There is a wide consensus among sustainability advocates that the present way of personal transport, which is based on cars, has to change into another one, based on walking, cycling and public transiting. But between cars and bicycles there is a whole spectrum of other transport media (e.g. scooters, personal transporters, golf carts etc) lying seemingly in a somehow grey zone as to their status: do they resemble more to cars, or to bicycles, from a sustainability viewpoint? What is their place in prospective sustainable environments?

From all these devices, only motorcycles have been used extensively in some parts of the world, so that there is practical experience to draw conclusions. The rest of the modes carry a marginal and negligible part of the overall transport work. Motorcycles are for some people a controversial issue, and for sure a neglected one in many cases. Though they are motorised vehicles, some people think that they resemble somehow to bicycles, because of the number of wheels they have. The confusion becomes worse by the fact that many bureaucrats bunch up motorcycles (and generally 2 wheel motorised devices) together with bicycles and pedestrians under the term “vulnerable users”. The fact that their use in most developed countries is marginal[1] incites sometimes sympathies, even by some bicycle and carfree activists. However, motorcycle use is a significant part of motorised traffic in most Asiatic, African and some southern European countries. It is from these countries, that conclusions should be drawn about the role of motorcycles in transport (and their potential role in carfee environments), than from places where their use is fringe. The neglect of their use in transport analyses may be considered as a form of the more general case of improper technology transfer from north to south.

The present article attempts to elucidate the complexities of current motorcycle use and estimate their prospective role in future transportation systems.


Alleged advantages of motorcycles


Motorcycles proponents say that motorcycles (and generally 2-wheel motorised devices), although not as harmless as bicycles, are clearly better than cars. According to them, they pollute less than cars, because they have smaller engines. They use less space than cars, creating better urban environment. And being cheaper than cars, they can provide a reliable transport mode for people in the low side of income spectrum. So, they are a substitute to car use like bicycles and they may be part of a carfree or at least car-lite environment.

We shall examine thoroughly and meticulously these arguments.


Myths about motorcycles


The biggest myth about motorcycles is that they pollute less than cars do. The misunderstanding arises because many people think that, since the smaller engine of a motorcycle consumes less fuel, hence it pollutes less. What is left out of this flawed reasoning is the fact that these engines are less developed, so that less fuel consumption cannot be translated directly into less pollution. The German pedestrian organisation Fuss-Verein has summarised excellently the car-motorcycle pollution comparison, according to the European and German regulations into the following table[2]:

Pollution limits cars-motorcycles (gr/km)





Euro-2 (2003)

Euro-2 (2006)



















It is clear from the above table that motorcycle pollution allowed by regulations is heavier on some pollutants. We may reasonable guess that the real situation may be even worse, since motorcycles are subject into more lax pollution control (for instance European directives impose obligatory exhaust fumes monitor to cars, but not to motorcycles).

Another topic out of sight is that currently a large part of the smaller size motorcycles have 2-stroke engines, which burn lubricants together with fuel, causing even heavier pollution. But even on 4-stroke motorcycles it is infeasible to incorporate the anti-pollution technology of cars engines, because of their size, and because they have to be reasonably cheap to compete against cars in the market. For instance only a negligible part of motorcycles have catalysts, which are now obligatory for every automobile in Europe and North America. And hybrids technology is unlikely to be ever applied on motorcycles. Of course, as motorcycle size increases, technological improvements for pollution elimination become more feasible, but so does also engine size, so that the “smaller engine equals less pollution” argument fades away. It is to be noted here that because motorcycle engines run on higher rotations, equal cylinder volume (comparing car and motorcycle engines) represents more horse power, hence more fuel consumption (i.e. for example, a 800cc or 1000cc motorcycle engine has the fuel consumption of a let’s say 1200cc or 1500cc car engine).

So, motorcycles do pollute more on some pollutants (like unburned hydrocarbons) and probably less on some others. The more that can be said is that they pollute in a different manner, but certainly not that they pollute less.

Equally problematic is the argumentation about the contribution of motorcycles in social equity. A large part of the population and more particularly the most vulnerable one (disabled and elderly persons, babies, small children), is excluded from safe motorcycle use, not only as drivers (like in the case of cars), but even as simple passengers. On the contrary, bicycles can be safely used even by small children and elderly people (and in addition can help them to maintain their health).

