Jan 20, 2013

Lane-Splitting and Survivablity

Nah, I don't mean that lane-splitting is a particularly dangerous tactic. I loved splitting lanes for the decade I lived in LA and would do it in a second if it were legal anywhere I ride. The "survivability" portion of this rant is a comment on my anticipation that motorcycles won't be long for public roads, unless something in society changes dramatically.

I've been having a conversation with Andy Goldfine about this since I posted the excellent RideApart lane-splitting video about 10 days ago. He's an incurable optimist and his terrific organization, Ride to Work Day, does quite a bit to try to popularize motorcycle commuting and motorcycles as a "social good." I must have pissed him off, because in his last note he wrote "I disagree that the consumption of motorcycling in wealthy and advanced countries like the United States inevitably must decline and that MC's are a 'dying market'. That's your hubris talking."

I thought a bit about that comment and decided to look up a formal definition of "hubris." To put it simply and clearly, it means "exaggerated pride or self-confidence." I don't see it. I have nothing invested in the failure of motorcycling as a means of transportation. I ride my bike to work, grocery shopping, and for all-around transportation every day I can. I don't have a clue where the "self-confidence" bit would come from or relate to this discussion. I, simply, don't believe that motorcycling and motorcyclists have created enough value to society to exist much longer in public transportation. Like horsey-owners, recreational motorcycles might last into the next century, but I see us going the way of the horse-and-buggy and buggy whips.

Here's my argument, as put to Andy:

Huh? How in the hell could it be "extreme pride" that makes me see the vanishing practicality and use of motorcycles? I love motorcycles, but just don't see the world with that kind of tinted glasses. Although, I'll admit that my vanishing eyesight will, eventually and most likely, be the thing that takes me off of my motorcycles. Could be your self-interest and long dedicated service to everyday motorcycling is making you "optimistic." From a long life of depression, I know I don't have a lot of optimism and I'm inclined to see half-to-mostly-empty glasses everywhere I look, but modern psychology seems pretty clear on the concept that "pessimism is what an optimist calls realism." We might live long enough to see the result of all of this. I think the next 20 years will either see your revolution of motorcycle use or my expectation that motorcycling becomes as "practical" as owning horses.

I don't see motorcycles and bicycles in any part of the same transportation solution. Bicycles require barely any resources. Motorcycles demand the same or more regulations (policing, infrastructure, and environmental testing) as cars. Bicycle use is, and has been, on the increase for decades. Motorcycles are, and have been, in decline since the early 80's. Bicycles have huge popular approval while motorcycles (and their manufacturers) have created a gangster image that most parents reinforce.

A few years back, I had a long and technical conversation with Kevin Cameron who has thought a lot about alternative motorcycle technologies and efficiency; what both of us believe is the future of transportation as we leave the Oil Century. Aerodynamics is a grossly limiting factor for traditional motorcycles and solving that problem creates a vehicle that is as fun to ride as a bus (enclosed, low profile, two-wheel streamliners). Electric motors are already in the 99-something-% efficiency territory, so we're desperately hoping for better battery technology to solve the electric motorcycle problem. Unfortunately, physics and nature are conspiring against us. If for no other reason, compacting more energy in smaller batteries creates considerably more volatile battery storage systems. Talk about having a tiger between your legs; this is a lot like having dynamite between your legs. This goofy "science writer" sort of knows what he's talking about (http://idealab.talkingpointsmemo.com/2013/01/boeing-787-batteries-same-as-those-in-electric-cars-umm-no.php), except for the fact that the chemistry he's claiming isn't and won't be used in electric cars is only true because we've been there and discovered how dangerous going for truly high-capacity lithium-ion is (in the pacemaker and ICD business, for example) and we can't do that or any other method of compacting large capacity cells in small spaces without creating large firebombs.

I love the Honda NC700 and NC700X, but it's the motorcycle that we should have had a decade ago. My wife and I rented a small Kia in Portland last week and drove it to San Francisco. It was my first experience with a modern, reasonably high efficiency car in years. The Kia got 52 mpg on two of the best tanks and the worst mileage we "suffered" was 48mpg. That was with two bodies and a fair amount of luggage, with comfort, entertainment, and a butt-load of safety equipment. If I squeeze efficiency, Best case, I get 55mpg out of my 650 V-Strom and most of the time I get 42-45mpg. My WR250X does no better, holding it under 60mph. Operation-cost-wise, we both know a motorcycle is a money-losing proposition. Fuel, maintenance and reliability, tires, chains and sprockets, and insurance are all in the same (or more expensive) territory than a cage. Hoping that kids riding beater 1970's standards rigged as cafe racers will save the transportation mode makes no sense. If that happens, the last of the manufacturers will go broke waiting for those kids to buy something new.

Maybe your mileage was different, but there aren't a lot of Gen-XYZ'ers who are poorer than I was in 1966-73. I worked two-three jobs for $1.60-3.20 an hour, for an average 70-something hours a week, through my young adult years and I rode and raced for most of that period and supported my family. I don't see that kind of work ethic, physicality, risk-taking, or a bunch of other characteristics that I thought were pretty common in 1966-73. I see a lot of kids. In fact, I've had 2400 of them in my classes over the last decade. Of that bunch, one woman was a rider (exactly the 1970's cafe racer you described). Outside of her, the closest thing to a rider I've met was a video game "motocrosser" who imagined that playing a video game was exactly the same as actually riding a motorcycle. Teaching MSF classes has given me the same expectations, too. Most "students" are just knocking off bucket list crap and damn few are intending to do anything practical on a motorcycle.

