Ask Ignacio: Cars vs. Motorcycles

April 2014

Winter has to end someday. It may not feel that way, but let’s accept notion on an intellectual level. After all, a 20-degree summer is, at the very least, unlikely.

Spring is imminent! It simply can not hide forever!

Since we agree spring will eventually follow winter, I wanted to touch on transportation a bit, specifically motorcycles. The question: what is better for the environment, a motorcycle or a car?

This question has to be split in two, first producing the vehicle and second, the life of the vehicle.

Production

Here’s a general environmental rule of thumb: if two items use similar materials and are constructed in a similar manner, the lighter/smaller item generally has the smallest environmental impact.

This holds true for vehicles; both motorcycles and cars are largely made of steel, aluminum, and plastics, and in factories with similar equipment. I know they aren’t exactly the same, but this holds true for a broad spectrum of motorcycles and cars.

Motorcycle weights vary a great deal between brands and models, however, the average weight hovers around 450 lbs. to 500 lbs. according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Large motorcycles, such as Harley-Davidson’s can reach close to 800 lbs., and while an iconic American brand, Harely’s don’t represent the average motorcycle.

By contrast, the average American car weighs 4,000 lbs., also according to EPA data. That is at least eight times heavier, representing a significantly higher resource use.

Going for a ride

Here is where our study gets interesting. The emissions picture is far less obvious. On the surface, it would look like an easy win for the motorcycle once again. Motorcycles get an average of twice the mileage per gallon – simple enough right? WRONG!

Not all emissions are created equal. Motorcycles produce less carbon dioxide, but CO2 is the puniest member of the greenhouse gas family. Methane, oxides of nitrogen, and hydrocarbons, and carbon monoxide are much more sinister. Motorcycles completely outclass cars in their emissions of all of these gasses.

When all of this is taken into account, the average motorcycle pollutes between 1.5 to 10 times that of an average car. It’s an enormous range due to the many different ways of calculating this number. Other than using electric motorcycles for this calculation, I have not found a single way for motorcycles to be less polluting than cars.

What does this mean? I don’t expect anyone the sell their motorcycle.

If you come across a beautiful spring day and you think to yourself, “I’ll ride my motorcycle instead of my car because it is more sustainable.” Well, now you know better.

Spring is coming, I promise,

Ignacio