• Apr 8th 2010 at 7:52PM
  • 35
Vespa S 50Click above for high-res image gallery

So, you want to go green. There are many obvious ways to reduce your environmental impact, and one of them is by driving a cleaner, more fuel efficient vehicle. But that raises a number of questions, doesn't it? What are your choices when it comes to purchasing your next vehicle?

One option that is often considered is a switch to two wheels. Surely, bicycles are a great way to get around and they don't require any harmful fossil fuels to do it. But there are certainly instances where pedaling your way to wherever it is you are going just isn't practical. What if that two-wheeler had an engine?

Ah yes, the motorcycle. It's surely an option to consider, but what are the environmental ramifications of choosing to ride instead of drive? That's the subject of today's Greenlings post. Click on past the break to hear some of the unexpected facts.

So, you're considering a switch to two wheels. Congratulations, and welcome to the club (this writer is a motorcycle rider himself.) Now, what kind of environmental impact will your shiny new motorcycle or scooter have on the environment? First, let's examine the various two-wheeled options.

First, there are scooters. These machines typically feature engines of 500cc or less, usually in the 150-250cc range and sometimes as small as a meager 50cc. It stands to reason that the smaller the engine, the less amount of fuel used... and that is in fact usually the case. But not always. Consider the fact that smaller engines need to work harder to deliver adequate performance, and there are certainly occasions where a smaller engine isn't more fuel efficient than a more relaxed powerplant that's less highly stressed. Do your homework there if fuel efficiency is of prime concern.

Also, consider that there are often two different types of small engines available, the two-stroke and the four-stroke. For the purposes of our article, we are going to focus in on four-stroke engines, which are almost always cleaner by an order of magnitude than their two-stroke cousins. If you're concerned with harmful emissions, we'd recommend steering clear of two-stroke engines, and that, sadly, means those super cool old Vespa and Lambretta scooters. They are powered by old-tech two-stroke engines and aren't so hot for the environment.

So, that leaves us with the four-stroke engine. This type of engine has been standard fare in motorcycles since Honda revolutionized the segment in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, so it's not difficult to find a good, reliable used motorcycle that will surely fit into your budget. And it should return very good fuel economy. Further, due to that generally stellar fuel efficiency, the average multi-cylinder motorcycle engine will emit much less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than most cars and trucks. Therefore, if carbon emissions are your greatest and/or only concern, a motorcycle or scooter is an excellent choice.

But – and there's always a but – CO2 emissions are not the only aspect to consider. Motorcycles also generally use far less raw materials to create than cars and trucks and, since the majority of vehicles need to be shipped from a factory (which is oftentimes overseas), it's also important to note that it takes less fuel and creates less emissions to ship two-wheelers. Similarly, motorcycles and scooters take up much less space on the roads, easing congestion, limiting time spent at idle and lowering commute times.

Again, this is not the end of the story. Older motorcycles – those built before the mid-2000s – were, in many cases, not equipped with much in the way of emissions controls. Catalytic converters, computer-controls and electronic fuel injection were often absent from these two-wheelers. As such, they emit many times more pollutants like carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons than the average automobile.

All around the world, though, emissions regulations for motorcycles are getting stricter. It's pretty tough to find motorcycles here in the United States or in Europe that aren't managed by sophisticated computers that constantly monitor the engine and its exhaust. Further, catalytic converters can be found on a great number of new motorcycles available on nearly any dealership floor. Soon, all road-legal two-wheelers will be so equipped.

2010 Harley-Davidson Forty-Eight – Click above for high-res image gallery

Still, these brand-new two-wheelers emit more of these pollutants (but not carbon dioxide) than new cars, in part because standards set by the various governments for two-wheelers aren't currently quite as stringent as those for four-wheelers. Even this, though, is dependent greatly on the type of driving (or riding, as it were) done by the pilot. At constant speeds, such as when traveling on the highway, motorcycles can compare rather favorably when it comes to both hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides.

