers, but sales of used machines are actually quite strong.

The used market offers a lot of great choices

Additionally, most, if not all, of the stories I read come from US-based sources, which suggests that if there is a problem it is—by and large—an American one.

US motorcycling culture is notably different to the cultures I see in Europe and which appear to exist in other parts of the world, so I’m inclined to believe that if American riders want to see things improve certain changes will need to be made in their moto culture. In fairness, some of those changes are and have been taking place. Motorcycling feels a lot less monochromatic than it did when I was 18. There is still a fair amount of posturing, but more and more you don’t have to dress a certain way or behave a certain way to ride a motorcycle. In truth, you never had to do those things, but it sure felt like it.

Late last year RideApart reported on the Give a Shift discussion group’s suggestions for the industry but many were vague or difficult to action—i.e., improving the desirability of motorcycles. How are you supposed to do that? Well, I’ve got a five suggestions, most of which come from looking at what the Europeans have done right.

1) Allow Filtering

Here’s something that’s really dumb: lane splitting is officially only officially allowed in one US state—California. Depending on any number of variables, I’ve seen and experienced it being tolerated in quite a few other places (in Houston, for example, drivers don’t even blink at it—though, this is probably because they are too busy staring at their phones to notice), but it’s silly that the riding technique is technically outlawed in many places. Especially considering the fact it is often the people arguing for the freedom to ride sans helmet who are opposed to the freedom of lane splitting.

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If you’ve ridden a motorcycle for more than a week you will already know or can guess the benefits of lane splitting, so I won’t bother to rehash the argument here. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a very good idea that will help open people’s minds to the benefits of riding. You don’t need to sit in traffic too long with bikes slipping past before you think: “Wait a second. I may be doing this wrong; I should be with those guys.

Most of the opposition to lane splitting that I’ve seen seems to be rooted in an individual rider’s fear of not being able to do it safely. As such, it’s important to remember that—like motorcycling itself—you don’t have to do it. But the mere fact you’re not good at something is not reason for it to be outlawed, else I’d be calling for a ban on dancing and crochet.

I’ll admit, though, that of all my suggestions this is the most difficult to enact because it requires legislative action and the consent of people who do not ride. To that end, it may be a good idea to consider a rebranding exercise. Instead of “lane splitting” call it “filtering”—the term used in the United Kingdom.

“Filtering” sounds less adversarial. In fact, it sounds kind of boring. Better yet, call it something like “Last in Line.” That term makes no sense but you can bet motorists would have no trouble supporting motorcyclists’ efforts to be “last in line.”

2) Develop Free/Discounted Parking and Designated Parking

People will definitely be up for riding more if they have a place to park once they get wherever they’re going. I always feel silly taking up a whole parking space with a bike, so I appreciate the fact that most parking lots in Europe have a designated bike area.

More often than not, these bike areas are a clever use of what would otherwise be wasted space—the area around a pillar, for example, or in an awkward corner where a car would not actually fit. Good parking areas, like the bike parking at Heathrow airport, have ground anchor points to which a rider can attach a security chain. Really good parking areas, like the one at Bristol’s Cabot Circus Shopping Centre, also offer lockers for helmets.

Such accommodations make sense from a business point of view because motorcyclists are known to spend a lot of money. That’s certainly something the folks in a biking destination town like Daytona Beach are aware of; Daytona Bike Week draws more money than any of the other major events the city hosts, including the Daytona 500 and spring break.

This is why designated bike parking is quite often free in Europe—especially in town and city centers, where the space needed for two cars to parallel park can be used to welcome in excess of a dozen motorcyclists. Collectively, they will be spending a hell of a lot more than the occupants of those two theoretical cars.

Side story: most seaside towns in Britain offer designated space for motorcycles that is right next to the main promenade. More often than not, it’s free; the most I’ve ever been charged was £1. As a result, you’ll see dozens of motorcyclists sitting around eating ice cream and unintentionally serving as an attraction for other beach-going visitors. Families walk along the rows of bikes, checking them out and chatting with the ice-cream-supping bikers. It’s a fantastic sight.

You'll find all kinds on the British seaside.

3) Build Moto-Specific Toll Booths

Controversially, and perhaps self-detrimentally, I don’t really have a problem with the idea of toll roads. I know a lot of people hate them—and certainly I don’t enjoy spending money on things that aren’t motorcycles, ice cream, or beer—but philosophically I don’t have a problem with road users paying for the roads they use. And it’s a simple reality that the US East Coast in particular has a lot of toll roads.

The reasons roads have tolls, of course, is to pay for their upkeep. Motorcycles—even big ol’ full dresser Harleys and Indians—weigh considerably less than cars, which means they place less of a strain on the road surface. Less strain means less frequent upkeep, which means less money spent. As such, toll road users should be encouraged to travel by motorcycle.

