Dearest Readers,

How I enjoy your letters! I’m sorry I’m unable to answer them all; lest you fear that they vanish into the void, I assure you they do not. I read each and every one of them down here in Stacklandia.

I must in particular thank those of you who write in to correct, amend, or expand on issues I address in my columns. Almost without exception, those perspicacious readers who venture to mention my errors (linguistic, scientific, or moral) do so in the most delicate and sensitive manner, doing Ms. Manners proud and leaving her fellow advice columnist better informed. Notwithstanding the ample resources and free time afforded me by my life down here in the confines of the Hardcover and Periodicals Unit (floors 2B-4B), resolving all the environmental dilemmas posed by modern life single-handedly is still a bit beyond my reach. I need your help in that work and invite your commentary on all the issues broached in this space. In particular, I welcome letters from those with expertise in the fields that we examine.

So to honor those who hold up their end of this bargain, today I offer a brief sample of the kinds of corrections, encomiums, and, occasionally, abuse that I receive, along with some responses thereto. In my last column, I went once more into the breach of the combustion engine and its byproducts. Many of you wrote in to add your knowledge to the humble information I had pieced together.

I’m happy to announce that all you motorcycle riders out there can be slightly comforted by omissions I made in writing about emissions.

Sincerely,
Umbra Fisk

Dear Umbra,

I just finished reading your article comparing the various modes of transportation and their pollution factors. In regards to your statements about scooters, you mention that they produce more pollutants because they have two-cycle engines. I’m happy to say that a large number of scooters now use four-cycle engines. This is most true of the larger displacement scooters, such as the 250 cc and 500 cc models. I own a 1999 Yamaha 250 and it uses a four-cycle engine and gets 100 miles per gallon.

Just wanted to pass that along.

Francis
Portland, Maine

Thank you, Francis. Since other readers are doubtless wondering (as I did) about the meaning of “displacement” and “cc” in this context, I will clarify. Displacement is a measure of the volume of air sucked through a vehicle’s cylinders during the combustion cycle, which directly relates to how much gasoline can be burned per cylinder. It is measured in cubic centimeters, or ccs. Again, I refer those who care to learn more about this matter to HowStuffWorks.com. The displacement number is a rough measurement of engine power and its ancillary effects, such as bad-assedness and where you are allowed to drive. No 50-cc scooters on the Santa Monica Freeway.

Let’s read on and use our new knowledge to understand the following excellent reader letter. The fellow below offers us a detailed examination of the state of motorbike improvements worldwide.

Umbra

Umbra,

I usually enjoy your column. However, your recent comments on motorcycle and scooter emissions seem wide of the mark. Considerable research and development has been conducted recently to improve the fuel economy and lower the emissions of motorbikes and two-stroke scooters. See, for example, this press release from Honda.

While Europe is leading the way on this, there is also progress in Taiwan, India, and, to a lesser extent, California. Indeed, the U.S. EPA is on the verge of enacting California-level emission controls for all 50 states. These include mandatory catalytic converters and evaporative emission carbon traps. (At the Motorcycle Riders Foundation website, you can see how the agents of the status quo are putting up resistance.) I bought a 125 cc four-stroke Kawasaki because it gets 115 miles per gallon. (I buy one-fourth as much gas as I would if I owned a car.) With retrofitted emissions controls and a much better product lifecycle (the pollution produced by manufacturing, shipping, and maintaining a small car is far greater than for a motorbike), the environmental footprint of this vehicle is tiny. Moreover, if people were to drive small, fuel-efficient motorbikes instead of cars, there would be less congestion and less wear and tear on the roads. Granted, walking or riding a non-motorized bike is the best way to go overall, but please reconsider your position on motorbikes vs. cars.

Hopefully,
Myles
Newburyport, Mass.

Thank you, Myles, and thank you for being so polite. Your letter covers issues I omitted, including the retrofitting of engines. Retrofitting an old vehicle built under poor emissions standards obviates the need to buy a cleaner new one, with all the attendant impacts (manufacturing, shipping, etc.) of new products.

I’m going to take this opportunity to urge us one and all to stop calling our vehicles “cars” or “SUVs” or “scooters” and start calling them Mobile Emissions Sources, or MESses. I’d like to be able to thoroughly rank all MESses in order of environmental impact, an often-requested service that I have been working toward for some time. Letters such as this are helping me toward that goal, and yes, Myles, I am willing to reconsider. I’ll keep you posted.

The following two letters, written in response to my last MESsy column, were directed not toward me but to an earlier letter-writer, Mike, who was looking for the best larger car to tote a five-person family, including three young ‘uns:

Dear Umbra,

Our 2002 Ford Focus four-door sedan has three child-seat anchors across the top of the rear seat. I presume our backseat would hold two infant seats and a booster. The Focus is rated 28/36 mpg; we have averaged 33 mpg overall (standard transmission, no air conditioning).

Peace,
Kathy
Salt Lake City, Utah

Dear Umbra,

Before Mike gives up and gets a van, he should take a look at the Toyota RAV4. It’s a car-sized SUV that (actually) gets 30 mpg on the highway (without the AC running). I don’t have a measuring tape on me, but the second backseat might hold two car seats and a booster seat. Or the booster seat would easily fit behind the back seats, if his six-year-old doesn’t mind facing a side window (and if that’s legal). I highly recommend the car itself; it has great value for the dollar and better gas mileage than I’ve gotten for a long time. (And, no, I don’t sell them; I just have one.)

Tom
Columbia, Mo.

Hopefully, all you larger families out there who’ve written in seeking car advice can take these ideas and run. If anyone actually has three children under the age of six and accommodates them all without guzzling, please let us know.

Lastly, I feel that it is only fair for my dedicated readers to know that they may be making a grave error by reading, let alone trusting, my column:

Umbra,

How is it that you can keep your job when your information is so flawed and un-researched? You’re almost as bad as a weatherman who’s able to keep his/her job even despite being wrong 95 percent of the time.

Your conclusions, and subsequently your advice, is erroneous from start to finish. The information you found does not coincide with current California ARB findings regarding motorcycles.

R.P.
Concord, Calif.
31 years riding motorcycles

I don’t know how I keep my job; I’m not sure there are a lot of folks out there clamoring for it. Still, they should be; no matter how much hate mail I get, this advice-columnist gig is far from thankless. The truth is, the vast majority of the letters I get from readers warm my heart. Keep ‘em coming.

Warmly,
Umbra