As you can see, this issue is a complicated one to dissect. That being the case, we'll make a few sweeping generalizations in the hopes that it may be helpful to some, but we suggest you do some of your own research before committing to any specific motorcycle or scooter.

First, if emissions are important to you, avoid two-stroke engines, especially classic (say, those built prior to the year 2000) models. Second, motorcycles are usually more fuel efficient than cars and therefore emit less carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) emissions. Third, the newer the motorcycle, the cleaner its emissions are likely to be.

Finally, if you are interested in a specific make or model of motorcycle, you can find the actual test result data from the Environmental Protection Agency by clicking here and opening the Certified Motorcycle Test Result Data report for the required model year. It's a comma-delimited report, so it's tough to read. The first line gives the order of the data, then you need to locate your make and model of bike and decipher the findings. Good luck!

Of course, there's one more category of two-wheelers to consider: electrics, such as those from Zero Motorcycles and Brammo. But we'll have to reserve that particular topic for another time.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 8 Months Ago
      What crap. Motorcyles are fun. Use less gas. Push less wasted material around as you travel. And let you get wet when it rains - and dirty, dusty and grimey when it doesn't. For thiose of you that don't care about this last little fact, you prolly don't have important enough lives or care about your appearance. You don't ever go to a fancy restaurant. You don't ever date a really attractive woman. I'm sure you have other flaws. The rest of humanity is going to own a car. A car is for people that buy groceries, microwaves, cakes, flowers - and want these new posessions to arrive home intact. These are the people that give their mother a ride to the doctors appointment, or their children to school - when it RAINS.
        • 8 Months Ago
        LOL! Most wealthy males with attractive trophy wives own both a car and a motorcycle (and a boat, and an airplane). Regarding transporting goods, look at adventure bikes that are popular with our group. They all have large luggage, my back trunk is 55 gallons for example, which by itself holds a decent amount of groceries. Regarding delivering microwaves, I'm not sure how many you buy on a regular basis, but Amazon prime gets that to my doorstep. In any case, I own both a car and a motorcycle, and I agree that under extreme weather conditions, I take the car. Most of the time though, including light rain, I take my motorcycle. A rainproof suit easily goes over your clothes, and I actually arrive at work in my workout clothes, hit the gym for an hour at 6AM until 7AM, then shower and dress there. Keeps me fit and fresh as can be, and I get to ride the HOV all the way back home from work (no traffic to work really that early), and get the VIP motorcycle parking right by the office door. Speaking of parking, we have two car spots that were converted into motorcycle spots for perpendicular parking that fits 8 motorcycles. That's another huge advantage of motorcycles, as parking in the city becomes more and more expensive. =)
      • 8 Months Ago
      If your lifestyle permits it, you might want to consider a low speed electric vehicle, which often gets better than 200 MPGe. You get the safety of four wheels, and can ride beside your significant other or carpool. A nice option for trips under 4-5 miles if a low speed route exists. These things don't go over 25 MPH but have zero tailpipe emissions..
      Fons Jena
      • 4 Years Ago
      Motorcycles are greener. People tend to forget the other side when talking about being green. An old car with minimal use of plastics and special metals is greener than an electric car these days. Yes the exhaust is probably smelly but those gases are 100 recycles by mother nature while all other materials used in making vehicles are not (coming close but no 100 percent). Yes you can make bio plastic but all that energy... An hydrogen fueled four stroke engine-powered motorbike is probably the most earth friendly transportation vehicle you can have. But if you look at human health it is better to go electric (in cities at least)... I know it hurts to hear it (me too because I love electric bikes (waiting on my electric ktm!)) but you must not deny the truth.
      • 5 Years Ago
      I compared actual smog-forming emissions numbers for a 2008 Prius ("gold standard"), a 2001 Corolla (our old car) and a hypothetical Euro 3-compliant motorcycle on my blog back in December 2008:

