Rising gas prices last year motivated Brenda Alvarez to switch from four wheels to two for her commute to Melville; she left her sport utility vehicle home and drove to and from work on a scooter.
It cost her about $6 a week, compared with about $50 for the SUV, she said. "The reason I got into it was because of the gas -- and because it's fun," said Alvarez, 44, a medical biller from East Meadow.
As gasoline prices topped $4 a gallon, she had plenty of company; sales of scooters and small motorcycles soared for a time last year. They both typically get 60 to 80 miles per gallon, while larger motorcycles average 30 to 70 mpg, said the Motorcycle Industry Council, a trade group.
But this year with lower gas prices, motorcycle sales have resumed the decline that began in 2007, after 14 years of steady growth. Sales had peaked at almost 1.2 million machines nationwide in 2006 but fell by 5.5 percent in '07 and by 3.3 percent last year. So far in 2009, sales have fallen by another 30.5 percent, according to the council, which is based in California.
The industry and experts who follow it blame tighter credit and nervous consumers watching their homes and retirement funds dwindle in value while unemployment increases.
Local dealers said a rainy spring has been a negative for them, particularly for the smaller and medium-size machines that new motorcyclists typically buy.
"In April we were off to a very strong start," said Steve Dutchman, co-owner of Champion Honda in Hicksville. "Then we got hit with two weeks of rain, and that put the fire out."
Manufacturers have responded with rebates, low-interest loans and other tactics to stimulate sales, but, as in the auto business, lenders are pickier about approving loans.
"We have plenty of financing available," said Phil Zegarek, owner of Yamaha Suzuki Can-Am Victory of Mineola, a dealership his father founded 44 years ago. "It's not a problem, but you need good credit."
The state Department of Motor Vehicles said Suffolk has more registered motorcycles than any other county in New York State -- more than 32,400 last year, up 54 percent from 2000 figures. Nassau had almost 18,000, about 44 percent more than it did eight years earlier.
"Our business is doing very well," said Diane Ortiz, president of the Big Apple Motorcycle School in Hicksville, where Alvarez is taking lessons.
At DJB Associates Llc, a California-based consulting firm to the motorcycle industry, president Don Brown said he doesn't see a significant recovery nationally for six more months.
"We ought to see it bottom out at the end of this year and recover next year," he said.
In the interim, many dealers are struggling, and some are turning to rentals to keep going, said Gaylen Brotherson, a motorcycle dealer in Scottsdale, Ariz., and chief executive of the 800-member National Motorcycle Dealers Association.
"That's getting to be a fairly good-size business," said Brotherson, who estimates that about 16,000 companies nationwide are involved in the manufacturing and retailing of motorcycles, parts and accessories, including clothing.
The business had its best year in 1973, when Americans bought more than 1.5 million bikes. Sales cooled in the 1980s and early 1990s, then began climbing again.
Zegarek said he's seen an increase this year in sales of his more expensive Victory motorcycles, which are American-made, can cost more than $23,000 and compete with Harley-Davidson.
Harley, which is based in Milwaukee and is the only large American motorcycle maker, said in April that its revenue and profits fell in the first quarter from a year ago and that worldwide retail sales of motorcycles fell by 12 percent.
But if they're delaying purchases of cycles, many consumers are at least thinking about them, said Lenny Sims, vice president for operations of NADA Guides.com, a vehicle price Web site operated by the National Automobile Dealers Association.
The site averages between 750,000 and 1 million price inquiries a month, and Sims said requests so far this year for price information on used motorcycles are up by 11.8 percent from a year ago, while those for new machines are down by 4 percent.
Alvarez said she's planning to upgrade to a new and larger machine - a Harley-Davidson - as soon as she completes the course at Big Apple and gets her motorcycle license. A $9,500 Sportster awaits her at a dealership in Bellmore.
"I enjoy it," she said of two-wheel travel. "It's a lot of fun."