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Rudi Kiefer: Motorcycles, bikes are good for environment
Rudi Kiefer
Last year, Germany minted a beautiful silver 20-Euro coin celebrating a special bicentennial. It shows a man astride a machine looking like a hillbilly caricature of a bicycle, made of thick timbers with skinny wagon wheels.

This “Laufmaschine,” or running machine, was invented in 1817 by Karl Drais in Karlsruhe, Germany. He made practical use of the discovery that a vehicle doesn’t need four wheels to stay upright. So long as two wheels keep moving, their gyroscopic effect keeps the contraption from falling over.

Drais got public attention when, on his multimile demonstration runs, he clocked average speeds of 10 mph. Other inventors followed with refinements, and the bicycle was born.

Thirty-four years after Drais’ death, in 1885, another Karlsruhe engineer designed an additional component that also made history. By incorporating an internal combustion engine into something similar to the Laufmaschine, Gottlieb Daimler invented the motorcycle.

Today, “motorcycles are everywhere,” as a popular bumper sticker suggests. Modern engines and components make it possible to buy one capable of going 200 mph, with no parts remaining from the original designs. But even 200 years after Drais, two-wheelers have remained the most energy-efficient means of ground transportation.

In Asia, the small motorcycle is predominant, used for trips to work, school and shopping. The same is true for Latin America. With an engine that’s often smaller than one found on the lawn mower in a Georgia backyard, fuel efficiency ranges from 70 to 100 miles per gallon.

In the U.S., cars are more popular for utility trips. Motorcycles are mostly a hobby or even luxury vehicle. Young riders prefer the sleek, fast sport bikes. Older age brackets are more likely to be using the comfortable cruisers, some with massive engine sizes unheard of at the beginning of the motorcycle boom in the late 1960s. But even a large Harley-Davidson gets 50 mpg, and catalytic converters make fuel-injected bikes a clean-burning alternative to cars.

Obviously, motorcyclists are sensitive to weather. On a rain-slick road, they need to be given plenty of safety distance because braking is more difficult on two wheels. On dry Georgia summer days, riding can also be hazardous because the hot wind has an enormous dehydration effect, causing fatigue.

Even with these and other vulnerabilities, though, motorcycles and bicycles remain as some of the most enjoyable and environmentally friendly vehicles.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.

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