Photo by Alex Barth on Flickr.

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?

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 blogs about Metro operations and fares, performance parking, and any other government and economics information he finds on the Web. He lives with his wife and two children in Arlington, Virginia.