A Fogged Mirror

An entertaining and recent L.A. Times article about motorcycling demographics, “California biker profile? Old, married, and moneyed,” does two things: 1) it accurately portrays who motorcyclists are, not just in California, but across the country and 2) it accidentally demonstrates how clueless the industry “experts” are about motorcyclists and the future of the vehicle they make their living selling.

Seven years ago, I was so convinced that the US economy was brain-dead and delusional that I gave up trying to find a way to short the whole country and yanked my money from stocks and mutual funds and dumped it all into a spread of CDs and a couple of Canadian stocks. I didn’t get rich, but I didn’t go broke either. I should have had more confidence in the traditional economic recovery that follows an economic crash and the election of a Democratic President, but I figured the country hadn’t crashed far enough and expected something like the mid-term election disaster and a quick return to Republican borrow-and-spend tactics. Still, a smarter guy would have bet on Ford, Microsoft, Medtronic, and a couple other real companies that tanked like the fake ones but rebounded fast and hard. That braindead and delusional attitude, sometimes called “optimistic,” is a constant in the motorcycle press and industry.

For example, “1.7 million Californians currently hold licenses to operate motorcycles. But there are only 847,937 motorycles [sic] currently registered in the state” encourages an industry goofball to say, “That’s great! That means people want to ride, if we just make more motorcycles they want to own.” The other possibility, and a more likely scenario, would be that half of the people still alive who have tried motorcycling found it to be too dangerous or impractical to continue. They knocked getting a license (maybe) and a bike (less likely) off of their bucket list and have moved on to their next Big Thing.

And I love this “analysis,” “Even without allowing for the fact that a lot of motorcyclists own more than one motorcycle, that means more than half the people licensed to ride motorcycles in California may not be riding at all.” First, most of us who own motorcycles own at least a couple of them. Second, 847,937 is easily half of 1.7 million and it would be reasonable to assume that way more than half of the registered motorcycles belong to people who have more than one bike. I would bet that most states would be similar in this regard. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that 250,000 riders own those 847k bikes (3.4 bikes/rider average). If that were true, about 14% of the licensed riders own motorcycles. It is absolutely true that well under that measly 250k are on the road out of 24M licensed California drivers (for an unlikely max of 1% of California’s contribution to traffic) are on the road on any given weekday.

An optimist would argue that this all gives motorcycling lots of room to “grow.” A realist might argue that motorcycles have been on the road longer than cars and the room for future expansion is slipping away fast. A pessimist would argue that US motorcycle demographics are aging about 2-3 years for every 5, the number of actual riders is vanishing and too many of those who do ride are accurately classified as either “hooligans” or “criminals.” I think there is a lot of work to be done if motorcycling is going to have a future in the US. So far, I don’t see the slightest indication that the motorcycle industry, in all of it’s parts, realizes there is a shit storm on the horizon and we’re going to be in the middle of it. From public relations to overrepresentation in injury and fatality statistics to a changing population, on-road motorcycling in the 1st world is at risk.

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