Moped vs. Scooter vs. Motorcycle: Understanding the Differences

January 18, 2019
By Michael Padway

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When you think of a two-wheeled vehicle, the first things that may come to mind is a motorcycle or scooter, or perhaps even a moped. All three are considered great forms of transportation for commuting, or when one simply does not prefer a car. However, have you wondered what the differences are between the three two-wheeled vehicles? Aesthetically, they’re quite different, but what are the fundamental differences that set them apart? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. We’ll delve into the characteristics of mopeds vs. scooters vs. motorcycles to help you make an informed decision on what type of two-wheel transportation will be best for your riding situation.

What is a Scooter?

Commonly seen on the roads in the United States (aside from motorcycles) are scooters, or motor scooters. A scooter is defined as a two-wheeled vehicle with a step-through chassis and footrest platform. They were first developed in the early 1900s and have continued to gain popularity since their debut. The most common brand associated with a scooter is the Vespa, which was developed after World War II in Italy and has since been exported worldwide.

Image Courtesy of Superior Powersports

Scooters are powered by a small engine that provides all of the propulsion, with displacement ranging from 50cc to 250cc. Scooters typically operate on small 10-inch wheels and uses an electrical charging system, which powers the lights and ignition system and replenishes the battery. In comparison to motorcycles, scooters are more maneuverable due to their low speeds and are easier to ride.

Scooters generally have engines ranging between 50cc and 250cc. However, you can find a scooter with an engine up to 850cc in some western markets. With an engine that large, some may think it should be classified as a motorcycle, but the key difference is that scooters have a ‘step-through’ chassis design.

Scooters have a mixture of automatic and manual transmissions, but the automatic or CVT is the leading favorite with newer models due to their ease of use. They’re fuel-efficient, lightweight, and easy to handle, and unlike mopeds, many scooters have large enough engines that are far more capable of daily commutes.

Despite their physical attributes, there aren’t any differences in its legal classification. Scooters abide by the same rules as motorcycles. One must be at least 14 years of age to ride, but some states require a minimum age of 16. People who ride scooters are required to have a motorcycle endorsement to ride on the streets, motorcycle insurance, and proper riding gear including a helmet and eye protection. They obey motorcycle laws and complete similar, if not the same tests at the Department of Motor Vehicles, so be sure to study the motorcycle instruction manual and laws if your state does not have a specific test on scooter riding and ownership.

What is a Moped?

The moped is oftentimes confused with the scooter, as it is not commonly used in the United States. One may think that they are one and the same, or one is slightly larger than the other.

A moped is a bicycle-type vehicle (or two-wheeled vehicle), equipped with pedals and a low-powered engine that provides an economical mode of transportation. The term moped, or motor-pedal, is derived from the bicycle-like pedals that the rider uses to propel the vehicle to start its helper motor. It typically has an engine smaller than 50cc and/or has a maximum speed of 28mph. With such low-speed ability, they should not be ridden on highways, as they are incapable of keeping up with traffic and will put your safety at risk. Keep them to the city or urban streets where they are meant to go.

Image Courtesy of RedFox Powersports

A moped’s engine is designed to assist the rider while pedaling and provide only a portion of the power. Mopeds may be equipped with a basic electrical system, but many can still be ridden with the sole use of the pedals. Some states have included in their laws that mopeds are defined by their engine size while other states have defined them by the maximum speed the vehicle can go.

Most states classify a moped with a 50cc or less engine and a maximum speed of 28-30 miles per hour. Kansas is one of the few states that classifies a moped up to a 130cc engine size, therefore, a motor vehicle that doesn’t utilize pedaling power legally qualifies as a moped as long as it’s small enough or slow enough.

Similarly to legal classifications, every state has different age requirements for riding, the type of protective gear needed to be worn, and the type of license/registration and/or insurance. Most states require a motor vehicle license endorsement, so one must be at least 15 years of age, if not 16. Some states will allow a motorcycle endorsement in place of the motor vehicle endorsement, others will require both, while a limited handful doesn’t require either. When it comes to registration, about half the states require a moped to be registered to be legally ridden on the road. In a similar fashion, about half of the states require insurance as well. Personal protective gear is only required in some states too, however, we strongly recommend riding with the proper protection (ATGATT), whether it’s a state requirement or not but we’ll mention it anyway, mopeds shouldn’t be ridden on highways.

What is a Motorcycle?