The allegation that motorcycles can save people from using cars is another speculation not substantiated by evidence. In many countries motorcycles are just an intermediate step towards individual transport motorization, that is, a way to throw away bicycles. As income rises, motorcycle users are ready to shift to car use. This scenario can be observed in the case of China and other Asiatic countries (and in more early stages in African countries). It can also be facilitated by the neglect of public transport by corrupt and incompetent authorities, because motorcycle use drains clientele from public mass transport, rendering it less feasible (acting in a similar way to sprawl). Thus, it seems that they actually act more as a substitute for bicycles than cars.


Additional drawbacks of motorcycles


The major drawback rarely mentioned from 2-wheel motorised traffic advocates is their accident propensity. Statistics from every country of the world prove beyond any doubt that motorcycle involvement in traffic accidents is orders of magnitude more frequent than cars. It is noteworthy that motorcycle accidents (unlike bicycles) are not caused only from their collision with cars, but also with pedestrians, bicycles or other motorcycles and fixed objects (trees, walls etc). For instance according to a German study almost 40% of fatalities from motorcycle crashes happen on such collisions[3], although the number of motorcycles in Germany is less than 10% of the number of cars. In countries where the number of motorcycles is higher compared to the number of cars (like e.g. Vietnam and other south Asian cities where motorcycles are more numerous than cars), this proportion must be much larger.

So if we imagine (as a thought experiment) a world where all transport needs were covered by bicycle and pedestrian movements, traffic fatalities would be virtually nil. On the contrary in a world where all transport needs were covered by motorcycles, traffic fatalities would be higher even from those in our car dominated world. This shows clearly the difference between motorcycles and bicycles according to their accident proneness.

Noise is another usually neglected issue when discussing about motorcycles in cities. Noise is a severe form of pollution affecting the human nerve system. Numerous studies confirm the disastrous consequences of noise on human health and productivity. Motorcycle noise is usually more intense than that of cars, for the same reasons stated above about air pollution, i.e. more imperfect engine because of lower size, price and technological standards. In addition, in some cases motorcycle noise is deliberately used as a way to show off their riders.

Finally, since they offer the same weather protection as bicycles, the less effort requiring by their users cannot be considered as an advantage, in a modern way of life context. Indeed what is desperately lacking in contemporary lifestyles is exercise. If facilities (bike racks, luggage vans etc) are developed for bicycle transport on longer distances or extremely steep areas, bicycle use may assure the correct and healthy balance of convenience and exercise. Motorcycles on the other side contribute even more than cars to the lack of exercise and obesity epidemics. Even car movements contain some walking components on both sides of them. But motorcycles, because of their smaller size can park closer to their destination, minimising these small walking paths. But it is time to examine closer another myth, concerning the consequences of their small size.


Motorcycles take up less space: the consequences


The fact that the requirement of car use has brought about the inflation of many modern cities and the disastrous sprawling effects (especially in North America) makes many people prone to recognise motorcycles smaller size as an advantage. However the situation is not so simple when we are referring on more compact cities.

In the case of compact cities the restrictive factor of motorised traffic is space. Under such conditions only a limited number of cars is possible to circulate, and for this reason, the whole space allotted to car use is usually occupied. If motorcycles occupy this same space, the number of motorised vehicles is increased because of their smaller size, and so does pollution and noise because of the larger number of engines. Even worse is the situation when they do not substitute cars, but actually fill the gaps left by car use (see next section below).

Despite what some people in countries with small motorcycle number think, motorcycles integrate badly in pedestrians’ environments. Because of their smaller size they can run on parallel rows on the same road lane. That is, they actually double (or triple) road lanes making for pedestrians more difficult to cross the street[4]. This effect is not so intense in the case of bicycles, because of their significantly less speed (and of course the consequences in case of collision are much less serious)

Also pedestrian spaces (sidewalks, squares, parks etc) violations are much easier committed by motorcycles than by cars. Indeed, some bollards or other type of obstruction can stop cars. But nothing can stop motorcycles or other 2-wheel motorised devices from invading pedestrian spaces, because of their small size. Whatever blocks their entrance must also inevitably block the entrance of baby strollers, shopping carts, wheelchairs and other non-motorised devices helping pedestrians.


The paradigm of Athens


The example of Athens is very illustrative of the consequences of extensive motorcycle use.

