Are Motorcyclists Environmental Criminals

The “MythBusters, ”  yeah, the guys with the world’s best job, are taking some flak after their  program recently investigated the idea that emissions from motorcycle tailpipes are less damaging to the environment than the emissions from cars.

The “Bike vs. Car” episode of the show aired on September 28,  and since then, the emissions have hit the fan. While their general conclusion is true without a doubt, the reasons it’s true might be a little less than good news for the motorcycle industry.

David Munro, CEO of Long Island-based Global MRV, the company which supplied the Discovery Channel series with its signature lightweight “portable emissions testing systems” – or PEMS – and  then scientific and technical consulting to set up the equipment in the field and crunch the results, wasn’t surprised to find out how much pollution motorcycles actually do create.

While motorcycles used considerably less fuel, and therefore created less total pollution, the pollution they did create was, well, nasty…

When Munro and Global MRV finally finished work on the  points of data collected for the show, motorcycles did prove to use less fuel per mile than the cars created substantially less carbon dioxide: 43 percent less than the 1980s cars, 15 percent less for the 1990s cars, and 30 percent less than the vehicles made in the 2000’s.

To test their hypotheses, Mythbusters hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman took out each pair of vehicles out on the road for  30-minute test runs on city streets  and freeways. What they found was, at best, some slightly conflicting data. The data showed motorcycles generated more pollution than automobiles.

• Motorcycles created several hundred times more hydrocarbon pollution than cars.

• Nitrous oxide emissions were equal for the 1980’s vehicles, but the 1990’s-built motorcycle produced 138 percent more NO2 than its partner car, and the 2000’s motorcycle up to 3,220 percent more than the car it was up against.

• The 2000s-built cycle emitted 8,065 percent more poisonous-to-breathe carbon monoxide than the car it was matched against,  while the 1990s and 1980’s-built motorcycles produced 516 percent and 313 percent more than the cars from the same era.

“We suspected that the results might turn out the way they did,” says Global MRV’s Munro. “What surprised us was how big of a percentage difference that was discovered.”

Why did the cars do so well against the bikes? Uncle Sam’s rules.

Pretty easy to figure: stricter regulation for cars since the mid-1970s federal standards went into effect to reduce hydrocarbons and  tailpipe emissions have ratcheted up while motorcycles have largely been ignored by in that legislative effort.

But where does that actually leave the motorcycle as a viable source of transportation?

In limbo, that’s where.

What it really comes down to is what’s referred to in the eco-business as a “lifecycle assessment,” and that’s where the whole car vs motorcycle as polluters question gets dicey once again.

Lifecycle analysis attempts to measure how much energy is required to harvest raw materials during production and what impact that has on the environment. How much energy is required to harvest the raw materials needed to build a motorcycle? How much energy goes into the manufacturing processes used to build a motorcycle? What’s the impact of all the infrastructure required to support a motorcycle like gas stations and oil changes? What amount of wear and tear does a motorcycle cause to streets and parking lots when compared to a car? How useful will the motorcycle be as transportation and how many miles will it take passengers? What’s involved in recycling a motorcycle when it’s done running and how much pollution is created in getting rid of it?

One way to measure the worth of a particular vehicle is “passenger miles traveled.” It goes like this: a city bus which travels 100 miles a day and carries 10 passengers is responsible for 1000 passenger miles per day and a motorcycle which travels that same 100 miles, carrying 1.3 passengers  resulted in 130 passenger miles. Now you’re talking the same language, and it’s that kind of model which Mikhail Chester,  a transportation lifecycle analysis expert, uses to develop his theories on the environmental impact of transportation modes.

So what does Chester’s work reveal? Some not great news for bikers.

Chester’s study basically found that a motorcycle’s environmental impact is determined largely by “economies of scale.”  That means a motorcycle, by virtue of an overall look at what it takes to make it and maintain it,  produces more waste and pollution because production methods are less efficient.
“The discussion of okay-to-good motorcycle fuel efficiency hides the discussion of direct human health and environment-impacting pollutants which tend to be larger for motorcycles than other modes [of transportation],” Chester said in his study.

It comes down to this, motorcycles are manufactured in smaller quantities than cars and  smaller scale production, at least in general,  equals less efficiency, more pollution and more waste. Chester’s work points to the fact that it takes nearly the same amount of energy to manufacture a motorcycle as it does to make a car.

On the other hand (and there’s always another hand in environmental debates)  motorcycles often don’t have catalytic converters and evaporative emissions equipment. While this means they put out less more hydrocarbons, their environmental impact is lessened as a result – at least by one measure :

  • An internal combustion engine equipped with a three-way catalytic converter to run at the stoichiometric point means it is less efficient than if it were operated lean. What does that mean? It means there’s an increases the amount of fossil fuels consumed and an increase in the carbon-dioxide emissions from the vehicle.
  • Catalytic converters do remove hydrocarbons and other harmful emissions, but they don’t solve the basic problem created when you burn fossil fuels. The U.S. EPA says catalytic converters are “a significant and growing cause of global warming,” because of their release of nitrous oxide (N2O), a greenhouse gas over three hundred times more potent than carbon dioxide.
  • Catalytic converter production requires palladium or platinum, and a big chunk of the world’s supply of those precious metals is produced near Norilsk, Russia. So, you say, big deal. Well, in part due to the mining and production of said metals there, Norilsk was added to Time magazine’s list of most-polluted places.

So what’s the final conclusion? There isn’t one, or more to the point, let’s say the answer is dependent on work which isn’t really complete at this stage, but all signs point to one pretty unavoidable fact; as it stands, motorcycles aren’t really all that nice to the environment and you, as a rider, are indeed on the wrong side of the tree-hugging nation.

If that is indeed the fact, the case for electric motorcycles might have gotten a bit stronger, but don’t electric motorcycles essentially run on coal? Oh boy, here we go again…

Environmental Life-cycle Assessment of Passenger Transportation: A Detailed Methodology for Energy, Greenhouse Gas and Criteria Pollutant Inventories of Automobiles, Buses, Light Rail, Heavy Rail and Air v.2

Frequently Asked Questions: In-Depth Information for Motorcycle Owners on EPA’s New Emission Standards for Highway Motorcycles


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