Drag site icon to your taskbar to pin site. Learn More

Motorcycle Pollution: A Lifecycle Perspective

Tuesday, August 2, 2011
The road in to Hulett from the west over the Belle Fourche River.
Is a road full of motorcycles more forgiving to the environment than a road full of cars? Science seeks to answer this with its first life cycle perspective of a motorcycle.
"Are We Gross Polluters?" Cycle World Technical Editor Kevin Cameron came right out and asked the question in a June 2008 Web-Watch posted on Cycleworld.com. Cameron's post was a response to an LA Times article that pointed out that motorcycles put out more tailpipe pollution than their four-wheeled counterparts. The article, by Times columnist Susan Carpenter, pointed to the fact that motorcycles, which travel one percent of the vehicle miles traveled on California roads, contribute 10 percent of vehicular emissions in the state. In her closing paragraph Carpenter stated, "Long story short: motorcycles, even small ones, are more polluting than Hummers."

Whoa. Hit the brakes. Did I hear that right? Heck, maybe we've been wrong all these years. The people trailering their motorcycles to rallies aren't posers. They're tree huggers.

In his response to Carpenter's article, Cameron pointed out that while motorcycles produce more tailpipe emissions, they take up less space and use less fuel and other resources. Tailpipe emission tests only tell part of the story. Electric vehicles are labeled "zero emissions" but they plug into a power grid that is 55 percent fueled by coal. Ain't no free lunches. "Who can assign an unarguable weighting to these apples and oranges, and thereby find the ‘absolute good’?" Cameron asked.

Maybe someone can.

The hottest trend in the environmental sciences these days is called "lifecycle assessment” (LCA), a big picture approach to quantifying environmental impact. It’s been applied to every environmental debate, from disposable versus cloth diapers to compact florescent versus incandescent light bulbs. It takes everything into account, from the birth to the death of a product, analyzing enough data to make the pocket protector wearers among us giddy.

The product is closer and closer to being complete. Just a few more pieces... - Kawasaki Tour - Japan 2007
Part of what a lifecycle analysis looks at is how much energy is requred to harvest raw materials during production.
Using motorcycles as an example it works something like this. How much energy is required to harvest the raw materials needed to build a bike? How much energy goes into a motorcycle's manufacturing process? What infrastructure does the finished machine require (service stations, oil changes) and how much wear and tear does it cause to streets, highways and parking lots? What is required to maintain this infrastructure? What expendables (fuel, tires) will the machine use? What periphery industries does it necessitate (like auto insurance companies)? How long will the machine last and how many miles will it take passengers in its lifetime? What happens to it when it is no longer usable? How much pollution does its disposal cause? And the list goes on…

When it comes to transportation comparisons energy usage and emissions are tabulated relative to "passenger miles traveled” (PMT). For example, if a city bus averages 100 miles a day and its average load is 10 passengers, then it is traveling 1000 passenger miles per day. If a motorcycle travels that same 100 miles, carrying 1.3 passengers (the national average) it has traveled 130 passenger miles. The amount of energy consumed and pollution created is quantified relative to moving one passenger one mile. The comparison is now apples to apples.

On the leading edge of lifecycle analysis of transportation is a University of California Berkeley post doctoral researcher, Mikhail Chester. Chester has developed a lifecycle model that analyzes the environmental impact of transportation modes that vary from San Francisco BART trains to passenger sedans. He recently crunched the numbers on the lifecycle impact of motorcycles. For us motorcyclists his results come as our own little inconvenient truth.

Chester's study divided motorcycles into three general categories: cruisers, touring and sport bikes. These categories were represented by a 2009-year model Harley Fat BoyYamaha VMAX and Kawasaki ZX-14, respectively. When lifetime energy consumption is graphed, touring and cruiser motorcycles use more energy per passenger miles traveled than gasoline powered cars but less than SUVs
A scooter vs. a motorcycle can be a tough decision for a beginner to make. Begin by looking at what the machine would primarily be used for and then compare the pros and cons of each.
Can a motorcycle cause more pollution than a Hummer? Maybe not, but the answer still isn't good for two-wheeled enthusiasts.
and pick-ups (Smile, we're not as bad as Hummers). Sportbikes, on the other hand, consume more energy per passenger miles traveled than any other form of road-based transportation, due in part to their fuel economy, high performance engines and complex and specialized manufacturing process.

When it comes to air pollution in the form of CO2 and sulfur dioxide, these relationships hold. But for emissions in the form of carbon monoxide, volatile organic compound and particulate matter, motorcycles of any type far surpass all other types of transportation. The use of catalytic converters cause a slight decrease in these numbers, but not enough to make up the gap between vehicles with four wheels and those with two.

Critics will be quick to point out the flaws in Chester's analysis (a ZX-14 and a VMAX as representative of the majority of motorcycles on the street?). But a closer look will reveal a fair and measured approach to assessing motorcycle impact. A Harley Fat Boy, for example, is typical of nearly 50 percent of motorcycles on American streets and, according to Chester, smaller motorcycles require nearly as much energy to manufacture and maintain, while creating approximately the same amount of pollution. The study also uses conservative assumptions, like motorcycle service lives of over 50,000 miles and 6,000 mile tire life. The author admits his work is a preliminary study (it’s the first motorcycle LCA ever completed) and not the last word on the lifecycle impact of motorcycles. But the disparity in pollution between motorcycles and other forms of transportation won’t be overturned with a recount.

So what do these results mean to motorcyclists? In the past, when people point to the pollution coming out of our tailpipe, we were quick to note our fuel efficiency and small size that takes up less space on the roads and in parking lots. But the truth is, it doesn't balance out. We've run out of excuses. We are gross polluters. So much for meeting the nicest people on a Honda.

A few Concours 14 and Z750 wait their turn at the final inspction station beofre being herded towards the shipping department - Kawasaki Tour - Japan 2007
One thing affecting a motorcycle's environmental impact is economy of scale, which means they produce 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 noted.

The reasons are quite simple. The first is "economies of scale." Motorcycles and their components, such as tires, are manufactured in smaller quantities than cars. Smaller scale production means less efficiency, hence greater pollution and more waste (and for the consumer, higher relative prices). Chester points out it takes nearly the same amount of energy to manufacture a motorcycle as it does an automobile.

The second reason lies in the nature of motorcycle engine design. Fuel efficiency is a double-edged sword. As Carpenter stated, extracting greater energy from fossil fuels results in higher amounts of pollution in the form of nitrogen oxides. Motorcycles often also lack catalytic converters and evaporative emissions equipment (in states other than California), which means they put out more hydrocarbons.

Despite our persecution complex, The Man has pretty much left motorcycles alone when it comes to environmental standards. Traditionally, motorcycles have escaped from being picked on by the EPA because of their small market share and even smaller number of miles they travel each year. But times have changed. EPA standards for motorcycles, virtually unchanged since the late 1970s, have recently been updated to a two-tiered structure, one of which was implemented in 2006 and another that took effect in 2010 (California standards are identical, but were implemented two years earlier). The appearance of electronic fuel injection, catalytic converters and secondary air injection on new model motorcycles is in response to these new standards.

A row of black Concours 14s are headd our way - Kawasaki Tour - Japan 2007
Self-regulation will become increasingly important in the motorcycle community as the industry attempts to overcome a poor public image and environmental concerns. 
So we’re gross polluters. Now what? Motorcycling is under scrutiny everywhere, with politicians and safetycrats making issues out of everything from the dangers that "lead-based" two-wheelers pose to children (OHVs are on the cusp of being exempt from the Lead Law. Read about it in the Senate Passes OHV Exemption - Onto President - Ed.)to the fact that sportbikes are more hazardous to the health of young U.S. Marines than IEDs. For those who seek to restrict motorcycles, close down off-road trails and impose impossible health and safety standards, the machine’s poor environmental performance is more ammunition to use in the fight ("Clamp Down on Motorcycles" was a May 2009 editorial that circulated through several Southern California newspapers).

In many ways the issue of the environmental impact of motorcycles mirrors the sound debate that the AMA has chosen to address. In relation to the future of our sport, it’s fundamentally a public image problem. The less motorcycles seem like practical and reasonable means of transportation and the more they seem like excessive recreational toys, the easier it is to justify their regulation. The more outrageous, the longer our forks and swingarms, the higher our handlebars, the smaller our seats and the louder our pipes the less practical our rides seem. The more pollution they belch out and the more energy they consume, the harder it is to justify their presence on public streets.

As an industry, will we choose to impose reasonable regulations on ourselves when it comes to motorcycle emissions? As consumers, are we willing to demand that manufacturers give us cleaner motorcycles with even greater fuel efficiency? If they give it to us will we pony up for the extra cost that emissions equipment or alternative fuel technology adds to a new motorcycle’s price tag? As riders, will we start looking at our motorcycles more as serious transportation and less as recreation, and acknowledge that our choices are made in the context of a world that is larger than us?

The issues of pollution and consumption facing this planet and its burgeoning population are overwhelming. There is no silver bullet solution and making cleaner running motorcycles is not the answer to all our problems. Maybe, as Cameron suggested tongue-in-cheek at the conclusion of his answer to the question "Are We Gross Polluters?," we should just all join the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement if we want to help out the planet. But one thing is for certain; if we motorcyclists don't start regulating ourselves then we'll all be card-carrying members of the Two-Wheel Extinction Movement.
Other Street Bike Feature Articles
A 250 Dream: Janus Motorcycles
Janus Motorcycles is getting ready to debut its first two motorcycles, the Phoenix and Halcyon; 250cc machines that are light, approachable, classically styled and loads of fun.
Camping Bike  Honda Debuts Bulldog Concept
Honda debuted its Bulldog Concept at the Osaka Motorcycle Show, a curious concept model designed 'to go beyond the boundaries of conventional leisure motorcycles, to actively enjoy outdoor life.'
Aprilia Unveils Three 2016 Models at Daytona
Aprilia unveiled three pre-production motorcycles during Daytona Bike Week 2015 - the RSV4 RF, Tuono V4 1100 Factory and Caponord 1200 Rally, all slated for the 2016 model year.
Smoky Mountain Crawl RuckusGrom Event 15
The Smoky Mountain Crawl, planned for June 19, 20 and 21, 2015 in Townsend, Tennessee, is a gathering for Honda Ruckus, Grom and other small displacement rides at the foot of the Great Smoky Mountains.
2015 Thunderfest at Anglesey May 30   31
The 2015 Thunderfest will be held at Anglesey Circuit during the weekend of May 30-31.
Custom Ducati Scramblers Debut in Verona
Ducati debuted three custom 2015 Scramblers in Verona at the Motor Bike Expo, giving Deus Italy, Mr. Martini and Officine Mermaid creative license to customize with their own signature flair.
2015 MV Agusta Stradale 800 First Look
MV Agusta hits the sport touring market with its 2015 Stradale 800, an Inline Triple-powered machine with a host of electronic aides and plenty of Italian style.
2014 Birmingham Bike Show Report
Our man Melling makes his annual trip to the Birmingham Bike Show, where he revels in gearhead debauchery at the new Kawasaki H2R.
Ural MIR Limited Edition First Look
Ural has announced a limited edition model to its line up with the 2014 Ural MIR, with only 20 units planned for production the MIR celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Shuttle-MIR program.
Norton Domiracer First Ride
Our friends at MCN give MotoUSA readers a taste of how the limited-edition Norton Domiracer rides and sounds.
Tech   More at AIMExpo 2014
There were lots of new motorcycle gadgets, accessories and some off the wall items at the 2014 AIMExpo, here we look at some of the products that caught our attention.
Luggage   Parts at AIMExpo 2014
We look at some of the motorcycle luggage coming down the line in 2015, as well as new exhaust options and tires on display at the 2014 AIMExpo.
Apparel at AIMExpo 2014
Motorcycle apparel brands were well represented during the 2014 AIMExpo, with brands focused on the urban café scene, adventure touring, cruising and racing in abundance.
Helmets at AIMExpo 2014
There were plenty of choices when it came to helmets during the 2014 AIMExpo, and we take a look as some of the new product coming out in 2015 and beyond.