The city (nowadays more than 3.5 million inhabitants), although doubled its population the last 40 years, has largely escaped sprawl, because of geographical and social factors. However during the same period the number of cars soared from 200.000 to 2 millions, while public transport's share in total mobility declined from 65% in 1973 to 51% in 1983 and to 42% in 1996 (and today it is estimated to have fallen further still). This was the result of a policy, adopted by the greek administration (as in most countries of the world): car use was presented to the public as “progress” and the default mode of moving around, automobile infrastructure was heavily subsidised, bicycles were persecuted and gasoline prices were kept low. Almost all the free spaces of the city were surrendered, either legally or illegally (but in both cases with the consent of the authorities), to the motorised traffic and vehicle parking.

When congestion problems very soon appeared (because urban densities were quite high and the city was not built in a car friendly way) the government, instead of promoting public transit, walking, and bicycle use, deliberately favoured motorcycle and motorbike use. Motorcycles and motorbikes were granted a series of privileges, like the exemption from the odd-even scheme in the centre of the city (introduced since late 70’s, allegedly for pollution control) and from emission monitoring, lower taxes and, recently, even the legal use of dedicated bus lanes. The administration justified this policy to the citizens pretending that 2-wheel motorised devices pollute less and utilise better urban space than cars. The result of this policy is that nowadays circulate in the streets of Athens another 1 million of motorcycles.

Unfortunately the reality that anybody can sense in the city is very different. Motorcycles seem to take space rather from pedestrians than from cars: they move on bus lanes and the gaps between congested or parallel running cars (sometimes use even sidewalks as a shortcut), they park on sidewalks and pedestrian spaces (squares, parks etc) and they stop at traffic lights on pedestrian crossings (in front of cars). The annoyance they bring about to cars seems minimal[5], while the troubles they cause to pedestrians are often even more serious than that of cars. Despite the immunity they enjoy, according to the traffic studies, they carry only 6%-8% of the total transportation work (the most vulnerable users like babies, disabled etc are of course excluded from this privileged proportion). According to recent press publications, studies show that 30% of the PM10 pollution in Athens emanates from 2-stroke scooters. And Europe wide studies[6] have shown that in Greece unburned hydrocarbons originate more from motorcycles than cars (although they are roughly half in number). Motorcycles contribute to the traffic accidents rate, which is one of the highest in Europe. Many victims are young people (forming the majority of the most inexperienced and jubilant part of motorcycle fans) who either die or are forced to pass the rest of their lives on wheelchairs.

Nowadays Athens is the most polluted and noisiest capital in Europe[7]. Almost the totality of the few and inadequate pedestrian spaces (what is left from car invasion) is full of motorcycles. Bicycle use is almost non-existing because of the hostile environment (pollution, motorised traffic aggressiveness, road dangers, improper infrastructure etc). People in Athens are very frustrated of the situation. Pedestrians are usually forced to walk on the road pavement and the most vulnerable (like people with disabilities[8]) avoid to move. However political parties seem to be too tied with car, motorcycle and oil connected interests, in order to be able to express the public dissatisfaction. So, the burden falls on grassroots and other non-governmental organisations.




Despite the widespread view that motorcycle use is (at least) less noxious than car use, the truth is that they may be even more disastrous than cars. The intuitive connection of motorcycles with (righteous or unjust) violence (and of bicycles with peace) seems justified by evidence and rational examination. In any case they are radically different from bicycles, resembling more to an uncompleted car than an evolved bicycle. Their use is not consistent with carfee environment and sustainable transport policy.

If international carfree movement is to be expanded in African and Asiatic countries, and not limit itself in Europe and North America (and probably Australia), it is important to face the problem of motorcycles and have consistent positions on the issue. Present volumes of car use (or rather abuse) can and should be minimised, but probably there would always be some place for personal cars (like in sparsely populated areas, under the form of car rental or car sharing). But motorcycle use is feasible to be readily eliminated (outside circuses and shows), without serious economic changes. Their extremely bad accident score should be brought to the attention of the public opinion and international organisations. And this will also help to limit car use.


[1] For instance in USA motorcycle use represent less than 0,5% of overall traffic.


[3] Integration of needs of moped and motorcycle riders into safety measures p.115 table6.2

[4] A pedestrian has to find a gap on every lane to cross a street. That is, as the number of lane increases, the difficulty to happen this increases exponentially!

[5] Paradoxically this was the main argument to legalise their use in bus lanes!

[6] Results of the environmental monitoring program CORINAIR

[7] Recent studies show that 45% of the population is exposed to unacceptable noise level. The corresponding figures for Paris, London, Rome and Berlin are around 18%.

[8] Ironically many of them are victims of traffic accidents