'Green' Cars Have Nothing on These Commuters

BOSTON ( TheStreet) -- If squeezing into a train or sitting in traffic during rush hour is wearing thin, consider commuting on fewer wheels.

Gas prices are rising, up 11 cents a gallon from a year ago and $1.10 from December 2008. So even "green" cars, such as the Toyota ( TM) Prius or the upcoming Chevrolet Volt, are still costly -- even without accounting for their premium purchase prices. As a result, motorcycles, scooters and bicycles are looking like bargains of the century.

The number of registered motorcycles and scooters in the U.S. jumped from 3.8 million in 1997 to 7.1 million three years ago, with annual sales revving up from 260,000 to 885,000 in the same period, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Meanwhile, the National Bicycle Dealers Association says the U.S. adult cycle industry took in $5.6 billion last year with 10.2 million bikes sold.

That recession-depressed total is down from a peak of $6.1 billion from 14 million bikes sold in 2005, but contributed to the 38.1 million Americans who rode a bike six times or more in 2009, according to the National Sporting Goods Association. With the National Bicycle Dealers Association finding that 10% of those riders are commuters, bicycle-buying patterns have shifted as well, with the commuter-favored hybrid/cross bike rising from 15% of the bicycle market in 2006 to 20% last year.

If you'd like to acknowledge the Tour de France by playing Lance Armstrong during your commute or turn your daily trip into a Roman holiday or summer in Sturgis, S.D., on a scooter or motorcycle, here are nine ways to get started:

Bicycles

Trek Alliant: A standard seven-speed with a standard rear rack or front basket and a chain guard so your pants don't get chewed, the Alliant is a workday workhorse. The $539 Alliant lacks the internal gears, carbon-drive belt (bye-bye, chain) and rubber top-tube side bumpers of its upscale stablemate -- the $1,149 Soho commuter bike -- but its lightweight frame and matching full fenders in the front and rear will keep both the sweat and the slush off your back during rush hour.

The Gary Fisher Transport: This long-tailed bike was built specifically for the commuter who loves his or her bike, but misses having a trunk for those grocery trips on the way home. This lightweight aluminum eight-speed comes with front and rear fenders, a front rack and a double-long rear rack with a cargo bag. At $599, the base model is a bargain, but commuters bringing home more than just the bacon can also consider the Transport+, which features a 350-watt engine to help with heavier loads and longer hauls.

Surly Cross-Check: Among the costlier commuter bikes out there with a $1,050 starting price, the Surly Cross-Check is by far the most versatile. It has a steel frame like the bikes of a Baby Boomer's childhood, with forgiving "Fatties Fit Fine" fork and wheel stays that accommodate both skinny road tires and thick, knobby mountain treads and hubs, with plenty of room left over for mud and fenders. Also, the semi-horizontal dropouts in back (the slide-y things the hubs rest on) allow it to run as a multispeed, single-speed or fixed-gear bike. There's no need to sentence a perfectly good mountain and off-road frame to life as a commuter bike.

Scooters:

Vespa LX 50 and 150: When Americans think of a European scooter, they think of Piaggio's Vespa. With the sound of their little engines rebounding through Rome like vehicular vuvuzelas for the past 64 years, the Vespa line buzzed back to the United States early last decade and made itself comfortable. It's easy to see why, as the underpowered LV 50 may top out at 35 mph, but boasts a $3,299 price tag and fuel economy of 95 to 100 mpg. Even its brawnier sibling, the $4,499 LX 150, manages 70 to 75 mpg as it hits highway speeds up to 59 mph. The one drawback: good luck storing anything larger than your helmet.

The Honda Elite and Ruckus: It may not be as sexy as the Vespa, but with a $2,999 price tag, 108cc engine with a top speed of a little more than 50 mph and fuel economy of 107 mpg, the Honda ( HMC) Elite gets the job done. Sure, it comes only in red and black and holds just 1.6 gallons of fuel, but it has ample under-seat storage, a glove box and an electric starter. You want to turn heads? Try riding the ugly bug that is the Ruckus, with its thick tires, skeletal black-and-orange frame and stingy 49cc engine. For $500 less than the Elite, you'll still get fuel economy of 95 to 105 mpg, but you'll have to put on the hazard lights if you're topping out at only 43 mph on the highway.

Kymco People 150: There is a reason the sought-after Piaggio Fly 150 wasn't included in this list, and that reason is the Kymco People 150. For $2,799, or $100 less than the vaunted Piaggio, China's Kymco provides greater fuel economy (85 to 90 mpg vs. 70 to 75 for the Piaggio), higher top speed (65 mph vs. 61 mph) and longer warranty (24 months to 12 months). The under-seat storage is roughly the same, but when you're spending less time getting to work and shorter dollars in the process, why quibble about where you're putting your helmet?

Motorcycles

Kawasaki Ninja 250: Before we continue, let's just address the obvious -- there's a lot of cultural stigma attached to this motorcycle. A certain generation of Americans still bemoans the re- emergence of "ninja bikes" each summer and considers owning one about as good an idea as watching a movie starring Vanilla Ice. (In fairness, Mr. Ice's bike in Cool as Ice was a Suzuki GSX-R, one of myriad garish racing bikes of the era.) That said, you know the Ninja's come a long way when Consumer Reports gives it the nod for quality. The latest model's 249cc engine can still crank it up to more than 90 mph and looks more suited for a boulevard by the boardwalk than a parking lot seen from the boardroom, but a $4,000 price tag and more than 70 miles to the gallon could convince even the most conservative corporate fixtures to exchange their briefcases and messenger bags for a backpack this season.

Honda Rebel: There's a market of potential motorcycle owners out there whose purchase decision is based on one fundamental truth: Fonzie never rode a crotch rocket. Those who refuse to shell out for a Triumph -- Henry Winkler's character's ride of choice on Happy Days -- can seek refuge in the classic look and upright comfort of the 234cc Rebel cruiser. For $2,399, novice riders get an easy-shifting five-speed transmission, a seat low enough to allow most riders to put their feet on the ground during stops and roughly 65 mpg to make for a top speed of only 70 mph. As the bike used in the Motorcycle Safety Foundation's rider-certification courses, the Rebel's exterior is biker vintage even if its specs are those of commuter training wheels.

Suzuki V-Strom 650: At $7,500, the V-Strom 650 is far costlier than a bicycle or scooter and really close to small-car territory. Its versatility, size and fuel economy make it well worth the price -- and a greater value than similarly priced bikes. An extended seating area provides adequate cargo space, which comes at a premium on most bikes its size, while its 651cc engine gets a surprising 51 mpg. When its rider clocks out, however, tight handling and a top speed of 125 mph make the V-Strom as adept at play as it is at getting to and from work.

-- Reported by Jason Notte in Boston.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet.com. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, The Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent.