Saving America with Motorcycles

Motorcycles can save America.  I know- it sounds crazy.  Every day it feels like the country is falling apart: inequality, racism, sexism, hate, anger, fear, war and conflict… and those are some big problems.  We can do our part to chip away at the insurmountable problems of our generation and effect positive change in our communities.  Motorcycles can solve congestion, decrease electrical loads and costs, and reduce carbon emissions.  We can’t do it alone, we need a little help from industry and the government, but together we can accomplish small goals with large impacts.

Note: I’m aware RideApart recently had a similar article.  For the record, I’ve been working on this article off and on for a couple weeks and had no intention to steal their idea.  I have nothing but respect for RideApart and honestly I wish I could be them.


I’m going to cut right to the chase and make a bold statement:  Motorcycle commuting will eliminate traffic.  But I’m not just making this up.  A Belgian study in 2012 found replacing 10% of private vehicles with motorcycles reduced travel times for all vehicles by 40%.  Think about that for just a minute, and we’ll use my commute for an example.

I have a statistically longer than average commute for America (20 miles/45 minutes), the only exception being my start time (7:15). If I drive and I want to be there by 7:15, I leave the house around 6:30.  I drive solo, take the highway/interstate, and my home and office are close to the highway on/off ramps.  Morning it takes about 45 minutes.  On my motorcycle it takes about 35 minutes door to door.

If we took the Belgian findings and reduce my commute by 40%, my 45 minute drive is now 27 minutes.  That’s how long it takes me to get there when there is no traffic or slow-downs. In the same study their simulation models showed replacing 25% of vehicles with motorcycles would eliminate congestion for everyone.



It turns out that a modal shift of 25% of cars would be required in order to eliminate congestion completely.

I think 25% is pretty ambitious, but 10% is realistic.  I think it can happen with support from government and business:

  • State and local governments encourage developers to provide motorcycle parking
  • Employers provide commuting incentives for motorcycle commuting
  • Codify or legalize lane sharing and filtering in all 50 state

Increasing the number of motorcycles and decreasing the number of cars means less space to park all those cars.  Those huge car parks cause their own set of problems.

Heat Islands

workThink about a stereotypical office building, commercial/industrial building, shopping center, or school/university campus.  What do you picture?  A building with a blacktop parking lot surrounding it?  In suburban areas this is most common.  These big squares of pavement generate a ‘heat island.’  This heat island effect can increase the local temperature 50-90 degrees above the air temperature.  After sunset the temperature can remain 20 degrees above the air temp.


While motorcycles can’t fix this on their own, this ties into my point above about increasing motorcycle ridership.  Those 10% more motorcycles take up less parking space which means parking lots can be smaller.  Motorcycles can park four to a car-spot, sometimes even more dense.  Less parking spaces means less pavement which means less heat island effect.

Heat islands raise the local temp, require buildings to use more electricity to run their a/c.  Those buildings aren’t just office buildings.  These are apartment buildings, homes, restaurants… every place you go.  Lower local temps mean more money back into people’s pockets.  This is a good thing.

Peak Oil and Emissions

fumesWe’ve been hearing about peak oil since the 50’s.  The short version of peak oil is eventually we’ll run out of oil to pump out of the ground.  As the available stock of oil starts to decrease, the cost will increase faster and faster until it is too expensive.  Well here we are, 60 years later and they keep finding oil.  Here’s the thing, as the easy oil started to disappear, industry responded by 1) pumping oil from harder to reach places (deep ocean rigs) and 2) decreasing the lifting cost, and 3) developing techniques to get oil in otherwise hard to reach places (oil sands, hydraulic fracturing).

As the lifting cost increased, the economics of oil sands and fracking became more reasonable.  The US had their own oil glut when OPEC and Gazprom couldn’t get their cartel members to cooperate and keep stocks low.  The cost to fire up the American petroleum industry made sense, they spent a bunch of money to start up domestic production and suddenly we had a bunch of oil.  What’s peak oil, right?

The reality is some day we’ll run out of oil-  it’s a finite resource. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a science denier and is lying to themselves.  That being the case, high MPG vehicles just make sense.  In the Western States where we have piss-poor public transit and live in large spread out metropolitan regions, driving everywhere is normal.  Using mass transit is a pipe dream that will take a lot of behavior changes to realize an appreciable impact.

