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Can motorcycles fit in an urban context?

Where do motorcycles fit in a city? Should we promote them more, because they take up less space and use less gas? Or should we discourage them because they're noisy and dangerous?

Photo by Alex Barth on Flickr.

This past July, I finally gave in and took the motorcycle safety course, bought the gear (helmet, full textile suit, gloves, boots), got my license, and bought a 1983 Honda Shadow 500. In good weather, I trade in my Orange Line commute from East Falls Church to Eastern Market for a 12-mile ride along I-66, Independence Avenue, and the Southeast-Southwest Freeway.

As I've ridden the motorcycle more and more, I've thought about how this is both a good choice and a bad choice for society and our region, and wondered whether motorcycle use should be encouraged more, discouraged more, or we're doing it about right.

Motorcycles can be more space, energy-efficient

Motorcycling has its benefits. I can use the HOV lanes on I-66. My work provides motorcycle parking in otherwise unusable corners of the parking garage, so I usually save about 20 minutes compared to Metro. We're a one-car household, so it also allows me to go to meetings or events and not leave the rest of the family without a car.

I can also do this while getting about 58 miles per gallon, about as good as any hybrid car. Meanwhile, motorcycles produce fewer CO2 emissions and consume fewer materials in manufacturing. And they require much less parking than a car. I can generally find spaces to park that a car wouldn't be able to fit in, and some lots and garages have special motorcycle spaces that would otherwise be unusable.

But motorcycles have drawbacks as well. Like many motorcycles, my bike lacks a catalytic converter, meaning it can create more local pollution. They also create noise pollution, promote gasoline consumption and dependence, and pose an increased safety risk to the operator and others. At least in my case, having a motorcycle has also reduced the amount of transit I take, so Metro doesn't get that fare revenue. On the other hand, there's now an extra seat available on the Orange Line.

Society promotes motorcycles by allowing single riders to use the HOV lanes. This probably helps reduce fuel consumption and local CO2 emissions. I don't know of much that society does to actively discourage motorcycle use, other than promoting an overall sense that they're extremely dangerous.

Are there ways to encourage motorcycling?

Something our region could consider is allowing lane-splitting, similar to what they allow in California or most countries in Europe. The California Highway Patrol has guidelines for when splitting lanes is appropriate, and don't allow dangerous weaving in between cars at speed.

It would reduce the risk of a rear-end collision if I were allowed to ride at a moderate pace between lanes of stopped cars, rather than inching along in between someone's rear bumper and another's front. This may even reduce congestion, because the motorcycle wouldn't be using up a whole lane.

Another thing would be to have clearer parking regulations for motorcycles. There have been several times where I've seen a parking space that I could physically fit in without blocking traffic of any kind (vehicle or pedestrian), but I would be concerned about getting a ticket.

One example is the small triangles of pavement between on-street parking spaces and curb bumpouts. These are becoming much more common, but I often see "no parking" signs blocking off the corners. I could fit there, but I'd rather not risk a ticket. Why not just leave the no parking signs out, and ticket people if they block the travel lanes?

Motorcycles share some of the characteristics of cars. It's not an issue for motorcyclists to "keep up" with traffic. However, they share some characteristics with bicycles, like the "sorry, I didn't see you!" problem, when motorists turn or swerve into motorcycles without looking. And distracted drivers can cause a collision that would only cause a fender-bender with another car, but could be life-threatening for a cyclist or motorcyclist.

Overall, I think we've got the balance just about right. We probably don't need to promote motorcycles any more, but we could do a couple of things to reduce frustration and keep motorcycles out of the way.

Michael Perkins serves on the Arlington County Transportation Commission, though the views expressed here are his own. He lives in Arlington with his wife and two children. 


