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To really green up transport, should we switch to two wheels?

Tuesday 22 January, 2013. The Green Piece Column.

Motorcyclists will always speak of the virtues of making the switch from four to two wheels, and from an environmental viewpoint, there certainly is a lot to be said for making that change.

But in terms of emissions, that is where we’ve been scratching our heads, because, although motorbikes and scooters do get more miles to the gallon than a car, they don’t have such strict emission controls. Technology such as particulate filters and catalytic converters are usually absent from scooters and still from a fair few motorbikes, although forthcoming legislation could change that. While CO2 emissions are typically half that of your average car, emissions of particulates, NOx and carbon monoxide (CO) can be higher.

Honda SH scooter

In the meantime, there are still many eco-credentials we must recognise in on the old two-wheeler; they take up less road capacity, reducing congestion and reducing emissions through smoother traffic flow, they require a lot less raw materials to make and reduce wastage in terms of wasted passenger capacity, they also use a fraction of the fuel of a typical car and are less harmful to other road users and wildlife.

Current European “Whole Vehicle Type Approval” requirements which establish the standards for motorcycles and scooters, on a range of areas including emissions and noise levels are set until January 2016.

Thereafter the EU has agreed to set new standards which will include tighter regulations on safety and environmental performance from 2016. Could that mean that the case for two wheels over four becomes even stronger for the eco-minded commuter? We expect so.

Some websites we recommend for motorbikes/scooters

And while a scooter or bike is not the ideal solution for family trips, as most of us commute solo, it could be the ideal second vehicle even for those with kids to fetch and carry.

Of course, it is not just fossil-fuel drinkers you could consider these days; there are also a whole range of electric bicycles (ebikes), electric scooters and electric motorbikes. Brands such as Zero Motorcycles, Vectrix, Econogo and ecitywheels are well-known players in the field.

Four wheel non-cars too

If the thought of two wheels still doesn’t appeal then there are four-wheeled quadricycles, like the Renault Twizy, G-Wiz and Tazzari to consider. While as quadricycles, they aren’t expected to meet the same safety standards as cars, they offer most road-stability and are more sheltered than a two wheel option.

Renault Twizy 2012

Compromising safety to get more miles to the gallon might sound like a raw deal to some, but within the industry, we know that the increasing weight of cars is something that has to change. So far, greater safety standards have invariably meant weight gain for our vehicles. But one of the greatest challenges for the motor industry over the next fifty years will be to reduce weight, boosting economy in the process yet maintain/improve safety. It is something that analysts at Frost & Sullivan pointed out recently, in an opinion piece from one of their senior analysts.

The use of lighter materials including aluminium, carbon composites and someday, who knows, maybe super-material graphene, will help our cars shift the weight without becoming flimsy.

Concept models such as the hydrogen-fuelled Riversimple quadricycle, made from carbon fibre already show the kind of steps forward in design we can make.

It is something that the industry has only just begun to tackle but standards will only get higher over the years; again swinging the argument for two wheels and quadricycles.

I’ve tested an electric scooter in the past, and while it obviously feels more exposed than being shelled up inside a car, compared to a bicycle, you definitely feel reassured by having an electric boost of acceleration, to get out of a tricky situation. You also feel more able to claim your share of the road and keep up with traffic flow, ditching that feeling you have on a bicycle, where you feel shunted to the side of the road, while the traffic scraps past your leg.

Of course, whether you choose to scoot or not to scoot, is really up to individual choice and personal situation. There is no clear-cut environmental case to say which works out cleaner. All we’d say is that, with fuel and motoring costs in general on the rise, and with our increasingly crowded cities calling out the smaller forms of transport; you can bet your nelly that the two-wheeler is going to grow in popularity, and enjoy a revival of the heydays of the 60s and 70s.

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Faye Sunderland

Filed under: The Green Piece

1 comment

Alex Kovnat

Re motorcycles: Let us hope that future high performance motorcycles, such as Triumph's magnificent triples (i.e. powered by in-line 3 cylinder engines) and others, will be able to meet Euro and USA requirements regarding oxides of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, unburned hydrocarbon, particulate and noise emissions.

A fine high performance motorcycle may not achieve very many miles per gallon (or, very few liters per kilometer) in absolute terms, but how many 4-wheelers are there that can accelerate from 0 to 100 km/hr in 4-5 seconds and also, achieve as low a fuel consumption as government authorities see fit to require?

Now, about safety: I am against ever more stringent safety requirements for motorcycles. Motorcycle riders can choose from a wide variety of safety gear including helmets and riding apparel. I have even articles and advertisements in motorcycle-oriented magazines about riding jackets with built-in airbags. But I don't believe self-appointed crusaders should be allowed to make more and more demands on motorcycle enthusiasts regarding safety.

Its bad enough as it is, that the cars we drive are required to carry more and more add-ons and meet ever more stringent safety requirements, to meet the ego needs of self-appointed crusaders who have nothing better to do than constantly rag on everybody. The reason we have a market for motorcycles to begin with, is that there are a lot of people who are willing to tolerate increased risk of death or injury in return for higher performance, greater fuel economy and under many if not all circumstances, more fun. It should be a matter of personal choice, not government diktat.

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