Say what you want, but the dearth of motorcyclists in Portland and San Francisco on beautiful weekdays doesn't seem encouraging to me.


Andy Mckenzie said...

While I mostly agree with you, I've got one major disagreement. You state:

"If I squeeze efficiency, Best case, I get 55mpg out of my 650 V-Strom and most of the time I get 42-45mpg. My WR250X does no better, holding it under 60mph."

My primary motorcycle for the last 5 years -- since I took the MSF course and learned to ride, in fact -- has been a Honda Rebel 250. I routinely exceed 67mpg, and frequently break 70. It's true that my usual riding is under 60mph, but I've taken a few trips up MA-2 at ~70mph, with fuel economy suffering very little. The last such trip I ran about 68mpg.

You go on to say:
"Operation-cost-wise, we both know a motorcycle is a money-losing proposition. Fuel, maintenance and reliability, tires, chains and sprockets, and insurance are all in the same (or more expensive) territory than a cage."

Again, I disagree. Gas is vastly cheaper per mile; there just aren't any reasonable cars that get close to 70mpg. Tires are probably a wash -- they're cheaper and fewer, but you have to replace them more often -- but chains, sprockets, and oil are cheaper than general maintenance on a car.

And for insurance... well, my auto insurance is about 30% higher than my motorcycle insurance, and the excise taxes on my 2007 Rebel are lower than those on my 2001 Subaru, so I can't see that taxes are going to be higher either.

I've finally given in and bought a more comfortable-for-me bike, an '82 CM450C, and my first ride on it I seem to have run about 55mpg. Since it needs a new clutch and a tune-up, I can't see that getting worse, so again... there's a fuel savings there over most cars.

I'm not going to argue the rest, because I think you're right, but I think part of your concern about cost and efficiency on new bikes is the ones you're choosing.

T.W. Day said...


You're right. There are some motorcycles that, if you're willing to cope with the handling and other limitations, provide excellent economy.

However, I'm dubious that a 250 Rebel is going to be one of those over the long haul. Tires, for example, cost about $150 (for crap) to $250 for a pair, which I suspect last about 4-7,000 miles on your Rebel. Tires for my Ford Escort cost about the same for a set but last about 60-80,000 miles. I change oil ever 3,000 miles on the bikes and use expensive synth oil: $22/change on either bike. I can get the Escort's oil changed at one of the local service stations for $15 and I change the oil ever 12,000 miles and the car is about to turn over 250,000 miles with no major service in its lifetime. If I get 80,000 out of the WR I'll be amazed. If I get 120,000 from the V-Strom, that would be a pleasant surprise. Chains and sprockets last about 5-15,000 miles and cost about $250 to replace. The live longer if I avoid dirt roads, but I don't.

The economy end of the bike is in fuel use, but I don't get close to your fuel economy, but a bunch of Rebel riders don't either (http://www.fuelly.com/motorcycle/honda/rebel%20250). Put it all into a spreadsheet and see how the bike compares to a cheap car over a seriously long haul, at least 100,000 miles, and I don't see the bike coming out much ahead. I'm going to do exactly that, in fact, since I've kept fuel economy and maintenance records for both bikes, and the previous three or four bikes.

Andy Mckenzie said...

I think I see why we disagree... prices are very different where I live. A pair of tires for the bike did run about $150, but installation cost $60 (I don't care to do it myself). For my car, I paid about $100/tire, plus around $150 for the installation. I put a lot more miles on my car, so even though I replace the bike tires a lot more often, it's still cheaper per year.

Ditto for oil; a cheap oil change on the car around here is $30, whereas I can get enough oil to do three changes on the bike for about $15. I generally change the oil on the bike once or twice a year, and the car about four times a year.

I did the math a couple years ago, and I figured that if I put a little over 20,000 miles on the bike that would otherwise have been on the car, I'd have saved as much money as I spent on the bike. I think that was with an assumption of gas at $3.75/gallon, but I can't remember for sure. Now, the most I've put on the Rebel in a year was about 2000 miles, so that's a long time to break even, but still... it's a savings. It's also true, of course, that many people won't get the kind of milage I get. I'm not sure WHY there should be so much variability in theoretically identical bikes, but I assume it's down to riding style.

You're right, though, that most people don't really buy motorcycles as commuting vehicles, and it's not much of a savings over a cheap car.

My personal hope is that as fuel costs go up, and automotive efficiency fails to improve the way it should, motorcycles will get more popular. I'm not going to hold my breath, though.

T.W. Day said...


Of course, total cost per mile traveled is the only real way to compare economy. Fuel costs aren't always even half of a vehicle's operating costs. But being a cheap dude like you, my fuel costs are damn near exactly half of my car's operating costs after about 9.4 years of ownership. This was an interesting experiment and I thank you for forcing me to put up or shut up. Since shutting up isn't a personally acceptable option for me, I did the actual math and was surprised.

There are some non-apples-to-apples stuff in this analysis, mostly because of the high abuse Minnesota winter driving puts on the car. But all that proves is that if you live in a moderate climate, motorcycles are insanely more practical. This going to be a Geezer blog article soon. Thanks.