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Like anything it largely comes down to operator behavior. I have seen a LOT of dangerous operator behavior including in cities and on highways. On the other hand, most of the risk is assumed by the person on the motorcycle so I guess I would consider them in the same league as cars. I'd have no problem with a few motor cycle parking spaces in congested areas but in general I'd encourage them just to parallel park like cars and they should definitely stay off sidewalks (same goes for scooters and the like).

by BTA on Dec 10, 2013 12:48 pm • linkreport

I'm a daily VA to DC motorcycle commuter, and have off street parking at my work. I make a lot of work-related trips during the day on my motorcycle. In recent years, DC has become more motorcycle friendly in terms of on-street parking. The best thing DC did was to clarify that the park parallel provision did not apply to motorcycles. I also like Parkmobile and multi space metering. It allows me to park in "unused" spaces between parked cars. When I go downtown I use the motorcycle only spots frequently. I'm less interested in lane splitting, and wouldn't do it frequently, even if it were legal. There are too many dangerous, inattentive and just plain vindictive drivers out there.

by Paul on Dec 10, 2013 1:11 pm • linkreport

Another point in favor of 2-wheel riding is the reduction in stress on the infrastructure (roads, bridges, etc.).

I disagree about parallel parking your ride. I was taught in the BRC to park at an angle, so that other riders can use the space too. It's also easier for car drivers to see your bike as well.

Finally, you forgot to explore the so-called "maxi-scooters" available. At around 500cc, they are about the size of a comparable motorcycle, but cost much less than a motorcycle, are quieter, do not require shifting (a blessing in traffic), get the same or better gas mileage, provide better protection from the elements, and come with much more storage space as standard equipment. I rode my Aprilia Scarabeo from Maryland to Arlington daily (weather permitting) for years without complaint.

by Bill on Dec 10, 2013 1:19 pm • linkreport

Are there any downtown (public) lots with monthly parking that offer discounted rates to motorcycles? As far as I can tell, many of the underground lots don't even allow motorcycles, and when they do appear to charge the same rate as for cars.

by scooterboy on Dec 10, 2013 1:37 pm • linkreport

Good piece, but as a lifelong motorcyclist and year-round moto-commuter I'd like to point out a few things.

You mention noise pollution, but motorcycles don't have to be loud. My daily rider has a stock pipe and is very quiet at around-town speeds—certainly no louder than most cars. I don't know the laws in DC but here in California we have laws about both noise and exhaust modifications... which are generally ignored, unfortunately. Modern bikes also have catalytic converters to the emissions thing is less of an issue.

You said "...pose an increased safety risk to the operator and others." Sure, riding a motorbike is not as safe as enveloping oneself in a couple tons of metal and airbags, but who are these others? Motorcycles pose no more risk to other drivers, pedestrians, etc than a car—the increased danger is only relevant to the folks riding them.

Becoming a better rider reduces this risk substantially: developing your bike handling skills, high situational awareness and intelligent risk management are critical. As you mentioned, safe and prudent lane splitting also helps keep riders safer in urban traffic.

As noted above, I've been a daily moto-commuter for many years and have never crashed while commuting. This is pretty common for good riders.

by Surj on Dec 10, 2013 1:46 pm • linkreport

How can an article about motorcycles in an urban environment not even mention the word "scooter"? Have you not been to Europe? Or Asia? Or any of the other areas around the world where scooters are common transportation vehicles in cities?

As the popularity of scooters in cities worldwide proves, they make even MORE sense than motorcycles in the city (both are useful but scooter are particularly suited to the shorter distances covered in the city). We need to update our laws and policies to have MUCH more parking for scooter and motorcycles, including on sidewalks over a certain width and/or with lighter foot traffic.

I got a ticket in DC for having a Vespa on a wide sidewalk when it was blocking no pedestrian traffic. The offense was "Vehicle on Sidewalk" -- same as if I parked a Hummer there. The fine was $100! That is absurd. I've already had one scooter stolen. I must be able to lock it to a secure post and that can't be done on the street. Many scooters can be easily lifted by two people and put in a pickup or van.

Along with promoting cycling and walking, motorcycles and scooters should absolutely be something we promote in cities in this country.

by Kevin on Dec 10, 2013 1:49 pm • linkreport

There is only one major study on motorcycle safety, from a number of years ago, known as the "Hurt Study" (named after the author).

It examined injuries and deaths from motorcycle accidents. While a 2 wheeled vehicle will never be as safe as a 4 wheeled vehicle, if the rider:

1 - Takes a safety course and
2 - Rides sober

The chances of major injury/death are reduced by major amounts.

Also - full gear at all times, no matter what, and assume every driver wants to kill you.

Regarding commuting/the environment - my bike got about 70 mpg (250cc single cylinder). Keep in mind that the bikes we in the US ride are huge compared to other countries where motorcycles are more common (my 250 would be a midsize bike overseas, but is the smallest one can easily purchase here).

