Save Money and the Planet: Ride!

Text: Robert Smith • Photography: Robert Smith

Ever noticed how quickly the price of gas ramps up when supply is tight, yet how slowly it falls when oil prices dip? The cost of a barrel of oil has been on a roller-coaster ride (climbing to $ 140 and diving to $ 70 recently), but the price at the pump hasn't fluctuated nearly so drastically in concert. Undoubtedly though, it will edge ever higher. The experts attribute this to a host of reasons: profiteering, exploration costs, tight refinery capacity, "peak oil" theory, and on and on. But quite simply put, cheap gas is a thing of the past.

And whether we like it or not, the evidence indicts our profligate use of carbon-based fuels as a major cause of climate change.

So what's a cash- and conservation-conscious commuter to do? Walk? Cycle? Take the bus? Our inter-urban communities are based around powered personal transportation; so the only real answer to cheap, rapid mobility in the city is a two-wheeler with an engine. Motorcycles are nimbler, more economical, take up less parking space, and use less room on the road than a car. And they're way more fun, too. In Europe, where $ 8 a gallon gas has been around a while, city streets are so thick with scooters and small motorcycles, it's like riding through a swarm of bees.

Most automakers have responded to high oil and our new environmental consciousness by producing a variety of small cars that now boast gas mileage comparable to what a larger motorcycle gets. You will also hear some people argue against the use of motorcycles, saying that they produce more pollution than a car, not less. But that stems from their ignorance about the different types of tailpipe emissions.

A pollution primer

There are essentially three kinds of pollution from an internal combustion engine (other than one running on pure hydrogen, and that's an entirely different issue): greenhouse gases, smog components, and particulates. First, with greenhouse gases we're mainly talking about CO2. Running on the same fuels, engines produce CO2 in direct proportion to the amount of fuel they burn. So, if one vehicle gets better gas mileage than another, it also produces less CO2 - all other things being equal.

The second kind of emission is implicated in smog and ground-level ozone - air quality, in other words. The action of sunlight on hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides coming from your exhaust gives rise to the brown haze that hangs over some cities in the summer, which can seriously affect people who already have breathing issues. This is what people mean when they talk about motorcycles being polluters; but it's out-of-date information: a modern EFI bike with a three-way cat will produce lower levels of smog emissions than a typical car because, again, it burns less fuel.

Particulates are a nuisance because they cause breathing problems. Badly tuned diesels are the principal culprit here, producing that plume of black carbon smoke. Again, newer bikes with EFI burn fuel as cleanly as a modern car.

So, on balance, a new bike with a cat is way lighter than a car, has much lower rolling resistance and a smaller engine. It therefore produces less of all three types of pollution. And in a typical commute involving idling, acceleration and braking more than cruising, a cycle will do even better

Politicians and planners rarely appreciate motorcycles as a viable transportation option, favoring the pollution-free bicycle instead. But large-scale bicycle commuting is a pipe dream and will never attract more than a hard core of riders. The widespread use of powered two-wheelers in European cities shows they can and do work.

HOV lanes

As a west-coaster, I'm used to riding through Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and San Francisco in HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lanes. In California I'm even allowed to squeeze between lines of cars where no HOV lane exists. Not all jurisdictions permit motorcycles in HOV lanes, though, in spite of the fact that a typical modern motorcycle will better 50 miles per gallon, half the consumption of your average car. So a bike is at least as good as a shared car.

Allowing bikes in HOV lanes is a good start. So is free motorcycle parking in city centers. And with the right kinds of controls, lane splitting could be safely introduced too - or at least the option to use the hard shoulder. It works fine in Europe and California, so why not everywhere else?

Keen to become a greener commuter and save money? Here are some tips to optimize your two-wheel experience:

Buy a bike with some bodywork.

Two reasons: it will keep the worst of wet weather off of you; and a faired bike will typically give better mileage than a naked one. The reason - the biggest "drag" on a bike is the rider!

Look for a motorcycle riding suit that goes over street clothes.

That way you don't have to change when you get to work. Aerostich's Roadcrafter suits work well, or BMW's new Coverall suit. If you can, get your gear included in the price of the bike

You don't have to compromise performance for economy.

The new crop of mid-size, do-it-all street bikes - like the Kawasaki Versys and 650 Ninja, Suzuki DL650 and SV650, and Ducati 696 - all have performance to spare, especially against most cars. Yet they'll return better than 50mpg.

Fewer cylinders, less gas.

All things being equal, a bike with fewer cylinders will usually get better mileage. Check before you buy, though.*

Don't rule out a small bike.

The best selling bike in the UK (and Honda's top seller in Canada) isn't even on sale in the U.S. The 13hp CBR125R will top 70mph, yet return at least 90 miles per gallon. Looking like a CBR600 on a diet, the CBR125R is a real sportbike but lighter; and, in Europe at least, it's also available in factory Repsol colors. Until you can buy it here, consider the Kawasaki Ninja 250.

Curb your enthusiasm.

Nothing sucks up gas like fierce acceleration. Ride smoothly.

Be parsimonious at the pump.

Use the cheapest fuel recommended for your vehicle. Higher octane doesn't mean higher power, just wasted money.

Maintenance counts.

Check tire pressures regularly. You'll save gas and rubber. Worn chains, dragging brakes, badly tuned EFI, valves out of adjustment - all these will increase consumption too. Regular oil changes help mileage, but don't forget to dispose of used oil and filters responsibly while you're at it.

*The website lists the gas mileage for a number of motorcycles, although the figures are unedited and some seem a little too good to be true. Check the manufacturers' websites for verification.