Last updated: January 2nd, 2023
I’m a lifelong cyclist (and bike commuter), but I’ve actually had a motorcycle license for close to 15 years. In fact, one of my first jobs was selling them—and riding plenty, in the process.
That experience made it clear that bicycles and motorcycles have extensive and basically opposite pros and cons. Most of these are self-explanatory, like…well…an engine.
But as for which is easier to ride, that’s actually a bit more complex than it sounds.
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Here’s whether a motorcycle or bicycle is easier
Motorcycles require essentially no exertion to ride, but require a great deal of skill and awareness in braking, cornering, and shifting. Bicycles are far more physically challenging, since your legs provide all the power (or part of the power in the case of e-bikes), but they don’t require as much skill to handle.
Financially, it’s also easier to get into bicycles than motorcycles. As we’ll see later, motorcycles are more expensive on every level.
This fundamental trade-off—between speed, skill, expense, and risk-tolerance on the one hand versus simplicity, exertion, affordability, and relative safety on the other—will come down to your priorities and preferences.
Remember, too, that electric bikes and electric scooters are a good compromise between the simplicity and affordability of bicycles vs. the reduced exertion of motorcycles. They’re great alternatives for recreation and transportation alike.
Physical vs. mental effort
Having an engine means motorcycles take no physical effort to move, but are extremely heavy and may be hard to manipulate around parking or storage. Bicycles are relatively light and portable, but (unless you’re riding an e-bike) require strength and endurance to ride.
Mentally, motorcycles bring higher speeds and therefore higher stakes that demand extreme concentration. Bicycles may or may not require such concentration, depending on the terrain and/or traffic, but are generally less mentally demanding to ride.
Shifting & braking
Shifting a motorcycle is much like shifting a car with a manual transmission. It takes a fair amount of practice, and is annoying in stop-and-go traffic, but does become second nature as you gain experience.
Conversely, bicycles are easy and intuitive to shift despite the much higher number of gears. There’s some nuance in how you shift a derailleur vs. hub gears, but I find both easier than a motorcycle since neither uses a clutch.
Automatic motorcycles are available, but not the norm. Bicycles are virtually never automatic, but you can always consider a single-speed bike if you’re really averse to shifting (and your terrain is conducive to a single gear ratio).
When it’s time to slow down, both have separate front and rear brakes. They always operate independently on bicycles, although some motorcycles use a combined (linked) braking system more akin to a car. Normally, however, motorcycles have a right-hand lever (by the throttle) for the front brake and a right-foot pedal for the rear brake.
Bicycles do not have ABS, whereas many motorcycles do. That said, the lower momentum and better “road feel” of a bicycle arguably make it unnecessary.
It’s difficult to say which is easier to use. Bicycle brakes are certainly simpler, but also lower-tech and therefore require more conscious decision-making. That said, cyclists don’t need to manage a throttle with their braking hand. I always found that mildly disconcerting on a motorcycle, but not a major obstacle.
As two-wheeled vehicles, bicycles and motorcycles are subject to the same principles of physics. Consequently, they’re both harder to balance when riding slowly.
That said, compared to bicycles, I find motorcycles much harder to ride very slowly. Their high weight and slow, steady handling makes it harder to negotiate tight corners at just a few mph. Throttle sensitivity and shifting/clutch control can also be awkward in stop-and-go situations.
While bicycles have similar low-speed balance issues, their light weight, nimble handling, and pedal-powered motion add up to a more nimble and easy feel.
Ease of staying safe
Riding and riding safely are two different things. Whichever you consider objectively easier to ride, realize that dealing with traffic, weather, and road obstacles present several additional challenges.
Statistically, it’s easier to stay safe on a bicycle than on a motorcycle when using public roadways. That’s based on research that found a 20x higher fatality risk per trip for motorcyclists compared to cyclists. Granted, motorcycle trips are also longer on average, so the risk per mile is lower but likely still elevated.
I took a motorcycle training course early on, which taught me one thing that has saved my life multiples times on both types of vehicles:
Ride as if you were invisible to drivers.
I reiterate that advice throughout this site, literally every time the topic of urban cycling safety comes up. Point being, this advice is exactly the same for bicyclists and motorcyclists alike. The speeds are different, but the fundamental problem remains: automobile drivers often ignore anything that doesn’t threaten them. That’s not always true, and not always deliberate, but one day’s riding will confirm that it’s often real.
That said, it’s arguably easier to navigate traffic on motorcycles, in the sense that you can ride with the flow of vehicles, even passing as needed. On a bicycle, you’re relegated to the side of the road (since proper infrastructure is often lacking) unless it’s a particularly slow street.