In terms of the balance, I think you are spot on.

by gooch on Dec 10, 2013 1:56 pm • linkreport


Mileage is not emissions.

Mythbusters looked at this issue using modern models, in 2011. Motorcycles were indeed more fuel-efficient than cars and emitted less of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, but they emitted far more smog-forming hydrocarbons and oxides of nitrogen, as well as the toxic air pollutant carbon monoxide. For the most recent model year vehicles tested -- from the '00s -- the motorcycle used 28% less fuel than the comparable decade car and emitted 30% fewer carbon dioxide emissions, but it emitted 416% more hydrocarbons, 3,220% more oxides of nitrogen and 8,065% more carbon monoxide.

by Crickey7 on Dec 10, 2013 1:59 pm • linkreport

How can an article about motorcycles in an urban environment not even mention the word "scooter"?
Every article about a mode of transportation does not need to be a comparison to another mode that is more suited for a single environment. I don't want to see most types of scooter on 66.

by selxic on Dec 10, 2013 2:55 pm • linkreport

Yeah, the pollution on a motorcycle is off the charts. Noise also a huge problem.

Both of those can be cured by better regulation. Cities should adopt much stricter limits and also ban motocycle/scooter use during air quality alerty days.

Fixing the noise and pollution on the police bikes would be the first step.

by charlie on Dec 10, 2013 2:56 pm • linkreport

My office competed in a commuting challenge this year that scored a motorcycle commute the same as driving in a hybrid. Some people were upset by this, but all in all, they seem pretty close based the pros and cons of the fuel vs emissions.

by Robby on Dec 10, 2013 3:36 pm • linkreport

selxicwrote: "Every article about a mode of transportation does not need to be a comparison to another mode that is more suited for a single environment."

It's not "another mode." It's a version of the same thing that is more suited for the environment that is the point of the article ("urban context"). It's a giant hole in the piece.

"I don't want to see most types of scooter on 66."

Who cares what you want? A scooter that is highway legal can go on 66 whether you like it or not. Mine has motorcycle plates and a top speed of 70 mph. But that's not the point. My comment was about the CITY.

by Kevin on Dec 10, 2013 5:12 pm • linkreport

As others have already pointed out, motorcycles don't need to be loud. That's a choice, and it comes with the silly motorcycle culture this country is so in love with.

You could not pay me enough to drive a bike in this region. The DC area has seems to be home of some of the most unskilled and inattentive drivers in the country. Lately I've had to commute to a facility in Camp Springs, MD a few times a week. I don't know what it is about that area but driving anywhere on Suitland Parkway and Branch Ave south of Silver Hill Rd is downright frightening at times.

by dcmike on Dec 10, 2013 6:53 pm • linkreport

Kevin, there was more to the article than the title.

by selxic on Dec 10, 2013 6:57 pm • linkreport

I just spent the day walking around Hanoi and while we could talk about the chaotic manner scooters are ridden here it shouldn't take away from the fact that road capacity is probably quadrupled compare to if everyone had a car. I didn't see anywhere on the main roads in which traffic wasn't flowing at a decent speed.

by Nathaniel on Dec 11, 2013 5:22 am • linkreport

The Raising Arizona bikers of the US have nothing in common with the electric and hybrid-electric bikers of Asia. There these bikes are nearly without sound, use as little carbon footprint as one can imagine, and stow easily in slots reserved for bicycles. Here we worship the gladiator noise, communal stench, and complete danger of the monster motorcycle. Here they pollute far more than cars and get ridiculously low gas mileage considering they are nothing but hog and machine. Let them have their car parking space.

by AndrewJ on Dec 11, 2013 6:36 am • linkreport


I know the area that you speak of quite well. And it is very frustrating. I find one of the more frustrating things is that some people refuse to drive the speed limit. Some go almost 10 mph below the posted speed limit and it is dangerous as people swerve around them. No use of turn signals...and at night so many people driving with their brights on!

by ArchStanton on Dec 11, 2013 9:31 am • linkreport

The mobility benefits of the motorcycle are outweighed by the safety issues both to the user and others on the road such as pedestrians and cyclists. It is not a wise policy to encourage the use of motorcycles. Policies should work to encourage first and foremost bicycling, walking and mass transit. You seem to bury the negative consequences. Just look to cities around the world that have high motorcycle use and you will see the lives being lost every day. We ought to be maintaining the status quo when it comes to motorcycles -- leave them to be recreational and for a small percentage of commuters.

by norb on Dec 11, 2013 10:09 am • linkreport

Norb, you said "The mobility benefits of the motorcycle are outweighed by the safety issues both to the user and others on the road such as pedestrians and cyclists." I posted earlier about mitigating the safety issues and would be happy to detail this further if you're interested in discussion of such—but please clarify how a motorcycle is more dangerous to pedestrians and cyclists than a car.