One of the ways to do this is to eliminate or reduce fares for two-wheeled vehicles. If the second option is chosen, bike-specific toll booths should be developed, which have pull-out spaces just beyond the gates to allow a rider to “reassemble” him- or herself before continuing on. I’ve noticed such spaces tend to exist at Italian and French toll areas, though not by design (ie, they’re not specifically for motorcyclists).

Note that the area to pay cash on an Italian motorway is far off to the right. I always choose these lanes because there is a pull out space just beyond the toll gate where I can take my time to put all my gear in order before carrying on.

If you’ve ever ridden through a toll booth on a bike, you’ll know the challenge of having to remove gloves, dig into a pocket, fish out your wallet, pay, then throw your wallet back into its pocket, secure said pocket, and put your gloves on—all in a space of time short enough to avoid having the car behind you creep too close or start honking.

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It’s a challenge Aerostich founder Andy Goldfine was thinking about when he placed a large pocket on the right sleeve of his Roadcrafter one-piece riding suit—a place to keep easily accessible cash or credit cards. But I personally find it impossible to dig around in pockets while wearing gloves. So, I’ve always been thankful for those pull-outs when riding in Italy. I’m able to roll up, stuff my gloves into a space between fairing and screen, dig out my wallet, pay the toll, and hold the wallet in my teeth (yet another benefit to wearing a flip-front helmet) as I scoot through the gate and over to the side of the road—where I’m then able to put myself back together calmly and without holding up traffic.

A motorcycle-specific toll booth would incorporate such a space, as well as placing windows/ticket machines at heights that better facilitate riders.

4) Design a Better Basic Rider Course

Any time one of my friends in the US expresses an even passing interest in riding I direct them to the Motorcycle Safety Foundation website and encourage them to take the oddly named Basic RiderCourse (the way that’s written drips of someone who is patently unhip trying to be down with the kids). Harley-Davidson’s Riding Academy offers an almost identical course. The problem with these basic courses, however, is that they are too basic.

The class sizes are too large and riders don’t ever leave the safety of a parking lot or designated training area. Since these courses are all that are necessary for a person to get his or her license in most states, they are the only courses most riders will ever take. As such, they need to be more comprehensive and focused on developing motorcyclists who can actually ride on public roads.

In the United Kingdom, a person earning his or her Compulsory Basic Training certificate (effectively a provisional motorcycling license) will have to spend some time on the road with an instructor who remains in contact via helmet-to-helmet radio. The law establishes a maximum number of riders that a UK instructor can be working with at a given time (I think that number is three, though most instructors prefer to limit themselves to two). Across the pond, most of the MSF courses I see appear to have very large numbers of students. That was the case when I took my basic rider course in a Minnesota parking lot many, many moons ago—there were about 15 of us and one instructor.

The downsides to such a situation are clear. Everyone learns at a different rate and comes to a riding course with different levels of experience and confidence. The larger the group, the less individual needs are going to be met. Additionally, it’s a situation that results in a whole lot of sitting around, watching other people do things. You don’t really learn how to ride a bike by watching another person wobble through cones, let alone two dozen other people.

Not to mention the fact it’s not good value for money. Basic rider courses can be expensive—up to $350 in some places (though, in most spots it’s closer to $180). Typically the courses consist of 14.5 hours spread across two days, with 10 of those hours being “on-cycle” training. If a student spends two of those 10 hours actually just sitting in line in the hot sun, waiting to perform this or that maneuver, it’s a waste of time and money, and he or she is unlikely to recommend the experience to a friend.

Also related to basic rider courses, I’d like to see course operators working more closely with insurance companies to ensure discounts for people who successfully complete the program, and especially for those who go on to take intermediate-, advanced-, and expert-level courses.

5) Institute Tiered Licensing

If you’re an old-man rightwing motorcyclist, there’s your trigger phrase. You may need to go find a safe space.

I understand why people don’t like the idea of European-style tiered licensing. It’s byzantine, expensive, and an all-round pain in the ass. But it also demonstrably produces riders who are base-level better than their American counterparts. Yes, it’s easy to find exceptions—Yankee riders who are amazing and European riders who are piss poor—but I’m speaking in broad generalities here. It’s simply a reality that the presence of additional hurdles tend to result in higher quality.

Harley-Davidson Street 500.

I’d like to see the United States adopt a simple two-tier system built on engine capacity. At Tier 1, the tier achieved by earning one’s license via a basic rider course, a rider would not be allowed to ride a bike with a capacity greater than 500cc. My gut feeling is that it should actually be 400cc, but I’m saying 500 because Harley already has a vehicle that can meet that requirement (Street 500) and I feel any plan that completely prohibits Americans from buying Harleys would be doomed to fail.

After three years, the license automatically moves to the second tier—full license status. However, folks not wanting to wait three years to get their Street Glide could earn full license status upon the completion of the intermediate and advanced courses I mentioned before. Using the state of Minnesota as an example, that would mean spending just two more days and $130 more ($55 for the intermediate course, $75 for the advanced), which I don’t feel is an outrageous expectation.

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