Motorcycles date back 100 years to the early 1900s. There are many historic brands out there that have a storied history of how they were developed in small barns and garages. A motorcycle is characterized as a two-wheeled vehicle powered by a motor and contains no pedals. They are designed for higher speeds and are equipped with better acceleration and high speed handling characteristics. Motorcycles are capable of slow urban commutes or highway speeds and beyond. They offer more wind protection than a moped or scooter and generally have some cargo storage available.

Most motorcycles have 250cc or larger engines, deeming them significantly larger than a scooter. Although you can find specific motorbikes with 250cc or smaller engines, such as off-road or Gran Prix motorcycles, the lack of the step-through chassis and the requirement to mount the motorcycle prior to riding characterizes it as a motorcycle vs. a scooter.

Image Courtesy of Yamaha Motorsport

Motorcycles have an engine mounted in the middle of the frame with a gas tank above it. Unlike a scooter, the engine is attached to the frame rather than sitting on the rear suspension. The rider sits astride the engine with the gas tank in front of them. The rider cannot step through the chassis but instead requires one to swing a leg over the chassis to mount the motorcycle. In addition, motorcycle wheels are typically larger (over 16″ in diameter) than those on a scooter.

Unlike scooters, which have a “twist and go” automatic (CVT) transmission (where one doesn’t have a clutch to control nor have to change gears), 99% of motorcycles have a manual clutch that requires the rider shift gears manually (usually conducted with the right leg). This manual clutch requires the motorcycle rider to use their right foot to actuate the rear brakes, while scooter riders are able to use their left hand to apply the rear brake.

What is the Difference Between a Scooter, Moped, and Motorcycle?

Characteristics Scooter Moped Motorcycle
Definition Two-wheeled vehicle with a step-through chassis and footrest platform Two-wheeled vehicle equipped with bicycle-like pedals that the rider uses to propel the vehicle Two-wheeled vehicle designed for higher speeds and are equipped with better acceleration
Engine Size 50cc to 250cc 50cc 250cc or larger
Wheel Size 10” – 16” Varies 16” or larger
Speed Varies by engine size 28mph Varies by engine size
Ability to Ride on Highways? Yes No Yes
Legal Age to Ride 14-16 15-16 16
Motorcycle License Required? Yes Varies by state Yes

Key Takeaways

  • Scooters are two-wheeled vehicles with a step-through chassis and footrest platform. They operate on small 10-inch wheels and uses an electrical charging system with engines ranging between 50cc to 250cc.
  • Mopeds are two-wheeled vehicles equipped with bicycle-like pedals that the rider uses to propel the vehicle to start its helper motor. They have small engines no bigger than 50cc that allows them to go a maximum speed of 28mph. Due to their speed limitations, they cannot be ridden on highways.
  • Motorcycles are two-wheeled vehicles designed for higher speeds and are equipped with better acceleration and high speed handling characteristics. Most motorcycles have 250cc or larger engines, 16” or larger wheels.
  • Scooters are fuel-efficient, lightweight, and easy to handle, deeming them more maneuverable than motorcycles at low-speeds in the streets.
  • 99% of motorcycles have a manual clutch that requires the rider shift gears manually, unlike scooters, which have a “twist and go” automatic (CVT) transmission.

Michael Padway

Michael Padway uses his expertise in personal injury and motorcycle accidents to represent a broad spectrum of clients dealing with life-changing and permanent injuries for the first time. His offices are located at 235 Montgomery St., Ste 668, San Francisco, CA 94104 and at 3140 Chapman St. Oakland, CA 94601. For more information, please call (800) 928-1511.



  1. Robert Eberhart

    I bought a city slicker motorcycle online had to pay the registration got a license plate now the CHP says I can’t write it on a highway now the DMV wants $200 to insure it

  2. Michael Hooper

    I have to say your wrong on the scooters and mopeds. Not all states require a motorcycle license. Montana, Michigan and a few others don’t require a motorcycle license but a moped license with classification under any 50cc

    • Motorcycle Legal Foundation

      Thanks for this, Michael! I will have that page updated as soon as possible. We always appreciate when people spot errors or information that needs updating.

    • johnnyd

      Pennsylvania does not require a M/C license.
      But it does require registration, insurance and a driver’s license.

  3. Rory

    State of Nevada allows mopeds of 50 cc and under and a maximum speed of 30 mph to be operated by any one with a car,motorcycle or cdl. A moped license is available. Mopeds must be registered but do not have to be insured