Many posters in the comments here seem to have very little (or less) actual information about the pros and cons of using a motorcycle as a daily utility vehicle, and instead are relying on preconceived notions and misinformation.

by Surj on Dec 11, 2013 10:42 am • linkreport

Yeah, gotta disagree that motorcycles are more dangerous to peds and bicycles - on a motorcycle your field of vision is so much better than someone driving a car.

by MLD on Dec 11, 2013 10:52 am • linkreport

I live in Harlem where motorcycles and scooters are a huge issue. The noise on some summer nights is so deafening at times it makes me want to scream. Cops have to tread a fine line between trying to enforce laws against bad behavior and not creating dangerous police chases where kids on cycles and scooters ride on the sidewalks and mow people down.

How do we solve these issues?

by jermaine on Dec 11, 2013 11:29 am • linkreport

Your questions are premised on faulty ideas. A motorcycle only takes up as much room, on a road surface as a pair of shoes. How many
pair of shoes fit in a city? Should we promote more m/c use? Who is we? The characters of life are found to ride motorcycles, and the
characters of these select groups often ride motorcycles you've never heard of. Who the hell is "we", who decides more use. There is no "we".

You can not discourage the use of a type of mode of transportation in a city due to the number of wheels. That would be descrimination
by use of hate against an innocent, law abiding group. You specifically can not disqualify a low-noise-exhaust-emission regulated product
from public use, designed to not be heard any easier then a crackling crow while standing on a roadside lawn, while the product
runs full power past your ears. See 40CFR205. Modern standard motorcycles prudently run in the traffic soundscape, past the distance of 200ft completely silently.

Danger? Tell me what type of accident you are about to be part of and I'll tell you how to best protect yourself.
Motorcycling is not for everyone. Many, like Malcolm Forbes, found it out, way to late in life, that they lived
deprived lives, and most of their life was ruined, because they only started to ride in later years. Motorcycling, can end your
life, and it can make it. Even in a city.

by g alden on Dec 11, 2013 1:18 pm • linkreport

I have a larger scooter (treated legally as a motorcycle) in San Francisco that is freeway legal. I use it for some trips within the city and rides out of SF proper (across a bridge). The majority of my trips are still ped or transit.

In SF, motorcycle parking is provided downtown and in neighborhoods. It is metered in most commercial locations at an hourly rate lower than autos, but higher if one considers the per-curb length cost of the space. Commute parking is allowed by 10-hour limits on the metered spaces.

In neighborhoods, most motorcycles/scooters park in curb spaces too short for any car or between cars. One may also petition for a space to be officially designated for motorcycles only. In areas with residential permit parking, we pay the same price as autos.

I hope my next scooter can be electric. My current is not too loud, but for running around SF, electric would be superior for short stop and go travel on streets with stops every few hundred feet.

I think motorcycles/scooters do have a place, especially when they provide an alternative to a car.

by Michael on Dec 11, 2013 3:59 pm • linkreport

A few more points:

1) I'd like to see actual, rigorous crash data about motorcycles and scooters increasing danger for pads and cyclists, preferably in North American or European cities. I'd like to see more than a few anecdotal and not terribly germane observations from Asian cities.
2) As a daily motorcyclist, I'm not looking for special favors, just a few commonsense reforms to parking regs and tax policy. For example, why, in Virginia, are hybrids eligible for a larger car tax rebate, while motorcycles are taxed at the same rate as gas-guzzlers?
3) More stringent emissions standards are coming down the pike from the EU and CARB in California. BMW has already phased out air-cooled engines to better control emissions, and Harley-Davidson is not far behind. My 2009 BMW has a catalytic converter. Fuel injection is trickling down to even the least expensive entry-level bikes, as are safety features like ABS and traction control.
4) Lane-splitting is not something I'm interested in doing frequently, legalities aside. Many of the safety justifications cited can be achieved with good lane positioning. I shake my head when I see motorcycle and scooter riders dead center behind another vehicle. That rider has nowhere to go when things head south. Lane-splitting would be a convenience. See item #2 above "no special favors."

