Riding motorcycles and scooters is one of the most popular recreations in the country. In California, these two-wheelers represent just 3 percent of registered vehicles, but when the weather is good on the Central Coast, it seems more like 50 percent.
The bad boy image of bikes and bikers has ameliorated a bit in the past 20 years, and they’ve become more mainstream — it seems like every baby-boomer has a motorcycle in the garage these days.
In addition to weekend riders, lots more of us ride motorcycles as primary or commuter vehicles. Gas mileage is the big factor there. Motorcycles and scooters are, on average, twice as fuel-efficient as cars — their light weight enables engines to get the energy to the ground better. Bikes go 40 to 60 miles per gallon of gasoline, they qualify for the commuter lane and they never face a parking problem — what’s not to like?
My neighborhood is about midway up Highway 9 in the San Lorenzo Valley, and on a sunny day, the sound of motorcycles echoes through the hills. With few exceptions, it’s a sound I enjoy, a pleasant background melody. But there are definitely two schools of thought on that.
There are also arguments about the environmental impact of motorcycles and scooters versus that of cars, pickups and SUVs. They emit quite a bit more smog-forming pollutants, such as nitrogen oxide and hydrocarbons, per mile than cars and trucks. But carbon dioxide emissions are directly proportional to the amount of gasoline burned, so the better fuel economy of two-wheelers means they generate a good deal less greenhouse gas per mile.
And tail-pipe emissions are only one part of the total air-quality impact. I read a recent study that found cars and light trucks need to drive more than 200,000 miles before their on-road emissions equal the pollutants produced in their manufacture. The drastic reduction in energy consumption and raw materials used to make motorcycles — mined metals, plastics and rubber and toxic chemicals — tips the “green” scale further in their favor. The huge reduction in vehicle traffic and congestion they provide yields still further environmental gains.
The California Air Resources Board has addressed tail-pipe emissions head-on (ours is the only state in the country with its own standards). The federal Environmental Protection Agency has toughened the limits on motorcycle emissions beginning with 2010 models, but California instituted those limits for bikes sold in the state two years ago. By 2015, all new bikes will meet the EURO 5 standards, meaning they will be held to the same overall emission limits as cars.
But for riders who really want to reduce their environmental footprint, there are lots of truly green bikes available right now. The technological development in recent years is amazing, considering the basic design for motorcycles didn’t change much in the previous 100 years.
Reportedly in production for release this year, the Honda VFR1200 — a four-cylinder, 200-horsepower rocket — will operate on just two cylinders until the operator twists his or her wrist for more. U.S. Marines have been using a diesel-burning Kawasaki in the field for years, and conversion outfits are now selling diesel cruiser bikes that get 80 miles per gallon and do 100 mph. Among others, Suzuki is said to be working on a commercially viable hydrogen fuel-cell motorcycle.
All of the major bike makers have some type of hybrid and alternative-fueled program going, but the most exciting options available now come from start-up electric motorcycle firms. On-road and off-road e-bikes can be had today. No tailpipe emissions and no gasoline, no fluids at all. And I’m not talking about a golf cart — there are battery-powered bikes that offer up to 70 miles per charge, with performance to impress any rider.
Perhaps the best of the e-motorcycle companies is right here in our ’hood. Zero Motorcycles in Scotts Valley offers on-road, off-road and dual-sport bikes that have received accolades from both recreational and professional bikers.
Their Zero MX (motocross) is the first e-bike with handling and performance to take on gasoline-powered rivals. It’ll whup a 250cc four-stroke up to about 55 mph and will be there through the jumps, as well. The Zero S street bike has the endless torque that comes from electric motors and a low center of gravity for handling and stability at highway speeds. No sound, though — old farts like myself will have to put cards in the spokes until we make the adjustment.
On April 4 and 5, Zero Motorcycles will stage the 24 Hours of Electricross in San Jose, the world’s first all-electric endurance off-road event and a great opportunity to see the bikes in action. Get details or ask about a test ride at company headquarters — they’re at 1 Victor Square, just off of Scotts Valley Drive.
• Steve Bailey of Boulder Creek has spent plenty of time in recreational activities. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.