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Latin America’s Two-Wheel Revolution

Americans can learn some valuable lessons from motorcyclists south of the border.

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Motorcycles dominate in Latin America. A Pew survey found that as of 2014, 14 percent of U.S. households had a motorcycle — mostly for recreation. In Brazil it was 29 percent; Colombia, 23 percent; Argentina, 24 percent — and these were generally their owners’ main form of transport. (Scott Beyer/Governing)
Imagine you’re driving on a Brazilian interstate with two lanes in one direction. The cars in both lanes know to drive along the outer edge of their respective tracks. Down the middle, along the white dotted line, is a theoretical “third lane” for motorcyclists. Even when car traffic is at a standstill, these lane-splitting motorcyclists tear through their middle space.

It’s an example of how motorcycles dominate the day in Latin America. A Pew survey found that as of 2014, 14 percent of U.S. households had a motorcycle — mostly for recreation. In Brazil it was 29 percent; Colombia, 23 percent; Argentina, 24 percent — and these were generally their owners’ main form of transport.

Latin American motorcycle ownership has exploded since then. According to, in 17 countries surveyed regionally the industry grew from 3.7 million units sold in 2012 to 5.2 million in 2021. Meanwhile U.S. sales are declining.

Beyond statistics, the difference is evident when you experience almost any Latin American city. Stand on a crowded corner, and at least 10 percent of the trips you see will be by motorcycle. They have a huge imprint on the physical space. Compare this with America, where less than 1 percent of trips are by motorcycle.

There are other key differences — including the look of the vehicles. In America, Harley-Davidson is the most popular brand by market share. Their motorcycles are big, loud, and associated with biker gangs and road trippers. The most popular Harley costs about $16,000 and has a 1200 cubic centimeter engine. Motorcycles in Latin America are smaller, cheaper and more practical — they are really motorbikes. They have cc engines in the 125-200 range, and the average price in South America is $4,000.

They’re also used in a different way. The rise of food and product delivery apps in Latin America has coincided with the rise in motorcycle ownership. This correlation seems apt, as every order among dozens I made in Latin America was delivered by motorcycle.

But in the U.S., outside of New York City, most delivery is done by car. Food delivery services curtail motorcycle use by their vendors in many markets. These company policies may be due in part to the regulatory uncertainty around such vehicles; even New York has spent several years cracking down intermittently on e-bikes and mopeds.

But it would be good for public officials and companies to consider the advantages of mass two-wheeled-vehicle adoption. They help people travel quickly when there’s bad traffic. Latin America is famous for congestion: According to data from the mapping company TomTom, Lima, Peru, is the city with the world’s eighth-worst traffic, followed by Bogota, Colombia, (10); Mexico City (13); and Buenos Aires (16). The traffic may motivate more people in Latin America to use motorcycles; imagine how much worse it would be if all those riders instead drove cars. Congested U.S. cities like New York and Los Angeles might take note.

One problem for mass adoption in the United States is environmental: It’s true that motorbikes use less gas than automobiles, but when they are unregulated, they can be significant polluters. The U.S. has a series of regulations and subsidies that have required or encouraged companies to produce cars with fewer emissions, but this hasn’t been implemented for motorcycles. As a result the industry is behind the curve, manufacturing vehicles that spit out pollutants. CitizenSustainable points out that “motorcycles, in general, emit 16 times more hydrocarbons (than cars). They also emit three times more carbon monoxide.” That can change.

Safety is a mixed bag. Motorcycles from one point of view are more dangerous: The research firm J.D. Power reports that “the chances of a fatality in a motorcycle accident are approximately 30 times higher than in a car” and “motorcycle accidents have a staggering 80 percent injury or death rate, while car accidents remain around 20 percent.”

But because they’re smaller, that risk is confined mostly to the user, whereas everyone else is better off being hit by a motorcycle than by a two-ton automobile. This speaks to one irony, for example, in New York City’s crackdown on the moped company Revel. It was premised on the fatalities of two riders. But the city is less adamant about regulating cars, which kill 200-300 residents annually — many of whom are non-users outside the automobile.

America can learn a lot from Latin America on this issue, especially as our own tastes evolve. Motorcycling as a hobby is actually on the decline, while younger buyers, according to a survey, “are more interested in ease of transportation.” This is why they’re turning to e-bikes, mopeds and other smaller vehicles that better reflect what’s found in Latin America.

American cities can help with this by focusing on friendlier regulations; lower toll rates (motorcycles weigh less, after all); more right-of-way carveouts; and tax credit programs that encourage these vehicles to be produced in an environmentally friendly fashion. If they just want to weigh the pros and cons of the motorbike phenomenon, Latin America is the place to look.
A journalist who focuses on American urban issues. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @sbcrosscountry.
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