Login or sign up to comment.

x2468   August 16, 2011 09:17 PM
Plus i find my self seriously questioning this test. first of all, it should have been done with a 600cc sportbike, something a v-storm (or at least anything you would ACTUALLY tour on), and maybe a Sportster. I'd like to see the entire study in full published. How are they measuring the inefficiencies attributed with economies of scale for example? That's not something easily quantifiable. Plus damages to road services and infrastructure in nill at best. With the kind of logic that goes into the test you could come up with a good reason to make anything illegal, from Golf to downhill skiing.
x2468   August 16, 2011 09:11 PM
One of the biggest problems the article indicates is ECONOMIES OF SCALE. That pretty much means that if more people rode motorcycles the cost going into producing one would go down and the efficiency of assembly would go up. MEANING WE NEED MORE RIDERS. But wow... that was the most depressing thing i've ever read on MCUSA. First time i've ever thought why the hell did they publish this. I bet all 97 and counting facebook likes were from Enviro-nazis. Yes, I agree, we need to be mature and self regulate. we probably shouldn't be driving through wet trails with 33" mud tires that have 2.5" deep lugs (atvs) we shouldn't be riding with ridiculously loud race pipes on the street or in the trail, and other common sense items that boil down to respect. But there's a certain point where enough is enough. Besides there are advances in technology that are on the way to help. I just saw a company in the US that has designed a green motor oil made from plant matter. 60% bio-degrades from the environment in 60 days. and it doesn't have to be drilled out of the ground. They sponsor a Rolex cup team. Factor that into the above equation and things would change. I'd rather read articles about something like that!
pstech   August 13, 2011 05:21 PM
Your argument assumes that because it is recreation, we should have less tolerance for the polution it adds to the world. Can you find the phrase "persuit of happiness" in any of those founding documents that enumerate our rights? The perspective you should look at for our emission leniency toward motorcycles is that the cost of making them as clean as cars is very high for the small reduction that would be achieved. If recreational equipment must be free of any impact on the planet to justify existance then look out surfers. They'll be after you next. I'm quite sure the use of expanded polystyrene and resins in production of you boards makes you a gross poluter too.
Raubert   August 11, 2011 08:25 PM
I won't deny that motorcycles could be made much cleaner. In fact huge progress is being made right now as more and more bikes are sporting catalytic converters and oxygen sensors; even Harleys feature fuel injection these days. That said, the study cited in this article is a joke. The Yamaha V-max has THE LARGEST engine of any current motorcycle; it's the quad cab cummins turbo diesel of motorcycles, a complete outlier. Similarly, the ZX-14r is the highest capacity sport bike; the only car it should be compared to is a Corvette Z06. A better choice for this study would have been the best selling Kawasaki Ninja 650R or Suzuki Sv650, as these are much more representative of most bikes on the road. Don't even get me started on the Fat Boy; the demographic who buys that bike wouldn't be caught dead in an economy car. I don't want to be too harsh but by neglecting to do an LCA on a single reasonable motorcycle, it really looks like the people behind this study are out to villainize motorcycles.
Poncho167   August 11, 2011 03:49 PM
I knew lawn mowers are one of the biggest poluters but motorcycles never crossed my mind. My 2008 KLR650 currently gets 63-65 mpg which is a nice improvement from the 50 mpg I got on it when it was new. 50 mpg was very disappointing to me but it improved with mileage which will be turning over 21,000 today when I leave work.

I still don't understand why motorcycles get such poor mileage for the light weight that they are. You can drive cars that weigh more than four times and achieve the same or better mileage of a lot of motorcycles. Heck, I think my bike should get 100 mpg based on its weight.

