An article published recently by the website Green Choices recommended that environmentally-conscious consumers switch from motor cars to motorbikes, as they provide the individual freedoms associated with cars but at a lower environmental cost.

The main arguments listed to support this claim were that motorbikes use fuel more effectively, generate fewer emissions and cause less environmental damage during their production. The article called on consumers to “ditch the bulky cars and go for smaller, more efficient options that not only avoid congestion and carry you through town faster but are also less harmful on the environment too!”

Though these claims may seem credible at first glance, a brief dive into concrete research and data is enough to debunk the myth. Studies replicated and supported around the world by institutions such as the University of Kanazawa in Japan, the EU, and even the TV show “Mythbusters”, have pronounced that motorbikes do indeed damage the environment and to a much greater extent than motor cars.

Though it is true that motorbikes use less fuel and emit less carbon dioxide, this is offset many times over by the gargantuan amount of smog-forming hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides as well as intensely toxic carbon monoxide they produce. On average, motorbikes from the 2000s generate 416 per cent more hydrocarbons, 3,220 per cent more \nitrogen oxides, and 8,065 per cent more carbon monoxide than motor cars produced in the same decade.

According to research conducted by the University of Kanazawa, the hydrocarbon-filled exhaust released from motorbikes are toxic substances that cause malformations of human embryos, and even in moderate amounts hydrocarbon is capable of inducing genetic mutations and complications in testosterone and estrogen creation.

One of the major reasons motorbikes emit so much toxic greenhouse gases is the sheer lack of converters, sensors and other emission control devices that have been packed onto passenger vehicles since the 1970s. Because of their prevalence, there has been a stronger push towards cleaning up automobiles. This kind of advocacy has been absent in the history of two-wheelers, and so producers have been able to get away with all manner of disease-inducing gases. Even if they had wanted to clean up motorbikes, they wouldn’t have been able to; there is simply not enough space on these vehicles for control systems as comprehensive as those on cars.

The claim that motorbikes use up fewer resources when built, specifically “around one-seventh of the resources needed to build a car”, also turns out to be false. Using the online Economic Input-Output Life Cycle Assessment, one can easily see how the construction of a $15,000 car on average generates 9.41 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide, while the construction of a $15,000 motorcycle generates 13.7 metric tonnes.

Vietnam is regarded as a “global center of motorbikes”, with more than 45 million two-wheelers in a population of 94 million, and one can imagine how much air pollution they cause. Hanoi’s recently announced ban on motorbikes from 2030, therefore, most likely does not stem from concerns about road safety alone but is also an earnest effort to mitigate air pollution in the country. However, these plans have clearly not been thought through. When asked by The Observer about those not living in the vicinity of public transportation, however dilapidated, Director of the Hanoi Department of Transportation, Mr. Vu Van Vien, simply replied that they could probably find a way to drive or be driven there. Even as car ownership has soared in recent years, only around 1.6 per cent of the population is in possession of one and they remain a symbol of wealth and privilege in the developing country.

This was not the first time Hanoi has proposed a ban on motorbikes, as a similar decree gained much public attention in 2003 but fell through because the necessary infrastructure to support alternative methods of transportation simply didn’t exist. It is likely that Vietnam will not be able to move towards a motorbike-free future anytime soon unless citizens see the value in utilizing buses, metro lines, bicycles and electric bikes. Roughly 15 per cent of inhabitants in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City use buses for daily transportation, and the common reason given by those who don’t is that buses are “frequently late, dirty, accident-prone and provide poor service.” However, according to Dr. Vu Anh Tuan, an expert on transportation planning, the quality of the newest bus network in Ho Chi Minh City is comparable to those found in Japan. “They are punctual, modern, air conditioned and have wi-fi, and the drivers are polite and professional,” he said. He in turn attributed the unpopularity of buses not to their intrinsic qualities but to the very existence of motorbikes themselves. So, which is the chicken and which is the egg?

Building better, faster public transportation systems alone will probably not help convince residents to travel greener. The fundamental problem here lies in mindset. Many Vietnamese think that buses are “for the poor”, and, indeed, a bus culture is a prominent element of life for workers, public school students, and people from the countryside. In a classist society with rising income inequality - there are around 200 “super-rich” individuals in Vietnam with assets of more than $30 million as well as 7 million who live below the poverty line of $320 annually - those who identify as middle or even lower-middle class strive to distance themselves from anything conventionally associated with the socioeconomically disenfranchised. In fact, vehicles have become the very symbol of income inequality, as the rich cruise around town in a $2.5 million Rolls-Royce, 60 per cent pricier due to consumption, import and value-added taxes, among a stream of motorbikes stacked with families of five. So, to push for an increase in bus ridership, not only does the government need to continue investing in more high-quality bus routes, education that specifically targets the existing stigma is also a must.

After this is accomplished, the government can implement a more reasonable rollout of motorbike prohibition plans. Currently, a complete ban by 2030 is the official policy in Hanoi, while 8,000 new bikes are still sold every day. A step-by-step approach for every five years, taking into account realistic prospects of public transportation use, is the most pragmatic alternative.

But for a city struggling with congestion, it is odd that officials have suggested that taxis and motor cars - in conjunction with public transportation - should be used to replace the capital’s ubiquitous two-wheelers. Hanoi’s masterplan sees public transportation taking on only 55 per cent of the city’s needs by 2030, and Dr. Tuan suggested that those who do not live close enough to the new metro and bus networks should simply drive, or be driven, to the closest bus or metro stop. “We plan for 80 per cent of those living in the city limits to have access to some form of public transportation within 500 meters of their home,” he said. “And the other 20 per cent will have access to a taxi or a private car or bicycle.”