May 1, 2010

Not Like Everybody

All Rights Reserved © 2008 Thomas W. Day

We motorcyclists are an odd group, even compared to other members of our odd species. We are so full of contradictions that it's hard to take seriously anything humans say or do. Motorcyclists are even less consistent than "normal" people.

For example, I've heard motorcyclists claim that our vehicle should be a protected species because by riding motorcycles we are saving fuel, creating less pollution, and creating less traffic congestion. Some of that seems legitimate, although there are some motorcycles that get pretty miserable mileage and many motorcycles barely do better than modern compact cars. However, we aren't anything special in the emissions realm. A 2008 L.A. Times article1 about motorcycles stated, "In California, such bikes make up 3.6% of registered vehicles and 1% of vehicle miles traveled, yet they account for 10% of passenger vehicles' smog-forming emissions in the state. In fact, the average motorbike is about 10 times more polluting per mile than a passenger car, light truck or SUV, according to a California Air Resources Board comparison of emissions-compliant vehicles."

Even that is misleading because motorcycles are "tested at lower speeds, which pollutes less" and a bike only has to maintain that level of emissions "for the first 18,600 miles of a bike's life, compared with 150,000 miles for cars." Those lax regulations only exist for bikes over 179cc. Smaller motorcycles and scooters can crank pollutants into the air without any regulation. The Times story concluded with "Motorcycles, even small ones, are more polluting than Hummers, but it's the best that can be done for now."

Leaving behind my paranoia of being a pin in a rolling bowling pins configuration, I went on a short group ride a year ago. I discovered what those critics say about motorcycle emissions is true. In the middle of a pack of mostly modern, mostly unmodified bikes, the smell of unburned gases was strong and, after a few miles, I bailed out of the crowd to clear my head and wait for my eyes to stop watering. My wife, who is sensitive to petroleum fumes, was close to nauseous before we left the pack. A bunch of motorcycles is as noxious as a convoy of military vehicles (another group of notorious EPA rule violators).

While individual motorcycles are definitely able to reduce traffic congestion, a parade of motorcycles quickly makes up for all the benefit individual riders can create. Some riders take a lot of pride in hauling out their garage jewelry once or twice a year for a "charity ride." It has always seemed to me that simply putting the gas and jewelry money used for these rides into the charity would do a lot more good, but maybe I'm missing the point. Those parades of slow-moving hippobikes jam up traffic for miles and raise the general ire toward motorcycling. They do, in fact, raise motorcycle awareness among the general public, but not in a good way.

Likewise, motorcyclists try to link the noise of our vehicle to other similarly irritating noise producers. It's true that there are all kinds of irrationally noisy vehicles on the road and it's also true that the police do a lousy job of enforcing noise standards. However, if you would spend a couple hours along a major road with an SPL (Sound Pressure Level) meter, you would find that motorcycles are consistently the loudest non-emergency vehicle noise maker on the street and in most neighborhoods. It's fun to argue that if motorcycles have to be noise limited, every other noise source should be equally restricted, but the logical way to reduce any kind of unwanted activity is to go after the worst offenders first and work your way down the ladder to the least offensive offender. Motorcycles are at the top of the worst noise offenders.

Motorcyclists go ballistic on any attempt to resist attempts to legislate safety into motorcycling. Cagers, of course, wonder why they have to wear seatbelts and buy cars with airbags and safety cages when motorcyclists don't even have to wear clothing, let alone helmets. Bikers rant that if they have to wear helmets, everybody else should, too. The fact is, once again, we're the least safe on the street. Even bicyclists have fewer deaths-per-mile than motorcyclists. In most statistical measures, we're more unsafe than pedestrians. Again, it's reasonable to fix the worst things first. We're high on the list of worst things; less than 1% of highway traffic and approximately 12% (nationally and internationally) of fatalities.

Motorcyclists see themselves differently than what the social mirror reflects. A writer for Motorcyclist Magazine in an article aptly titled "The Great Pretender," imagined, "Everyone--at every stoplight, at every rest area and every gas stop--will want to talk about your [Harley] and participate in, however vicariously, the collective Harley-Davidson fantasy." I'm probably a little sensitive to words like "everyone," "everybody," "no one," and other all-inclusive terms that abuse reality. It's possible that many downtown Milwaukee residents are continually impressed with every Harley rider they see, but I doubt that every one of them feels that passionately about an object that is no more remarkable than a Big Mac. A few years back, I went on a ride with a friend who owned a vintage Harley something-or-other. It was heavily customized, well-polished, and sparkled like something mostly covered in chrome should. We rode from the Cities to Duluth and back via Minnesota and Wisconsin two-lanes and country roads. Every time we stopped (fairly often occurrences because the Harley beat up my friend's back pretty badly), a few people wanted to ask about my Suzuki SV and a few people talked up the Harley. He was a little miffed at the people who were disinterested in his badass ride. He probably knew that he wouldn't be able to tell our friends that "everyone" wanted to wanted to talk about his Harley.