Emissions and MPG

cars and coffee irvineWhat does this have to do with motorcycles? Miles per gallon and CAFE standards.  Even a pretty basic motorcycle gets in the 40-50 mpg range.  Mid-size and small bikes can have even better mileage.  Electric, hydrogen, CNG, and electric-hybrid cars are still a small segment, although growing, and even electric bikes are starting to come online in non-trivial numbers.

Remember that Belgian study from earlier?  That same study found new motorcycles emit 20% fewer pollutants than private cars.  With 76% of car commuters driving alone in a car, we’re spewing out more particulate matter per person-mile.  Put 10% of those solo drivers on motorcycles and we’re using less gas, using less heat island pavement, and creating lower emissions.  Many of us would like pollution free hydrogen fueled or plug-in electric bikes, but until that happens we’ll have to stick to petrol.  Small, efficient bikes will push motorcycles into the mainstream.


Someone told me once ‘You only need 14 horsepower to ride around the world.’  While I really don’t want a bike with 14 horse, what I do what are high feature bikes with reasonable engine sizes.  Granted, this attitude is unique, because MORE HORSEPOWER IS BETTER!!!  At least that’s what magazines, web sites, and new riders tell me; if I want a small or mid-size engine bike, I’m a wimp and can’t handle a big bike. I think big horsepower bikes are awesome, but not because of the power they can put down – they have the best components and electronics.


Consider the suspension on a race replica or hypersport bike.  It probably has adjustable preload, high and low speed damping, rebound, maybe remote gas reservoir, special slider coatings to resist wear and pitting.  It’s also really expensive – for the cost of top of the line forks and shock, you can almost buy an entire bike. For most of us, in most riding conditions, we won’t use or notice all the wizardry in super high end suspension.

Big superbikes have awesome electronics (although this is changing as more tech filters down into ‘smaller’ bikes).  Traction control, launch control, wheelie control, adaptive headlights, selectable engine modes, ABS, cruise control, auto cancelling turn indicators, the list goes on.  I concede this is less of an issue now as smaller engine bikes are starting to come with more robust electronic packages and engine management.

Manufacturers need to give us good bikes –that we’ll buy– with good suspension, long lasting tires, good electronics and components, and do that all with engine sizes that make sense.  I don’t want a $20,000 200 horse liter bike to get to work where my average speed is 50 mph.  I want an affordable mid size bike with good suspension, good electronics, and lots of accessories.  Again – I like big bikes.  I think big racing bikes are cool.  But I also think mid-size bikes are cool too.  The challenge with American drivers in general is ‘bigger is better.’

Size matters

Smaller bikes don’t normally sell very well, and the import tariffs don’t always make sense.  As far back as the 80’s, the rate was about 50%.  Now for some reason we’re talking about a 100% tariff on European bikes.  Other parts of the world have all kinds of small and mid-size bikes, but from a cost:performance standpoint they don’t make as much sense for American buyers.  The challenge is the mental opposition to small bikes.  Think about how many times a new rider has asked online what kind of bike the should get and people suggest a 600cc race replica, or even a liter bike with the caveat to ‘just be careful.’  Right…

Why do we need mid-size bikes?  Riders who want big bikes will get big bikes.  But if we want to get more people on bikes, there need to be bikes at all price points that are comfortable, reasonably powered, and well featured.  People have an expectation of cost of ownership for a vehicle.  It’s a tough sell to a new rider who is used to cars to say “oh, hey, by the way, you need a valve service every 30k miles and you need a set of tires every year.”  We need manufacturers to help us overcome these objections or we’ll never generate that 10% more riders.


What does this all mean?  Motorcyclists can help eliminate traffic, slow down petroleum depletion, decrease pollution, and decrease urban heat islands.  But we can’t do it alone, we need support from our employers, our communities, and our local, state, and federal government.  We must be vocal and proactive in our communities and elect representatives who appreciate the valuable impact motorcycles can have on the communities they represent.  The AMA keeps a scorecard for state and federal elections, although it is only available for members.  And it’s cool if you don’t want to join the AMA, I get it.  Do your research, make phone calls, go to city council meetings.  Press for rider rights and motorcycle considerations in urban planning, smart highway development

Together we can save America from itself.

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