Sep 30, 2011

Bikes vs. Cars on MythBusters

MythBusters did a pretty thoughtful comparison between motorcycles and cages, on an economy, pollution, and practicality basis.  Like they said, the comparison "wasn't perfect," but it was a pretty fair comparison. Obviously, bikes are inefficient on multiple levels. Economically, motorcycles barely make any sense at all, particularly the way we ride and select our vehicles in the US. Hell, about the time the microscopic advantage in fuel economy starts to pay off we have to buy new tires.

I keep comparing my motorcycle transportation economy to my daughter's experience with her 1990 Geo Metro convertible. She gets 50-something miles per hour, sometimes pushing 60mpg. I get 50-something miles per hour. Her Geo has more than 100,000 miles on the odometer and has crossed the country a couple of times in the Geo. She replaces tires because they begin to crack before they wear out. Her car was low emissions in 1990. My first low emissions motorcycle (2004 DL-650) was manufactured in 2004. We have about the same luggage capacity, when all 3 of my cases are on the DL. We can both carry a passenger, but her passenger is more comfortable. I can go faster. She can go further on a tank of gas. She loves her Geo and maintains it with the care and detail worthy of any garage candy owner.

I thought about this a lot while my brother, Larry, and I were looping Lake Superior this summer. We were "riding together" on two motorcycles, both getting 55mpg, for 1600 miles. We passed dozens of biker clans of four to a dozen riders, some with passengers, all doing what we were doing. As this trip wore on, I began to question the purpose. Larry and I don't see each other much, maybe for five days out of every three years on average. We stopped for fuel and novelty on the trip, but we had 1600 miles to cover in four days. Traveling by motorcycle, even with a passenger, isn't about being with someone.

Motorcycling is a solo activity and only becomes silly when we try to pretend it's a community thing. One motorcyclist traveling unbeaten roads, traveling light and flexibly, makes some sense. Not a lot of sense, but at least it's not entirely irrational. Even traveling with one other rider is irrational under most conditions. I've been talking to a friend about doing the Pan American Highway in the next year or two. On the Lake Superior trip with Larry, I realized that trip would make more sense in a VW than by motorcycle. Even better, a VW-powered dune buggy setup for touring. Everything from fuel economy to security to camping to maintenance makes more sense in a VW Bug-based vehicle. Put a Baja-quality suspension on the Bug and even a dirt bike begins to seem silly.

So, we aren't efficient, we aren't low impact (unless the real advantage of off-road motorcycles were set loose), and we aren't communal. We better be good at something and we must be, because a whole lot of us ride motorcycles when better transportation is available all around us.

13 comments:

  1. I doubt many lie in their death beds wishing they had lived life more "efficiently."

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  2. Maybe, but I suspect a lot of people who have been forced out of their homes and are laboring under debt and a lifestyle that their income never supported wish they'd have been a lot more efficient.

    I think ignoring efficiency, practicality, and environmental impact might be a path obsolescence. Kevin Cameron has argued that motorcycles, as we ride them, have peaked efficiency-wise. He's way smarter than me, so he could be right. If so, it's going to be hard to justify highway access for vehicles that are inherently unsafe, polluting, and inefficient.

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  3. I suspect gas engines are on their way out. Electric bikes are already going around the Isle of Man at over 100 mph. Pretty soon a lot of us will be riding street versions of these, basically eliminating the pollution aspect vs. a car, then the attractiveness of reduced highway wear and tear, less traffic congestion, less materials required, etc. will look pretty "efficient" when taking a single person to work and back. In the meantime, enjoy the last whiffs of gasoline and exhaust in the morning while you can...

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  4. I hope you are right. I'm having a hard time holding out much hope for electric vehicles, especially based on the resistance to research in the US.

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  5. Electric vehicles are only emission-free when the electricity is produced by an emission-free means of power generation.

    Also, the production and disposal of batteries and/or capacitors containing toxic and environment-impacting materials must be considered.

    All that said, I seriously lust after a near-silent bike with monster torque! :-)

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  6. How much more effecient could motorcycles be if we didn't have to behave as cars in traffic? Waiting in line for cars to get going at stop lights?
    I know even on a scooter I can get started faster,why not filter the sickles to the head of traffic........dare we say " lane splitting" ?

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  7. Shadow Shack10/4/11, 1:02 PM

    "dare we say " lane splitting" ?"


    Lane splitting was the wrong choice of words, that's called --- as the poster described it --- "filtering", and many other countries permit it.

    Vocabulary aside, I couldn't agree more.

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  8. Splitting/filtering would change our urban efficiency a bit. It won't fix the emissions, fuel economy, and cost of operation issues, though. That is what MythBusters directly addressed.