FelixLeiter   August 9, 2011 11:30 AM
My bike (Triumph S3) weights 7 times less than a run of the mill economy car (Civic, Corolla, Sentra etc) yet costs almost the same as the basic model of those cars. Therefore, my bike is 7 times less efficient during production...this is what contributes to a high life-cycle cost. Same goes for the Fat Boy in the article, 4.5 times less weight than a nicely equipped economy car = 4.5 x less efficient. Our high life-cycle costs are a direct result of motorcycles being sold at the prices of "toys" as opposed to reasonable methods of transport.
KLR650fan   August 7, 2011 05:27 AM
"The less motorcycles seem like practical and reasonable means of transportation and the more they seem like excessive recreational toys, the easier it is to justify their regulation. The more outrageous, the longer our forks and swingarms, the higher our handlebars, the smaller our seats and the louder our pipes the less practical our rides seem. The more pollution they belch out and the more energy they consume, the harder it is to justify their presence on public streets."(quote) WOW! what part of this paragraph from the article is true scientific research?! "Justify their presence on public streets"-Excuse me but can anything mechanical that drives on our streets be justified? I have ridden my KLR650 5000 miles commuting to work this year at an average of 50 mpg. That is aprx. 100 gallons of gas. My car if driven the same distance getting 24mpg, would use aprx.208 gallons of fuel, More than double! I personally like the savings as well as enjoying riding-thats enough justification in my book! Life cycle analysis- Is this a practical way to way to look at the motorcycle community? All this article does is give the anti-bike crowd more fuel for their arguements. If this was about practical comparisons and 'good' for the environment reasons, than there is an awful lot of 4 wheeled vehicle information that needs to be scrutinized...Self regulation, Hah!

mikedard   August 4, 2011 12:32 PM
"ckandarian August 4, 2011 08:43 AM bunch a BS we are not gross polluters...." Knowing that fraudulent studies have been presented to sway the state of California into making regulations I'm inclined to agree with you, it's BS.
ckandarian   August 4, 2011 08:43 AM
bunch a BS we are not gross polluters....
mikedard   August 3, 2011 12:25 PM
I'm looking at 2007 "European and US Emissions Standards For Motorcycles" report that shows a graph with North America having less than 8% of total world motorcycle registrations. Another bar graph shows 2007 "% of Mobile Source Emissions" in the US for CO=.20%, HC=.50%, Nox=.20%, and PM=.10%. Pretty low percentage share for Mobile polluting sources. Makes me think pollution is not the reason for additional government regulations. Let us see, drive the cost of the motorcycle up larger tax revenue per unit for the state. Greater control justifying where you can ride. Lower government health insurance costs. I don't know... what other reasons can you come up justifying regulating Pollution on a group that pollutes less they the lawn equipment used in the US? The EPA states that's running your lawn mower for 1 hour= 11 cars on a 1 hour trip!!!
ba65   August 3, 2011 10:34 AM
It's definitely an interesting article. The only thing I question is the math around passenger miles. You can say that the average passenger miles per physical mile traveled on any bike is 1.3, I get that. But what number are you using for a car? The part I have trouble with is when there is 1 person traveling in the car. I would like to think my 70 mile commute to work is more efficient (and greener) on my bike than taking a car the same 70 miles by myself. My car MPG is about half my bikes MPG. (28 mpg vs. 55)
Vertigo   August 3, 2011 09:38 AM
This is one of those studies/articles that needs to be so much better than it currently is...I say this because it's an important topic for the public to know and discuss...but because the methedology and data are so flawed, it's hard to draw any hard conclusions from it, as presented. As pointed out by others, the bike selections were horrible. Whether the researcher is simply ignorant of bikes in general, or is biased against them is unknown, but the results are the same either way. Even IF the bike selections don't widely effect the results, they are key in our interpretation of the results. For example, if someone conducted a study of how bad cars are in pollution...and used a Corvette and a Lincoln town car for the tests, Civic and Prius drivers would simply dismiss the study because their cars are so different--EVEN if the conclusions would have been applicable to all cars. Similarly, in selecting ALL WILDLY inefficient bikes for this study, I'm sure half of the biking community immediately discarded the results as only representative of certain machinery, when none of us really know what is the truth. I think if they wanted to be more scientific (and more globally inclusive) they should have at least selected a scooter, a mid-size standard (something like a Suzuki Gladius), and a cruiser. And if they wanted to also add a supersport or touring bike, then so be it. If nothing else, they could claim that they included the "greenest" possible bikes they could find, such that the claims of bias will not emerge. Aside from the issues, with the study itself--I found this article to lack data (sorry for the critique). When reporting a study like this--in my opinion, data is key--charts and graphs are needed to put the conclusions in context. We are told bikes are "bad"--but just how bad? Also, how do buses, trains and planes compare to cars? These are all datapoints that will drive home the point of just how much these conclusions mean. As currently written, this article is very forgettable and vague--which as I stated in the beginning is a shame, because it is a very important topic.
CEM   August 3, 2011 05:42 AM
I have been biking for a while, and every so many years someone one does a survey on the lastest bike news,but this takes the cake.What ever happened to common sense.If we clean up are act,HA HA, they wont be happy.Dont they realize that other countries could care less it doesnt matter what we do some people are not happy.Example(CHINA) just to name 1. THEY make the US LOOK like DISNEY LAND and air quality.So if you are a tree HUGGER.Please if you ever need a 911 emergency unit for a life or death matter,dont call them they use gas.P.S.HOW due you get around to travel or everyday needs.GAS?
spencer0071   August 3, 2011 03:06 AM
The point of view shown here has some fundamental flaws. I do not believe that the motorcycles selected shows a typical representation of the motorcycle population. Two of the motorcycles have displacements over 1600cc. The article also suggests that by adding passengers the ‘efficiency’ of a given vehicle will increase by that same number. According to the article by adding a passenger to my gas guzzling truck I will reduce the amount of energy consumed and reduce pollution by half. My truck uses no less fuel and emits no less pollution into the air for the same trip with a passenger than without a passenger. Yes my truck has done more ‘work’ but at no less cost to me or impact on the environment. Another point to consider is how often a vehicle is operated without passengers. I calculate than more than 90% of my time behind in my truck is without passengers. The difference is operating a 5,600 pound, 5.7 liter V-8 monster that gets 13 mpg or a 500 pound, one liter inline 4 that gets 48 mpg. Roughly, my truck would have to transport 4 at all times to rival the life cycle impact of a motorcycle. I do not dispute that a Prius with four passengers will consume less energy and pollute less per passenger mile than my motorcycle.
nevadabob1   August 2, 2011 08:00 PM
I am a Touring distance rider, and I love being able to see our country like this. I understand and aggree that in real terms we are not the good guys in the EVO quest. I ride an HD however to keep the right to ride I will except almost any needed change to keep riding, Bob
DocNick   August 2, 2011 06:33 PM
STILL Bul!sh!*.