Some motorcyclists like to think that the public service they perform by being the most obnoxious vehicle the on the road should be rewarded with legislative protection. The fantastic fetish with special "failure to yield" protection seems to be a contradiction to the "I have a right to take risks" anti-helmet attitude. It seems to me that someone who is disinterested in wearing minimal protective gear ought to at least be able to face the fact that when bad things happen, they're going to be a lot worse if you add the risk of being naked to the elements and asphalt.

According to these characters, you can't improve motorcycle safety by protecting the organ that is most often damaged in a crash, but you can legislate better driver awareness by making a "failure to yield" violation a felony. You have to wonder if these folks have made investments in privately owned prisons.

Another example of the same logic comes in the battle to protect risky activities from added insurance costs. Some states have representatives whose claim to fame is creating bills to prevent insurance companies from "discriminating" against consumers who engage in risky activities. If the public is supposed to be subsidizing our risky habits, what value do we provide for them? A recent unsigned letter-writer punctuated his rant with "Cagers need to TOLERATE us, not the other way around." [His capitalization] Obviously, this is a modern definition of "need" The fact is, highway traffic in the US has no need of motorcycles at all. We contribute an insignificant portion of commuter traffic; especially in places like Minnesota. If motorcycles were banned from public highways it wouldn't inconvenience the public at all. In fact, if you take into account the noise, public menace, and congestion that "group rides" create, most of the public would be glad to see motorcycles vanish from public roads.

Motorcyclists do epitomize the American individual-over-society attitude. The idea that "my rights are more important than the needs and best interests of the overall society" is well demonstrated in American history. When times get tough, that attitude gets more careful scrutiny than during ordinary conditions. Change happens and, when it does, the unnecessary and detrimental activities of the privileged few often get swept into history. We should be careful to not be so useless that we end up as a historical footnote.



Anonymous said...

Ah, now we get to the heart of the matter. Let's compare the emissions caused or brought about by the average middle-class lifestyle - home heating, vehicles, vacation jet travel, manufactured goods, entertainment, lighting, paint-and-varnish, clothing, to someone whose life is really "green" - someone like...Mahatma Gandhi. He sat on a warm stone, wearing a diaper, and had nothing. Zero. No car, no house, barely (by the look of him) enough to eat. But he was not ineffective. He got BIG STUFF done, like the independence of India.

Also, an average motorcycle uses 1/8 the materials necessary to construct a car. Smelting metals, rolling, welding, forming, and painting them have big energy costs. Motorcycles take up little room on highways. Machinery is bought by the pound

But Gandhi got 'er done at minimum enviro cost. He should be the ideal - not some oaf in a Hummer.

Here in the US, people think two Priuses are more green than one. But the simple fact is that the cost of anything is a good measure of the environmental disturbance involved in its creation. Priuses cost 40% more than comparable single-engined econo-cars, so I conclude that their manufacture creates a 40% larger environmental disturbance. Same with a rooftop solar array. Its cost on a per-kilowatt basis is roughly 4-6X what equivalent coal or fuel oil would cost, which is why no sensible person has a rooftop solar array. Again, stirring around to develop and manufacture silicon photovoltaics is obviously environmentally costly. So is getting the Chinese to sell lanthanum for the batteries in the Prius fleet.

Mass production will bring costs down? Prius has been in production ten years now, and Toyota currently estimate they make 3-5% on that car. Is that a business? Or is it a "green promo" loss leader?

Until saving energy saves money, it can't happen. And simply taxing the shit out of it just swells the already large numbers of Americans who have become economically unnecessary.


T.W. Day said...

Saving energy is a pretty complicated subject for a simple guy like me to dive into. A physicist friend is convinced that if the country were to insulate every household and business building to modern standards, we'd save more energy than by any other outlay. I met an engineer in South Dakota who told me that each wind generator the state or power company installs will have to work constantly, flawlessly and without maintenance for a decade to break even, energy-wise. Some time back, I saw a film that related all of our favorite consumer products to a portion of, or quantities of, barrels of oil. I was amazed at how much energy it takes to make a single microprocessor. In retrospect, that was pretty foolish but I'd never thought about it.

