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Motorcycles, scooters big polluters

Despite their reputation as being more earth-friendly than other motorized forms of transport, motorcycles and scooters are actually some of the biggest polluters on the road.

Published August 29, 2008
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There may be many reasons why you might want to ride a motorcycle or scooter, but clearer air should not be among them.

Despite their reputation as being more earth-friendly than other motorized forms of transport, two-wheelers are actually some of the biggest polluters on the road.

“The cleanest motorcycle engine is far dirtier than the dirtiest car,” says Warren Milner, Honda Canada’s senior motorcycle manager.

In fact, two-wheelers appear to be so dirty that Wheels was unable to convince a local dealer to run a Drive Clean test on them because the emissions could seriously damage the testing machines.

This might be news to advocates of two-wheelers as a more earth-friendly means of commuting in congested urban areas like the GTA.

The confusion seems to arise because motorcycles and scooters burn far less fuel than even the most fuel-efficient car or truck. Carbon dioxide emissions are directly proportional to the amount of gas you burn, meaning two-wheelers contribute fewer greenhouse gas emissions per kilometre than their four-wheeled cousins.

But that’s only one part of the air quality equation. When it comes to emissions of nitrogen oxide and hydrocarbons – so-called smog-forming pollutants – motorcycles and scooters emit many times more per kilometre than cars and trucks.

In the lead up to tougher emissions rules in 2005 – the first in 27 years – the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found the standards for motorcycles and scooters to be 90 times dirtier than those for cars. One of its comparisons was a Yamaha YZR R6, which emitted 4.19 grams/mile of hydrocarbons compared to a Dodge Durango with 4WD, which emitted .073 gm/mile.

A widely cited Swiss study from 2005 of eight different types of scooters and motorcycles found that despite the proportionately smaller number of two-wheelers on the road, they accounted for about one-fifth of nitrous oxide emissions of the cars.

Those nitrous oxides lead to smog, and the Ontario Medical Association says smog-related illnesses lead to the premature deaths of 5,800 Ontario residents a year – a toll expected to double in the next 20 years.

If scooters and motorcycles are not as clean as cars, it’s simply because the standards in place haven’t required them to be, says Honda’s Milner.

“If we were to force the same levels of emissions onto scooters as are on automobiles, they’d be bigger, heavier and more expensive by a fair bit,” he says.

That said, regulators have been toughening emissions rules in recent years, and the regulations will only get tighter in future. Canada, for example, imposed tougher scooter and motorcycle emissions regulations in 2006.

“All our standards are in line with the EPA, which are recognized as being the most stringent national standards in the world for on-road vehicles,” says Ed Crupi, chief of the Regulatory Development Section of Environment Canada’s Transportation Division.

The new regulations limit smog-forming pollutants to 1.4 g/km, But that is still more than 10 times the 0.1 g/km limit imposed on passenger cars.

Crupi’s department has a monitoring program in place, based on self-certification by the companies. They test a range of vehicles to make sure the manufacturers are complying, but they don’t have the resources to test every vehicle.

with two-wheelers, measuring emissions can be tricky. When Wheels wanted to set up a test of emissions from a 2008 Harley Davidson Dyna Low Rider and a 2008 Kymco People S 125, we got a flat refusal.

Ken Shaw Toyota Lexus was reluctant to test either bike on its Drive Clean testing equipment. The dealership also cautioned that the dirty air from their engines could clog the machine’s filters, resulting in a repair bill of as much as $5,000.

Apart from clogging the filters, it’s doubtful the lower-powered scooter could even turn the tension on the dynamometers.

The province’s DriveClean program has wrestled with what to do about two-wheelers. A test on a two-wheeler would be problematic, says Peter Campbell, program advisor with the provincial Ministry of Environment’s Drive Clean program.

“We looked at it, but testing was going to be so horrendously expensive to try to capture all the different varieties available and find environmental standards for them,” he says.

“It would be quite expensive for vehicles that are driven four months a year and usually just on weekends.”

Though some jurisdictions use a test that measures emissions while idle, nitrous oxide emissions only happen when the motor is under load.

The Swiss study from 2005 actually did hook up eight motorcycles to a dynamometer and measured the output. The results were not encouraging.

More than half the two-wheelers tested (from a Yamaha YN 50 cc two-stroke to a BMW 1150GS four-stroke) failed the statutory test for motorcycle emissions, leading the authors to call for more periodic maintenance and inspection of two-wheelers.

Despite the lower mileage and fewer numbers than cars, the study found that the motorcycles in Switzerland produce higher CO emissions by a factor of 2.7 and higher hydrocarbon emissions by a factor of 16 in urban conditions.

These facts are not new to the motorcycle industry, which has cut the emissions on its motorcycles considerably in order to match current rules – and the tougher ones still to come. And the bikes they produce not only need to meet the rules when they are new, but for the next five years as they age.

Honda’s Milner points out that his firm, like many that manufacture two-wheelers, sells only cleaner-burning four-strokes with pollutant-reducing equipment similar to catalytic converters in cars (see sidebar).

The EPA itself says in its report that the 2003 Yamaha YZF-R6 has only one-quarter the emissions produced by the 2002 model, due largely to technology advancements from the manufacturer.

The Canadian Scooter Corporation, which sells Piaggio and the iconic Vespa scooters, recently acknowledged air quality concerns surrounding its products by introducing a campaign in which it would buy carbon credits from the privately owned Carbon Reduction Fund for each Vespa it sold until the end of 2008.

The company would buy carbon credits equal to the carbon footprint a Vespa scooter is estimated to produce over the next three years, based on fuel consumption and emissions data.

So for each $5,400 Vespa S sold, the company will give $14 to the fund, and another $2 to the Environmental Defence.

It says something about the current environment that a company whose scooters sales are up more than 15 per cent over the same period last year would feel the need to launch such a campaign.

“We didn’t think that by introducing this program we were going to sell a whole bunch more bikes,” says Jeremy Logan, vice-president of sales and marketing for the Canadian Scooter Corporation. “We wanted to highlight the fact that driving a Vespa is a good thing to do.”

Aside from the marketing angle, Vespa may also be taking a more concrete solution. Rumours abound about a gas-electric hybrid version of the Vespa LX, of which Logan rode a prototype a couple of years ago.

“I’ve heard they may be rolling it out at the big motorcycle show in Milan in November,” says Logan. “If they do, we could get it here sometime in 2009.”

Though hybrid scooters seem like an obvious – and welcome – step towards a cleaner two-wheeler, in the short-term, the saving grace may be that there are only just over 400,000 motorcycles and scooters on the road in Canada, compared with 14 million cars and light duty trucks.

“Of all on-road vehicles, motorcycles account for less than 1.5 per cent of emission of smog-forming pollutants,” says Environment Canada’s Crupi.

But if gas keeps going up in price and people cast about looking for fuel-sipping alternatives like scooters or motorcycles, the days of hiding in plain sight may be coming to a close.

Andrew Meeson is Wheels’ Urban Commuter, and editor of wheels.ca.ameeson@thestar.ca

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