A car weighs 3,500 pounds; a motorcycle 700.

That's FIVE TIMES as much ore dug up, transported, smelted, poured, shipped, stamped, welded, machined, assembled, and painted. Five times as much plastic refined out of petrochemicals. Paint? How much more painted surface area does a car have? What about wiring? Maybe it's cheaper to buy in bulk but it's still metal on the inside and plastic on the outside with a lot of energy expended to make it out of raw materials. If you'ge going to look at the big picture, look at the WHOLE picture.

22AaronW   August 2, 2011 08:20 AM
Great article. I did a little miles per dollar calculation to compare my ZX-10R with my econo-hatchback, taking into account the price difference in premium gas. 8 miles for a buck on the Ninja and 7.5 in the car. The maintenance cost is twice as expensive on the bike, insurance is more, and I get stopped by the police about once a month to get questioned about weather or not I have any drugs or weapons. Yet both vehicles have about 45k miles. Why do I ride so much? The same reason you do, because I love it.
Africord   August 2, 2011 07:00 AM
An underlying question that this article poses, but does not directly ask, are we willing to exchange performance for pollution reduction and planetary impact? I ride a VFR800 and know that most of the modifications that I and fellow riders of my model of motorcycle consider involve increasing noise and hydrocarbon emissions to make the bike "better". Can we and should we become "eco-warriors" that look to improve fuel mileage and extend our model's already long life? (Many VFR's can and do live beyond 100,000 miles.) Are we willing to forgo changing out sticky sportbike tires every 4,000 miles and use sport touring rubber for at lesat 10,000 miles? We could improve our LCA to at least match tourers and cruisers. But do we care?