Volume 7, Issue 2: Fall 2011


Sustainable Motorcycling: Rethinking Mobility, Consumption and Market Relationships

Geoff Crowther  

A fast-changing world impacts motorcycling in numerous ways, affecting how, when, where and, even perhaps, if we ride. The current economic recession has restricted the availability of household funds for motorised personal mobility and this has been reflected in a reduction in demand for powered two wheelers in the developed world. However, economic forces are not alone in influencing markets, as legislation and its enforcement shape which bikes are available and how they are ridden, whilst technology offers alternative power sources and new control possibilities for riders and, indeed, authorities. Also social values relating to consumption of motorcycles are adapting to fresh perspectives on world resources and environmental degradation, as policy makers, manufacturers and consumers seek out sustainable solutions for a powered two-wheeling future.

Sustainable Motorcycling

Sustainable motorcycling calls for the development of forms of motorcycling that are ecologically acceptable, socially relevant, aesthetically pleasing, economically viable, technologically appropriate, and individually satisfying. The actions that people take and the choices they make when motorcycling—to consume certain products and services rather than others or to participate in motorcycling in certain ways—have direct and indirect impact on the environment, as well as on personal and collective well-being. Hence the topic of sustainable motorcycling has increasing resonance for the motorcycling community and for those concerned with the ethics of motorcycle consumption.  It offers the possibility of better understanding how and why particular people choose to live with particular motorcycles in particular ways and/or how they make do with the dominant motorcycling culture that surrounds them. A future for motorcycling is assured in response to growing urban congestion and rapidly expanding personal mobility requirements.  However, if such opportunities are ignored, further marginalisation by politicians, transport planners and others will occur.

Motorcycling Choices

A key question to be considered is why we motorcycle in the ways that we do? Much of conventional choice theory assumes that each individual has complete knowledge of the alternatives and can make a rational choice, an unlikely scenario. Recent empirical research suggests that a much more proactive approach is required that not only informs individuals about the alternatives that are available but also helps them decide which is most suitable for them. Information has to be taken to motorcyclists, rather than assuming that they will find it themselves. A distinct cognitive effort is now required to overcome habitual behaviour, even where the new behaviour carries substantial benefits to the individual concerned. Individualised marketing is a good example of this use of a dialogue-based technique for promoting public transport use in the UK.

In the more affluent parts of the world, spiraling differentiation contributes further complexity to motorcycle choice, a “brew” fuelled by extensive branding in the marketplace. In addition, motorcyclists have found themselves “locked in” to unsustainable consumption patterns that flow, to a large extent, from habits, routines, social norms and expectations as well as dominant cultural values. Sustainable motorcycling requires a radical re-direction in the way in which motorcycle consumption decisions are made.  But it will provoke the inevitable resistance to change that stems from ingrained cultural values, peer group pressure and contemporary market relationships that have created what may be termed “motorcycle consumer inertia.” The “supersize” phenomenon that “biggest or fastest is best” applies not only to fast food but many other goods, including motorcycles. As a consequence, those seeking to achieve pro-environmental behavioural change in the motorcycle market emphasise the difficulty and complexity associated with such ambition to overcome market inertia. They also highlight the need to deal with the social and institutional context of motorcyclist consumer action, as well as attempting to influence individual behaviours.

Legitimacy must be based on a participatory and inclusive approach that involves ‘‘selling’’ the message of sustainable motorcycling to individuals, groups and localities through explaining the need for changes in behaviour and convincing existing and potential riders of the importance of their contribution. A key insight to be drawn from consumption literature is that material artifacts play important symbolic roles and as a result of this are able to negotiate vital psychological and social functions in our lives. Grey Advertising’s 1962 slogan “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” did much to stimulate interest among those who previously had no interest in motorcycles, who saw in the motorcycle a new purpose, one of casual and convenient daily transportation.

Why is durability the poor relation of marketing platforms in relation to motorcycles? The venerable Honda C90 Cub owed much of its enduring success to its durability; it was a workhorse rather than a fashion or lifestyle accessory. But now a number of factors are considered important.  First, the style and aesthetics reflected in motorcycle markets have become increasingly fashion led, a trend reflected in short product life cycles.

Second, manufacturers constantly seek to gain competitive advantage through differentiation based on product features or attributes, such as traction control, leading buyers into aspirational overbuying where features are sought not for functional necessity but to overcome psychological vulnerability. Consumer preferences for goods are not formed on the basis of the products themselves, but on the attributes that those products possess and the values of those attributes for individual consumers. In some instances, riders are drawn to attributes to overcome anxieties concerning their ability to perform in relation to their motorcycles.

Third, the search for enhanced performance in motorcycle design has driven product development for decades, resulting in bigger, faster, more complex machines usually costing more to maintain, fuel and replace.

Fourth, price contributes to rapid model depreciation as longer lasting motorcycles mean more expensive machines in showrooms and perceived potential loss of sales/market share.

Finally, the role of self expression in motorcycling has been mirrored in riders embarking on quests for to create their own narratives, with identity development a prime motivator for participation. The latter explains the recent rapid rise in “adventure” motorcycling.

Although there is evidence amongst motorcyclists of resistance to the above as manufacturers’ development and production costs escalate and innovation fatigue sets in as short product life cycles accompanied by rapid depreciation are perceived as poor value. Also amongst motorcyclists, we witness cults devoted to “products we love,” with high levels of consumer attachment to specific brands, such as Harley-Davidson, and their resulting tribal consumption practices.

