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Published on October 21st, 2007 | by Stephanie Evans


The Clean, Green Motorcycle Machine

Sexy.  Tough.  Liberating.  Motorcycle appeal is gut-deep and fierce.  Anyone who has balked at buying the latest hybrid or microcar because of its unattractive appearance knows what it is to wish for stylish green machines.

So, are motorcycles the eco-conscious motorist’s sustainability dream come true?

The Dream

MotorcycleAt first glance, maybe they are.  Beyond the growlingly good looks, motorcycles impress a much smaller carbon footprint than automobiles do.  They’ve got two wheels to four, a naked exoskeleton to steel box, and they’re more maneuverable.  As euphoric as soaring through gridlock traffic might seem, motorcyclists need to be especially careful when lane-splitting.  Lane-splitting is the practice of utilizing the space between lanes during slow or stationary traffic.  If you’ve ever seen a motorcycle revving between two lanes of stop-and-go cars baking in the hot LA sun, you’ve seen lane-splitting in action.  Considering that these motorcyclists are moving at a healthy 40 mph or more, and the cars they’re passing are moving at, well, 5 mph when they’re moving at all, you can imagine whose commute is shorter.

Keep in mind that those characteristics that give motorcycles a smaller carbon footprint also make them vulnerable to cars which suddenly change lanes, with drivers unaware of the rapidly approaching motorcycle behind them.  While your motorcycle mirrors might survive clipping automobile side-view mirrors, vital body organs might not survive a collision.    Wear appropriate protective gear, get a loud engine, check your mirrors every few seconds, and amaze Zen masters with your unfaltering attention to the road.

That said, lane-splitting is an indication that motorcycles don’t contribute to traffic congestion—in fact, they probably contribute to alleviating it instead.  Traffic congestion is not just bad for our digestion, it’s also bad for the environment.    Idling cars spew harmful emissions into the air and waste fuel.  With an average auto occupancy of 1.6 in the U.S., motorcycles are a much more space-efficient way of reducing congestion while toting single people around.

Because of their small size, motorcycles are also incredibly fuel efficient.  They pretty much don’t dip below 30 mpg, and many can reach 60 mpg or higher.  What nudges a motorcycle towards the high range is attention to aerodynamics and the engine.  Fairings (plastic or fiberglass shells placed on the motorcycle frame) improve the aerodynamics of the vehicle, and act as a windshield, protecting the rider from wind, rain and the resultant fatigue.  Motorcyclists can be very performance-oriented, and fuel economy can suffer when engines are designed with only performance in mind.

You might be tempted to stop reading right about here:  A motorcycle looks good, it drives good, it feels good—so why give it a second thought?  Hold your iron horses, there partner—before you ride off into the sunset on your sportbike or chopper, you should also be aware of …

The bottom-line:  Motorcycles are drop-dead gorgeous machines with good looks and jaw-dropping fuel efficiency.  But they also spew lung- and environment-damaging emissions that are much, much worse than even your least favorite four-wheeler.  Your best bet for cleaning up exhaust in the near future is to go electric.

The Nightmare

Motorcycle Exhaust PipeEmissions.  Because this is where most gas-powered motorcycles oh-so-miserably fail.  According to the US EPA, a motorcycle releases 20 times more pollution per mile than a new car.  Motorcycles produce 90 times the hydrocarbons per mile as a typical passenger car.  About the only thing they don’t emit significantly more of compared with cars is carbon dioxide, so at least they’re not contributing to global warming as much as cars do.  But they contribute much more to general air pollution, which is both an environmental and public health hazard.  The only reason people don’t point fingers at motorcycles in the "air quality blame game," is because so few motorcycles are on the road.

Why is motorcycle performance so dismal when it comes to emissions?  The truth is, cars and "light trucks" are the big fish, and they have been hunted down by emission-regulating organizations.  These vehicles have a history of regulations that just keep getting stricter, and today’s car emits practically nothing compared to cars a couple of decades ago.  Motorcycles have had it easy, as they don’t have to install catalytic converters or use direct injection, technologies that come standard in today’s cars.  These pollution-controlling technologies either convert harmful compounds into harmless ones, or prevent them from forming in the first place.  Motorcycles lack these innovations for the most part and are much dirtier as a result.

It’s true that some motorcycles now come equipped with catalytic converters, but legislation regulating car emissions has left similar motorcycle regulations in the dust.  And admittedly, new regulations are headed in the right direction (with California leading the way, yet again).  But well-meaning, slow-moving improvements still can’t pit the cleanest motorcycle against the biggest, baddest SUV.

What’s a style- and sustainability-conscious consumer to do?  Your heart is set on that lovely cruiser or sexy sportbike, but the thought of leaving traffic-stalled grannies coughing in your wake fills you with shame.  You don’t want to make a choice between poisoning the air and racking up greenhouse gases.  So don’t—consider electric motorcycles instead, also known as Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) motorcycles.  These offer a motorcycle equivalent of the benefits of electric cars, with the added appeal of two-wheel "cool."

The Green Reality

These green cycles run off of a battery instead of a tank of gas.  They produce zero emissions and their energy costs are only a tenth of fuel costs.  Since they run off of electricity, the energy source can be virtually anything—solar, wind, geothermal, nuclear, coal—whatever suits your fancy.  They are also very quiet, practically silent.  While some neighborhoods might breathe easier when they can hear birdsong again, this lack of noise is actually problematic.  One problem is that the drivers sharing the road with electric motorcyclists do not have advance warning of that deep rumble swelling into a roar.  Electric motorcyclists will have to stay alert, as they have more difficulty getting other drivers to notice them, which can prove to be very dangerous.  Another complaint is that the terrifically loud sound is actually attractive to many people.  It’s the equivalent of pounding on chests for many males, and to lose the roar is like losing something vital.  Attaching a speaker that produces a fake rumble solves these problems, and this feature can easily be switched on or off (no, seriously—these really exist!). Important limitations on electric motorcycles include range and speed.  While acceleration rates are incredible, top speeds rarely push 60 mph.  Average range is around 30 miles, so the thrill of acceleration seems short-lived at best.  To the typical performance-minded motorcyclist, the performance of electric motorcycles might sound a bit disappointing.  One thing to keep in mind here is that the electric motorcycles is a fast-moving area of vehicle technology, and faster bikes are most certainly around the next decreasing radius turn.  Also, let’s be honest: If you’re going to cruise around in the city, such speeds and ranges are perfectly adequate.  Outside the Autobahn, when is it ever legal to go at a musclebike’s top speed anyway?

There are a couple additional potential issues to weigh before you consider before straddling that new green motorcycle.  The time it takes to recharge the bike’s battery pack is one.  Compared to a couple of minutes at the pump, 3 hours plugged into the outlet might seem like an awfully long time.  If outdoor outlets were readily available, particularly in parking areas, recharging time wouldn’t be as crippling.  But alas, we have yet to adopt the electron economy.  Another factor is the battery disposal.  Most electric motorcycles use sealed lead acid batteries, which can be recycled.  As long as you make sure you recycle your lead acid battery, these shouldn’t be a major cause for concern.

The bottom-line:  Motorcycles are drop-dead gorgeous machines with good looks and jaw-dropping fuel efficiency.  But they also spew lung- and environment-damaging emissions that are much, much worse than even your least favorite four-wheeler.  Your best bet for cleaning up exhaust in the near future is to go electric.

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