A lot of well-intentioned people have hopped on to motorcycles and scooters recently in an effort to do their part to help out the environment. Sadly, they’re actually polluting a lot more on even the smallest of scooters than they would be driving a car. It seems counter-intuitive because there are so many reasons why two wheels should be better than four:
- Scooters and motorcycles get better gas mileage
- They’re smaller, so they use less materials to produce and ship
- They’re extremely popular in European countries and Japan, which are more eco-friendly than the US
While these things are true and often advertised, they don’t quite paint the whole picture when it comes to the environmental impact of 2-wheeled, motorized transportation.
Scooters and motorcycles can pollute 90 times as much as SUVs
Yes, you read correctly. It doesn’t seem to make sense because of the wildly different sizes and fuel consumption of the two vehicles. In fact, it was the EPA that tested a Yamaha YZR R6 and found that it emitted 90 times more hydrocarbons than a Dodge Durango SUV. Hydrocarbons are the pollutants responsible for forming ozone and smog, which is both a serious health risk as well as an extreme eyesore.
The reason why scooters and motorcycles pollute so much more is because there is much less regulation when it comes to these vehicles. Technical and market restrictions have made it difficult to pass legislation cleaning up motorcycle tailpipes for years. For example, because most motorcycles and scooters are smaller and cheaper than cars, adding modern catalytic converters and emissions systems would add a tremendous amount of weight and cost to most 2-wheeled vehicles. This means that, unlike cars’, motorcycle and scooter exhaust is heavily polluted.
Another consideration is the large amount of two-strokes that are still used and sold. Many manufacturers, like Honda, have made plans to completely phase out the use of two-strokes, but because they are cheaper they will continue to be sold in quantity until legislation can be passed banning them from use. Two-strokes pollute so much more because they run on a gas/oil mix, meaning that every combustion cycle is burning motor oil as well as gasoline. Similarly, the engine’s design allows unburnt fuel to escape through the exhaust and into the air.
Many wealthier nations are starting to place tighter restrictions on motorcycles and scooters as the technology becomes cheaper and their emissions make up a greater percent of total vehicle emissions. However, in countries like Canada new 2-wheeled vehicles can still pollute up to 14 times as much as automobiles, so there still is no perfect solution.
To scoot or not to scoot: a balancing act
If you’re a diehard environmentalist you’re going to want to stay away from scooters. I know from my time as a Honda Metropolitan owner that most riders would get between 90-110 mpg, but I also know that they exhaust was pretty smelly, even though it was a four-stroke Honda.
On the other hand, however, you’d be getting 2-4 times the fuel economy and emitting fewer green house gases. However, the magnitude that these are reduced is tremendously outweighed by the magnitude that smog-forming pollutants are increased. Nevertheless, you will save money on gas, but riding a scooter isn’t quite as safe or air-conditioned as a car.
Personally, I ditched the scooter in favor of my bike for shorter trips and a car with good fuel economy for longer ones. You’ll have to make your own choice, but make no mistake, scooters and motorcycles are not the most environmentally sound transportation choice.
For more on the issue, check out this LATimes article.
EDIT: Thanks for the heads up from a commenter, because I obviously didn’t make my intention clear enough. As the commenter points out, there are clearly more ecofriendly scooters out there than others, just as there is a huge variety in cars. Hell, you can even get electric scooters (just as you can get electric cars), so it’s not that 2-wheels is evil.
Rather, I wanted to point out that emissions regulations are clearly lagging and that, in studies, 2-wheeled transport contributes more smog-forming pollution than it’s share of actual vehicle miles traveled because the average motorcycle/scoot has worse emissions than the average car.
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