        • 8 Months Ago
        Hey, nice work.
      • 8 Months Ago
      I started riding a 2008 Kawasaki Ninja 250 last July and am loving it, nice write up. Its a beautiful, fun, and economical bike (60-70 mpg). Safety on a motorcycle has a lot of variables, it depends on the roads you ride, the traffic on those roads, the gear you wear, and rider skill. I think crash statistics are blown up by morons that get bikes that have more power than you can ever (safely) use on the road, wear no gear, and ride stupid (eg. wheelies on the freeway)... Riding isnt for everyone, but if you take the time to learn proper riding technique, and research gear, you can minimize the risks and have a load of fun at the same time...
      • 8 Months Ago
      I believe part of the reason that motorcycling, bicycling and even walking are so dangerous is that many car and truck drivers "idly" drive them to and fro, zoning out in the process. Count me among the luddites who believe crumple zones, roll cages, airbags ABS and high Horsepower vehicles instill a false sense of confidence in the motoring public.
      2 Wheeled Menace
      • 3 Years Ago
      I like an electric bike for town, up to but not beyond 40mph. Going 25mph speeds, it's about 11 cents of electricity for 30 miles. 40mph, it's about 19 cents for 30 miles. Otherwise the car gets taken on long trips. Shame on me, right?
      • 8 Months Ago
      More electric scooters with removable batteries like the PGO e-BuBu
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pgdrans77co&feature=player_embedded are needed.
      • 8 Months Ago
      I had a Yamaha Aerox (50cc two-stroke) and it used $10 worth of gas per month ! By far the best way to get around, far superior to my bicycle.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Of course 2 wheels are greener.

      But they suck in the rain, they are not as safe, you can't carry many people or as much cargo, etc.
        • 8 Months Ago
        If you want to be fuel efficient, buy or rent close to work, or some other location where you aren't totally dependent on your car for transportation (ie, close to transit and amenities). Reasons for doing so:

        1) The commute doesn't suck, and as such you're less stressed out, and you have more time for family/hobbies/sex.
        2) If you don't need your car/truck/motorbike every day, you can insure it less, or sell it. You'll surely save on gas, but that's usually not as much as insurance.
        3) It's much greener, and you get more exercise. Walking to the store to get milk isn't so bad when the store is 3 blocks away or less.
        • 8 Months Ago
        Of course living closer to work/public transit is good. But that does not obviate the need for motorized transport for a large number of people. I commute to work on my bike (except when it rains - at which time I either drive or take my scooter), to friend's houses via my scooter (80 mpg), and to Tahoe in my Audi (a pretty lousy 28-32 mpg on the hwy).

        Trips to the city involve either walking to transit or taking my bike/scooter to transit.

        Overall, by carefully choosing my mode of transport I have significantly cut my consumption of fossil fuels. I now put less than 3,500 miles on my car per year.

        So let's start out with small, achievable steps and move on from there.
        • 8 Months Ago
        The fact of the matter is no one should be considering a motorcycle for any reason other than they *want* to ride a motorcycle/scooter. Riding requires far more concentration and commitment on the users behalf. A motorcycle is not something you just idly ride on your way to work.

        If you want to be fuel efficient, take public transportation.
      • 5 Years Ago
      It's nice that the EU has the same emissions criteria for cars and motorcycles, but in the good ol' USofA motorcycles get away w/ about three times the CO per mile and about two times the HC+NOx per mile.
      • 8 Months Ago
      I have a honda Jazz 1.4 idsi that I love and I get a reasonable mpg, but in the UK where it is approaching £1.20/30 litre a fuel I have decided to buy a 50cc Yamaha giggle that does about 120 mpg and has a 4.5 litre fuel tank. The scooter is practical with its boot and big tyres allow for a reasonable ride plus the fun of riding a scooter.
      I love my Jazz for its mpg but i have also stopped paying for my carpark fee at work with my scooter saving me £144 a year, mixed with the frugal petrol use and you have a very practical/alternative vehicle.

      p.s. i really bought it because i loved it.....
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