I worry about the byproducts of all the lithium we're using in new battery technology. I'm not sure about your cost=energy analysis, but it's possible. It's also possible that the cost is related to complexity in process which isn't a direct energy component. Manufacturing is a messy business, however. Nothing there ever changes much. Large scale manufacturing, in my experience, is exponentially messier than small scale production.

Your last statement has been at the core of my own belief for decades. Many people are unnecessary. They don't have the skills to fit into a technological society and never will. They don't have the motivation or the information to find a place where they are useful. Like most Americans, they believe they have been granted the right to be happy instead of the right to pursue it and they desperately resent the fact that the pursuit is hard work. Human population has expanded well beyond useful and reasonable and too many people with authority and power who should know better either don't get that or don't want to get it.

Anonymous said...

A study done in England concluded that the Diesel fuel required to truck recycling materials back and forth across the country made it sounder environmentally, overall, to take them to local dumps. I suspect much of this craze is the same.

Green is fun for many people until it becomes mandatory. When people are compelled to go shopping once a month, six-in-a-car with their assigned partners, they won't be so supportive. And I doubt it gets to that. If there were a shortage of energy the oil companies would be furiously developing the NEXT BIG THING. They aren't.


T.W. Day said...

Your faith in the foresight of oil companies (or business in general) far exceeds mine. I don’t think most execs could maintain a lemonade stand without federal support and their inheritance. I fully expect humans to burn the last drop of oil before worrying about a NEXT BIG THING. Cream isn’t the only thing that floats to the top of a bowl. I do not understand how “single container” recycling is supposed to be efficient. In an urban community, when households and businesses sort their recyclables and those materials are kept separated at pickup and delivery, I’m pretty sure that system could be efficient and useful. Most cities appear to want to cater to the “feeling” of Green rather than the reality, so they go to single container systems and somebody, somewhere has to resort all that crap. One look at an urban landfill ought to make any reasonable person question the wisdom of that English study. We are building mountains of waste.

I have to wonder if there is a NEXT BIG THING. Nuclear energy makes recycling look clever. Many of our “alternatives” require so much oil to produce and maintain that they are BTU losers. All of the systems we’ve discussed have serious drawbacks and efficiency limitations. We might just run to the end of this and go back to living in caves (after a World War or three to fight over the remains). In his book, Hubbert's Peak, Ken Deffeyes tossed off the fact that OPEC was created to divvy out North Africa’s oil resources in proportion to the reserves each of the members claimed the possessed. Those numbers have not changed, miraculously, since 1971. Saudi Arabia, for example, has pumped out 1-9 million barrels a day and, according to their “experts,” that hasn’t reduced their reserves at all. They must be squashing dinosaurs and prehistoric plants into oil, somewhere out in the desert, to create this miracle. Or just blowing smoke up their own superstitious asses and infecting that mental condition on our genius oil company execs.

Anonymous said...

First, you can't rely on non-scientific articles about tricky subjects like air pollution. A few years ago there were lots of articles like this about boat engines, but when you dug deeper it turned out that someone was using back-of-the-envelope calculations assuming that all outboard motors were the dirtiest type of two-strokes. Second, it has been shown numerous times that insurance companies don't accurately price the risk on many things. In reality what they do is charge as much as the market will bear. They make their real money on other investments. So, insurance rates tend to rise during economic good times, when the market will bear more, and decline during recessions, even though the risk doesn't change. Third, I'm optimistic our kids will be able to figure it all out--I think they are a lot more informed than we were at their ages.

T.W. Day said...

If by "informed," you mean they know what their friends are Twittering and they are killer video game players I suspect you are right. This is the least math-enabled generation in decades. Our kids' kids have taken fewer math and science classes from less capable math and science teachers by the time they escape No Child's Behind Left K-12 testing torture. Unless our best-and-brightest find a way to do something useful with financial "instruments" or legal maneuvers, those bankers and lawyers will be administrating the failure of the technological culture they abandoned.

As for motorcycle emissions, all you have to do is ride in a pack of cruisers and you'll suspect that the California study was optimistic. All those "modified" Hardlys spew unburned fuel like a British Petroleum off-shore well.