As hard as it is to believe, motorcycles like this one generate more pollution per mile than the largest SUVs on the road.

Motorcycles: Green or Obscene?

Contributing correspondent thinks twice about buying a motorcycle.

By Patrick Justus

Last month I nearly bought a motorcycle. My motive was not the usual mid-life identity crisis. Although I qualify chronologically for that popular personality disorder, my reason for shopping for two wheels instead of four was idealistic rather than psychological. I simply wanted the most environmentally friendly means of transportation for my daily commute. It never occurred to me that a motorcycle might be far more polluting than the worst SUV!

Before I provide the shocking emission statistics, permit me to share the story of my quest for a green vehicle. The story of my search might be the journey of Everyman who longs for a responsible means of transportation. The motorcycle seemed the answer to my needs. If I had not taken the time to look long and hard for the truth, I might be blissfully riding a smog belcher right now. It amazes me to think how many concerned commuters might be aggravating the very problem they believe themselves to be trying so arduously to solve by choosing a motorcycle.

Let's consider the allure of two wheels. First and foremost, there is the issue of miles per gallon. The best small four wheeled gas burners offer somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty, or maybe (rarely) forty miles per gallon. Motorcycles can offer sixty or seventy miles per gallon. The lightest of cars far outweighs the biggest bike and has a much larger engine. As far as price comparisons, $7000.00 buys a lot of motorcycle, while twice that amount buys only the cheapest of autos. Finally, (in a bow to the mid-life thing) motorcycles are a hell of a lot more fun and much sexier than cars.

On the downside, motorcycles lose their appeal when the weather turns nasty. Furthermore, the sexy image thing is great for the weekend but has a tendency to turn the other way in the business world. Let's face it, in most professional situations, clients don't respond with trust to a biker in leather arriving at their door. The biggest disadvantage of motorcycles to cars in most peoples' minds is safety. Bikes are statistically, and many argue inherently, far more dangerous than cars.

All the disadvantages meant little to me though, because I am a bicyclist. I've been commuting on two wheels for twenty years. When it rains, I wear a rain coat. I stopped caring about my image years ago. As far as the safety issue goes, the only reason bikes (motorized or not) are dangerous is because of the fine target they present to cars. I decided a long time ago that my concern for the environment was more important to me than what I like to call "the illusion of safety." For years I have been responding to motorists who ask "Aren't you afraid to ride a bike?" with "What, you think you're safe in a car?"

Last year, the size of the community I live in doubled with the advent of a massive housing development. The road I pedaled to work changed from a pleasantly challenging winding mountain road to a dangerously heavily traveled winding mountain road. There is no bike lane on this road; not even a shoulder. When the gravel trucks and the racing commuters pass me, the space they give a bicycle depends solely on whether a vehicle is approaching from the opposite direction. I figure it's just a matter of time, and I'm unwilling to die for the cause if it can be avoided.

Using the internet as the primary source for my information, I began my search in earnest. From what I learned, I ordered a Toyota Prius last May. While I waited the four months for delivery, I began to look at other options, especially ones that wouldn't put me out $20,000. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a wonderful site that shows emissions and mileage comparisons for all cars and trucks, but no motorcycles. When I visited the web sites of the bike manufacturers, there was never any mention of emissions, or mileage for that matter. The local motorcycle dealers claimed all sorts or wonderful things for their products, but were unable to provide any hard data.

Finally, after several exchanges with the EPA, I was contacted by someone who knew the answers. His name is Robert French. He works in the EPA. Rob confirmed my worst fears about motorcycle emissions. The statistics he provided are somewhat daunting for a layman, and he hastens to caution that the information he shares is not official EPAspeak. In short, he told me that, "In fact, motorcycles produce more harmful emissions than driving a car, or even a large SUV."

I asked Robert to compare a motorcycle with the Hybrid Toyota Prius. He wrote:

Consider that the cleanest motorcycles in the 2001 model year certified at a level of about 0.32 grams/mile of hydrocarbons on the Federal Test Procedure. On the exact same test procedure the Prius certified at a hydrocarbon level of 0.0024 grams/mile. The cleanest (highway) motorcycle is therefore more than 100 times dirtier than the Prius. Said another way, you could drive the Prius for more than 100 miles before you got to the same hydrocarbon levels the motorcycle would emit in only 1 mile of driving.

There is a Prius parked in my driveway as I write. I've been driving it for two weeks now. Every time I see a person on a scooter or motorcycle now, I wonder if he thinks he is doing the environment a favor. I am tempted to shout the truth out the window to him, "Park that beast and buy a Ford Explorer for Gaia's sake!"

What still amazes me is how hard it was to find out the dirty truth about the motorized two-wheeled world. While I hate to spoil anyone's fun, I think folks should know that motorcycles are not green machines, but are rather, for our environment, obscene machines.

Times Article Viewed: 42632
Published: 10-Nov-2001


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