A key question can be raised: how can durability become a more interesting message? As we know motorcycle, car and bicycle manufacturers are adept at selling the symbolism and seductiveness of their wares. Why not motorcycles built for the long haul linked to sturdy, rugged design, robust materials and easy maintenance? This strategy has emerged as a convincing platform for certain products that expect heavy usage: think KitchenAid.

Sustainable Motorcycling: An Inevitable Downshift?

Motorcyclists must respond to the sustainable mobility approach that requires actions to reduce the need to travel (fewer trips), to encourage modal shift (e.g., cars - motorcycles - bicycles - bus), to reduce trip lengths and to encourage greater efficiency in the transport system through the promotion of more efficient motorcycles, speed control and controlled access. Already in Europe there is evidence of transport policy measures that are used to reduce and control levels of motorcycle use, e.g., satellite monitoring of travel behaviour including speed. However, this approach goes beyond the OECD call for a debate centred on awareness raising, through information, education, and use of the media and advertising as the means to achieve sustainable mobility. The benchmark report (OECD, 2004) drew attention to the need for a concerted strategy to make behaviour change easy, ensuring that incentive structures and institutional rules favour pro-environmental behaviour, enabling access to pro-environmental choice, engaging people in initiatives to help themselves, and exemplifying the desired changes within government’s own policies and practices.

Perhaps we can pin our hope on voluntary simplicity in motorcycling to reduce total consumption levels and provide ecological relief? Motorcycle downshifting involves the conscious decision to scale back on consumption, as well as boycotts and "buycotts," consumer campaigns, value-expressive consumption and collective consumption. Motorcycle downshifters engage in alternative forms of consumption while simultaneously holding anti-materialist and anti-brand-conscious values. They have discovered that consumption can be used for positive political ends, mobilising the motorcycling community to think politically and participate in community-minded causes. They may ultimately serve as “moral agents” who, through their behaviour, challenge the consumer culture from within. It appears likely that, shaped by their aesthetic, emotional, and sensory responses to motorcycling freedom, riders’ preferences will play a vital role in achieving sustainable motorcycling leaving silent, electric powered two wheelers with a restricted appeal.

A Way Forward

This essay argues that what is needed is perhaps not an anti-consumption perspective—fewer motorcycles and less motorcycling—but an alternative  perspective for manufacturers, consumers and policy makers on sustainable motorcycling. To this end, we must clarify the form of alternative motorcycle consumption that would support a sustainable perspective.  So a key task is the identification of what is and what is not sustainable motorcycling consumption behaviour. This requires an understanding of the social and institutional context of consumer action, opening out a more creative vista for policy innovation. Expanding on these opportunities is the new challenge for sustainable motorcycling.

Clearly targeted, personalised strategies, including social pressure, awareness raising, demonstration, persuasion and individual marketing, are also crucial. Acceptability is an essential (yet often neglected) element of sustainable mobility. The sustainable mobility paradigm is moving towards an objective-based planning system that is trying to implement a range of policy interventions, but with an important additional element, namely the support of all stakeholders. Underlying this discussion is the need to understand motorcycling consumption behaviour and to explore the means by which cooperation and support can be obtained so that meaningful change can take place.  Let us beware of greenwashing.

The open and active involvement of all parties would be far more effective than the conventional passive means of persuasion. Thus, broad coalitions should be formed to include specialists, researchers, academics, practitioners, policy makers and activists in motorcycling and related areas of transport, land use, urban affairs, environment, public health, ecology, engineering, green modes and public transport. It is only when such coalitions form that a real debate about sustainable mobility can take place. There must be a willingness to change and an acceptance of collective responsibility.

Reflective (deliberate), low impact motorcycling is a way forward that aims to improve motorcyclists’ sense of physiological, psychological, emotional and spiritual well-being, while recognising issues of economic viability, environmental stability and socio-cultural benefits. A strong contingent of riders is always asking the same questions: Why build every new motorcycle with a big engine? Why not build something smaller, affordable and light that still looks cool? Yes, such motorcycles are emerging (e.g., the KTM Duke 125 or the Honda CBR250R) in response to a trend that cannot be dismissed as a fad or short-term fashion, offering a market segment that promises to grow globally-

Policies that seek to promote pro-environmental behavioural change will need to engage as much with the social context that shapes and constrains social action in motorcycling, as it will with mechanisms of individual choice. By taking seriously how people feel about their motorcycling and about alternative modes of motorcycling, we will be in a better position to re-evaluate the ethical dimensions of motorcycle consumption. Only then can we consider what will be necessary to make the transition from today’s motorcycling culture to a more socially and environmentally responsible motorcycling culture.

What is the benefit to be gained from educating motorcyclists about sustainable consumption?  Numerous positive outcomes may result from creating a society of better informed motorcyclists.  These include individual-level outcomes, such as a closer fit between motorcyclists’ desires and the products purchased, and societal level outcomes, such as a greater appreciation of the implications of motorcycling on our physical and social environments leading to a sustainable future for motorcycling.

For many motorcyclists, their bikes will continue to serve a vital purpose in helping them to maintain and improve social resilience in the face of cultural shifts and economic and social shocks, and in helping the group to maintain its social identity and to negotiate inter-group relationships. Some things are unlikely change.


OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development), 2004. Communicating environmentally sustainable transport: the role of soft measures. Report of the workshop held in Berlin, December 2002.


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