Vespa LXV 150, with 4-stroke engine. Photo: Flickr, CC
Do Gasoline Scooters Pollute More than SUVs?
Ex-TreeHugger contributor and Ecogeek-in-chief Hank Green caught a pretty blatant error about how much pollution gas scooters produce. Over at Ecogeek he writes: "I just read an article at the Huffington Post that said scooters pollute more than Hummers. That article cites a US News and World Report blog post which, in turn, cites a Chicago Tribune advice column." Continued below...
Photo: Flickr, CC
The problem is that the original question was "do two-stroke scooters pollute more than Hummers" the answer to which (depending on your definition of "pollute" is yes. The problem with this is that the vast majority of scooters sold in America today have four-stroke engines, just like cars, and most of them meet strict European emissions regulations, since Europe is the largest scooter market.
A U.S. News and World Report Green Blog then took the Tribune advice column and made a blanket statement implying that, unless they are electric, scooters produce more polluting gasses than Hummers. That, of course, is a blatantly false. They even cite Vespas specifically, which is hilarious given that they average 60 mpg and haven't used 2-stroke engines for almost a decade.
If You Want a Scooter, Look for a 4-Stroke Engine
As of this writing, it looks like USNews has made a correction to its piece to make it clear that they're talking about 2-stroke engines only, and that those aren't very prevalent among scooters sold in the US (might be different in some developing countries).
The original column by Cecil Adams (of Straight Dope fame) is still based on a specific question about a 2-stroke, but we kind of wish Cecil had mentioned something about 4-stroke scooters to make things even clearer.
The Huffington Post piece still cites the old USNews piece, so unfortunately it is still misleading.
People Love a Good Counter-Intuitive Story!
The danger with these stories is that they spread like wildfire and that the explanations of why they aren't true never become quite as popular, so we're left with tons of people who still believe that the Hummer is cleaner than the Prius, or that Scooters in general are worse than SUVs... Gotta nip those in the bud.
So while not all scooters have clean burning engines (in fact, until a few years ago Vespa still had 2-strokes in the US), it's also false to pretend that they all have dirty 2-stroke engines.
Update: O Irony! This post is in fact itself somewhat misleading. I was echoing Hank Green's beef about the important distinction between 2-stroke engines and 4-stroke engines, but probably got carried away a little and should've dug up some numbers. Mike Millikin, of Green Car Congress, wrote me an excellent email outlining the situation with regards to scooters vs. other vehicles.
Bottom line is that even 4-stroke scooters are dirtier than I thought when it comes to certain pollutants; they are very good when it comes to CO2 emissions and materials used, but most are still worse than cars when it comes to what generally falls under "smog-forming emissions". The regulations for scooter emissions have been tightened in the US in 2004, but we're still far from cars (unfortunately).
So mea culpa, 4-stroke scooters indeed are cleaner than 2-stroke ones, but compared to cars, they can be worse when it comes to air quality issues (they are worse per mile driven, but you tend to drive a scooter fewer miles, though even taking that into account, the difference is still big enough to matter).
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