Motorcycles and the Environment

The environmental footprint of a motorcycle is small when compared to large SUV's and large luxury vehicles. Being highly maneuverable, they can ease traffic congestion and make moving from one place to another much easier. Because of their inherent design, motorcycles average between 40 - 50 miles per gallon, making them energy efficient and cheap to drive. Because of this, many people are using them for their daily commute. With prices at the pump hovering around $3, this makes good sense. For all their positive attributes, motorcycles are not without their problems concerning the environment. The focus of this article will be on the impact the motorcycle has on the environment, both good and bad.

How Green Are Motorcycles?

Motorcycles burn fuel very efficiently. There are little greenhouse gases produced by this efficient machine. The problem with motorcycles, though, is that they emit carbon monoxide, a pollutant that is harmful to the environment. Studies show that they can emit ten times as much carbon monoxide as other gasoline-powered vehicles, and more than 80 times as much as one of the gas-electric hybrids on a per-kilometer basis. This is a real problem in countries such as the Philippines, Malaysia, China, and Viet Nam, where a large number of drivers ride motorcycles. One thing to keep in mind -- these countries purchase fuel that is considered "dirty" due to its cheaper price and this can only add to pollutants. Much progress has been made since this study was conducted in 2001. Honda has recently passed the Euro 1 standard, a world standard for measuring the cleanliness of vehicular emissions, on their bikes manufactured in the Philippines. Harley Davidson now manufactures their bikes with a catalytic converter installed and many manufacturers are following suit. This is good news for the industry.

The Electric Motorcycle

We are now seeing an electric motorcycle on the market that is nothing short of amazing. One in particular, the Stealth from Hybrid Technologies, is one of the best looking motorcycles I have seen. This Harley "wannabe" is 500cc's of bike that looks just like a classic street machine. With a top speed of 50 mph, it should satisfy even the most jaded green advocate. Other companies are producing these machines at an alarming rate. Many go 50 miles between charges, and can be quickly recharged in an hour. Think electric motorcycles are for wimps and geeks? At Portland International Speedway, the Killacycle crew turned a 158 mile per hour run in 8.192 seconds. This 390 horsepower electric motorcycle is the fastest electric motorcycle around.

Off Road Motorcycles

One area of concern today is the impact off road motorcycles have on the environment. These machines, often of the two stroke variety, are very noisy. This impact alone is cause to ban many off road motorcycles in state parks. One great area of concern is their impact on streams and marshland:

  • Banks are broken down by the large knobby tires of the bikes
  • Crossing streams and wetlands create a very real damage to fauna
  • Vegetation loss is a large factor
  • Introduction of non-native plants is accomplished by the bike carrying seed and plant matter from other areas into the existing environment.
  • Soil erosion is prevalent, caused by the big tires churning up the earth
  • Wildlife is disturbed from both the noise and the presence of many riders.

Because of this impact, Executive Orders 11644 and 11989 (signed by President Nixon in 1972 and Carter in 1977) were instituted to "ensure that the use of off-road vehicles on public lands will be controlled and directed so as to protect the resources of those lands, to promote the safety of all users of those lands, and to minimize conflicts among the various uses of those lands." People are learning to be more cautious of their use of federal and state lands. Special areas for off road use have been set aside so that riders still have access, but the environment will be protected.

The motorcycle industry has made great strides in making sure that motorcycles are friendlier to the environment. Through the use of catalytic converters, improvements in engine design, and an awareness of the environment, they have made many improvements in the past decade. Because motorcycles are an efficient and economical means of transportation, motorcycles are more environmentally friendly than ever.

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Alden Smith is an award winning author and regular contributor to He writes on a variety of subjects, and excels in research.