Are Motorcycles Greener Than Cars?

Brammo's Engage electric motorcycle with a six-speed transmission. (Credit: Brammo)
Brammo’s Engage electric motorcycle with a six-speed transmission.
(Credit: Brammo)

For those who live outside of cities, suggestions to lower carbon footprints by walking instead of taking the car are laughable. After all, when the grocery store is five miles away, it isn’t feasible to go on foot and have to carry the groceries back the same way. There also aren’t any buses outside of major metropolitan areas, so public transportation isn’t really in the equation.

Many people consider motorcycles a good solution to this conundrum. They have the power to take you to distant places, and they don’t leave a big carbon footprint.

Right?

In reality, that may not be the case at all. Many factors go into determining whether a particular motorcycle is eco-friendly. Here are some things to think about when considering trading in your car for a bike.

Fuel Usage

Just like cars, motorcycles come in a wide variety of sizes and styles, and these variations have a lot to do with determining how efficient the vehicle is. Big, impressive hogs are as gas guzzling as a small car. Many Harley-Davidsons, for instance, have a combined fuel economy rating of 42 miles per gallon. While this is relatively good, it can be easily matched by hybrid cars or even small gas-only automobiles.

To get truly great fuel economy from a motorcycle, you’ll need to get a small one.

Eco-Friendly Motorcycles

To combat the fuel economy problems inherent in big, traditional bikes, some manufacturers are working on making their vehicles even more friendly for the environment. Lighter metals, fiber bodies, alternative fuel systems and other such developments are being used by manufacturers who emphasize environmental friendliness in their products, Peach Tree Bikes notes.

Big manufacturers like Honda and BMW are also jumping on the bandwagon to provide eco-friendly motorcycling alternatives. Honda has introduced an engine for compact scooters that is 25 percent more fuel-efficient than previous models and a 40 percent more efficient mid-sized engine than its conventional counterparts.

BMW, on the other hand, is focusing on other manufacturing techniques to improve its environmental footprint. It uses water-based paints on its motorcycles and has developed a highly efficient manufacturing process.

Are Motorcycles Truly Environmentally Friendly?

Even with the recent advances in motorcycle engines and production technology, there are some concerns as to how environmentally friendly they really are. Along with the issue of size, there is the matter of transporting the finished motorcycles to the dealership where they will be sold. Therefore, there are hidden environmental costs to the distribution of such products — one that is even bigger when the motorcycle was made overseas. The same goes for aftermarket performance products like Kawasaki parts, which are often brought in from very distant locations.

It’s clear that these considerations only skim the surface of the factors in discussion surrounding the environmental friendliness of these vehicles. Motorcycle USA points out that even though motorcycles account for only one percent of California’s vehicular traffic miles, they produce 10 percent of the emissions. Big vehicles, like buses, may produce more emissions than bikes but also carry more passengers. These considered, it does not conclude that bikes are innately bad for the environment. Only a full life cycle analysis (LCA) can show a particular motorcycle’s true environmental impact.

Overall, current evidence shows that motorcycles have both benefits and drawbacks when it comes to environmental impact. They can be a fun alternative to a small car, but are not likely to be much better for the environment than most eco-friendly, four-wheeled options. Therefore, the decision of whether to buy a motorcycle or a “green” car is still mostly one of personal preference.

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  • Yes, but a 42mpg Harley is still much better than the guy driving a big truck around. MOST driving is to and from work. swap all the non-eco-friendly cars & trucks with even the worst offending motorcycles and you still come out ahead. Many cars are imported from overseas, so the fact that a motorcycle comes from overseas is a minor issue. Less material to manufacture as well. I’m guessing the lifetime environmental impacts of the worst offending motorcycles are almost on par with eco-cars and much better than non-eco cars.

    • Any improvement is an improvement.

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