by Paul on Dec 11, 2013 4:10 pm • linkreport

Motorcycle emissions in the US were updated in 2006 and again in 2010. Before that they had not changed since 1980. In Europe motorcycles had to meet Euro 3 emissions starting in 2007 and will have to meet Euro 4 and Euro 5 emissions in 2016 and 2020 respectively. Euro 3 is the standard cars had to meet starting in 2000. Euro 5 is the current emissions standard for cars in Europe. So in Europe motorcycles are a couple steps behind cars when it comes to tailpipe emissions but they are catching up.

by bone on Dec 11, 2013 4:45 pm • linkreport

Well, electric motorcycles will kill two birds with one stone. Less noise and minimal emissions.

Sorry, Harley Davidson.

by Crickey7 on Dec 11, 2013 5:04 pm • linkreport

allow lane-splitting when traffic is stopped or crawling. U.S. rules are positively medieval.

more motorcycle parking downtown

and get a scooter. no sense riding a 500c 'gas guzzler'. I have a 150cc that gets up to 65mph, quiet and refined. upright seating position is very comfortable.

not for weather like today though

by cricket on Dec 11, 2013 8:33 pm • linkreport

I agree lane splitting should be legalized. And there should be more motorcycle parking. These two things can help encourange motorcycle commuting and ease congestion, all without costing much. Lane splitting adds capacity without having to actually build anything new. Motorcycle parking also adds capacity at the cost of what? Some paint and a few signs?

by bone on Dec 12, 2013 11:19 am • linkreport

I've been riding bicycles and motorcycles for years. I agree with what you've said. On the lane splitting part, I've been doing it on my daily commute for 4 years. I do it in DC only when traffic gets really congested and cars are at a stand still. DC is one of those places where there is no law expressly prohibiting the practice, much like California. On parking, I always find a spot to squeeze in, usually at the end of a block. I've never gotten a parking ticket for that.

I think the dangers, at least in the city, are overblown. You're not generally going that fast. Having a motor with your two wheels has a lot of advantages. You can keep up with and out accelerate everything else on the road (at least I can with my Ninja ZX10r ;)). Having that kind of power at your disposal means I have the advantage of being able to place myself on the road in the place that is going to provide me the most safety. I don't need a special lane, I don't have to worry about being "doored", and I can give myself a nice buffer of space from the cars. Motorcycle gear also offers serious protection, much more so than what you can practically wear on a bicycle.

The new motorcycles offer tons of safety features too. Mine has ABS brakes and traction control. The traction control system has gyroscopic sensors and will sense a loss of traction and cut the throttle. For example, if you get on the throttle too hard on a wet road, an older bike will fish tale. On mine the throttle will cut out and keep you in a straight line.

by brookland_rez on Dec 12, 2013 5:21 pm • linkreport

I agree with brookland_rez. I commute to the Capitol from W. Falls Church via motorcyle. A few years ago I gave up riding to take advantage of the subsidized "metrocheck" that my employer offered. my commute went from 25 minutes to an hour, and that was on days when the Metro wasn't single-tracking due to a mechanical failure, etc... I told them to keep the money, the Metro wan't worth it, even free, if you are serious about getting to work on time and not living your life on the subway. Though there are no laws specifically forbidding lane-splitting in D.C. as there are in MD and VA other traffic laws could be applied so you could be cited... don't split lanes in front of the Capitol Police or the Park Service Police. The MPD, however, doesn't care. Just be respectful and don't pull some stunt right in front of them. My bike is quiet, fuel efficient, and fast. Driving a car or riding the subway are not attractive commuting options in my opinion. I get to work reliably, quickly, and I have a total blast. I've had twenty-five blissful years of riding. It's safer than you might think. The cost per trip is for me lower than driving or what the metro would cost if I had to pay for it, but it's not about the money. Riding rocks my socks.

by Paul H on Feb 5, 2014 4:34 pm • linkreport

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