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  9. Shadow Shack10/5/11, 12:33 PM

    But did it truly address that, or simply point out that a minority portion of the emissions testing was higher? I didn't see the episode but found this much:

    http://www.autoblog.com/2011/10/03/mythbusters-answers-which-is-greener-cars-or-motorcycl/

    "They also produce less carbon dioxide than cars, which accounts for 90 percent of a vehicle's emissions. Where cars pull ahead, though, is in the amount of other noxious gases they produce. The Mythbusters found that bikes produce tons more hydrocarbons, which are carcinogenic; nitrogen oxides, which cause acid rain; and carbon monoxide, everyone's favorite odorless deadly gas. Astoundingly, the 'busters claim bikes produce up to 8,000 percent more carbon monoxide than cars. Yes, 8,000 percent."


    Okay, so they're claiming that because it produces 80 times of a 10% minority outgassing (actually it would be even less than that --- since they state hydrocarbons, notrigen oxides, and CO are the remaining 10% so that minority is even smaller now), that NEGATES the fact that the other 90% of emissions are cleaner, and THAT is what makes the bike is less green?

    It sounds to me like they're claiming that getting pelted with a hundred of bits of pea gravel hurts more than getting hit by a cannon...

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  10. That is quite a counter-intuitive leap. I don't think the somewhat lower carbon dioxide emission output counteracts the 8,000x more emissions output of higher toxin contaminates. I think our argument would be a lot stronger if we could effectively argue that the massive roadway support required for cars is unnecessary for bikes, which is true. We don't need as much paved road, if any, and we don't cause as much wear on the existing roads.

    The manufacturing resources argument was pretty flawed, I thought. I don't see how "economies of scale" applies accurately in the modern just-in-time factory world. The fact that a motorcycle assembly line can work on multiple models simultaneously and more effectively than car lines is more in favor of motorcycle production efficiency than cages. I think the boys stepped out of their area of comprehension on that point.

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  11. When I ride my R1200GS into work, I have little illusion that somehow I'm being more efficient than my wife who is driving her little 2005 Honda Civic. Let's be quite honest...I'm not. It is self-indulgent.

    If I ride the KLX250S? I suppose I can up my eco smugness quotient a little bit. On the KLX I will burn far less fuel. But the KLX is a carbureted emission-system-less bike so emissions once again have to be considered.

    I think motorcycles can certainly be a part of the transportation system. Emissions aside, they take up less room on the road, you can park them almost anywhere there is space, they impart less wear and tear on the road, and, as long as we're not talking about hippo-bikes, motorcycles certainly consume less gasoline. Those are all good things.

    However even if gas prices went through the roof you're not going to suddenly see our highways flooded with motorcycles. The general public has little interest in dressing up like a space man and then taking on the risk associated with motorcycles for a couple mpg's.

    And then there is just the general attitude. There are people in this world who simply don't like alternative forms of transportation like bicycles, public transit, walking. We call those people "Americans."

    This year, as I am still young (42) and healthy, I've started riding a bicycle to work. It is only 7 miles one way. Thus far riding the bicycle is so much more gratifying. It is great exercise. The petroleum powered stuff stays home. And just as motorcycles connect you to the environment around you more than cars, bicycles do that x1000000.

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  12. "And then there is just the general attitude. There are people in this world who simply don't like alternative forms of transportation like bicycles, public transit, walking. We call those people 'Americans.'"

    Well said. We are a hefty bunch with low tolerance for practicality, mental or physical exercise, and an inclination to be distracted by mass produced shiny objects. No wonder we've been sold Manhattan Island, multiple times over the last 300 years.

    I commuted by bicycle most days for a decade in California. You're right about the rewards of traveling light. The only people I am ever jealous of when I am on a motorcycle trip are bicyclists.

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  13. "I don't think the somewhat lower carbon dioxide emission output counteracts the 8,000x more emissions output of higher toxin contaminates."

    Well, that was 80x, not 8000x. 8000% is 80x. And that was the worst case. Best case was more like 2x.

    I rode a bicycle to work for a long time. I did enjoy it, even in winter. The worst thing about it? Sharing the road (and narrow shoulders) with cars. So, cars depress the possible amount of bicycle traffic, unlike motorcycles. Add that to the environmental cost of cars, even the latest least-polluting ones.

    "Splitting/filtering would change our urban efficiency a bit. It won't fix the emissions, fuel economy, and cost of operation issues, though."

    How do you figure? Motorized vehicles clearly pollute less when they go the same route with less stopping. Bikes definitely have the advantage here. Emissions would be improved for bikes, not for cars which can't lane-split.

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