But with the higher speeds come graver consequences. And, arguably, drivers are less likely to be on the lookout for very small vehicles on highways than, say, in the middle of town. The exceedingly high accident rates for motorcyclists seem to confirm this.
Dealing with weather
Motorcycles and bicycles face similar challenges in rain, including poor cornering traction, lengthened braking distance, and reduced visibility to drivers. However, motorcycles are arguably harder to ride in rain because they can hydroplane, which bicycles generally cannot.
Both are possible but very difficult to ride in snow. They require similar precautions, namely avoiding sharp corners, quick acceleration or deceleration, steep hills, and compacted snow (e.g., tire tracks). Studded tires may be available depending on exactly what vehicle you have and where you ride it.
Finally, motorcycles handle road obstacles more easily and safely than bicycles do. That’s primarily thanks to the wider tires and generous suspension on virtually every modern motorcycle.
Whatever safety “allowance” that creates, it’s offset by the higher speeds (and overall momentum) of motorcycles. Things like steel plates near construction sites are risky and unpleasant for anyone to ride over, but a cyclist is less likely to hit them at speeds that cause a crash.
Most bicycles have relatively large wheels, which can roll nicely over rough terrain and help offset their narrower tires and (often) lack of suspension.
Bicycles and motorcycles are both especially vulnerable to potholes. Note that potholes may be indistinguishable from puddles in wet weather, so riders of either have to treat anything that resembles a puddle with skepticism and care.
Financial “ease” of getting started
We don’t normally think of cost in terms of ease or difficulty. Still, nothing is free, and the financial ease of acquiring and maintaining your vehicle is vastly different between the two.
Motorcycles cost roughly 5-10x more than bicycles of comparable quality. This generally applies to purchase prices, maintenance/cost of ownership, and apparel and accessories, and even insurance.
Small, entry-level motorcycles cost roughly a couple thousand US dollars, whereas entry-level city/commuter bicycles cost around $500-$700. It’s not the most useful comparison, since motorcycles use more raw materials and are vastly more mechanically complex, but it does give an idea of the cost to get started.
Parts and labor also tend to be more expensive for motorcycles. They’re vaguely similar to auto parts and labor prices, but vary enormously by make and model.
Small motorcycles may average 100 mpg (very roughly speaking), for a fuel cost of about 3 cents/mile at current US prices. There’s obviously no fuel cost for traditional bicycles, except perhaps a few pennies for extra food. (Admittedly, that’s a stretch, and many of us would rather cycle to lose weight anyhow!) Even e-bikes rack up just a few tenths of a cent per mile for electricity costs.
Motorcycle apparel and safety gear usually costs several times more than its cycling equivalent. For instance, $150-$250 for a top-of-the-line Giro bicycle helmet vs. $500-$1000 for a comparably high-end Shoei motorcycle helmet. Other protective equipment is more discretionary, but whatever you choose, plan on spending 2-5x as much for the motorcycle variation of an item.
Finally, although bicycle liability and accident insurance is rare, it’s far cheaper than the motorcycle equivalent. (Granted, motorcycle insurance is also optional in many places.) Along those lines, motorcyclists are statistically likelier to sustain an injury—especially a serious injury—with medical and repair bills to match.
All told, motorcycles are more expensive to use and buy in every respect. The one possible exception would be if you replace a car with a small-displacement motorcycle for extremely high-mileage riding (i.e., more miles than are feasible on a bicycle). But all else being equal, cycling is simply cheaper transportation and a cheaper hobby.
Easy-to-use alternatives to motorcycles
If you’re drawn to the speed and lesser exertion of a motorcycle, but don’t want something so costly and potentially difficult to ride safely, there are two terrific alternatives.
E-bikes make menacing hills doable, and can turn long commutes and errands into reasonable daily trips. Contrary to popular belief, e-bikes are actually good exercise, although the exact level of motor assistance is up to you.
You’re looking at roughly $1000 and up for a worthwhile electric-assist bike, although it’s easy to drop several grand depending on your needs and priorities.
Electric scooters are like scaled-down motorcycles, at accessible prices, with (as of writing) no licensing and negligible equipment requirements. What’s more, e-scooters aren’t especially dangerous in the hands of a prudent rider, and they have a minimal learning curve.
There are a few solid options for less than $1000 (check out my review of the Ninebot Max for one of the best examples) and several for comfortably under $2000 that’ll keep speed demons happy.
So, which is easier for you?
Keep in mind as you read this that I cycle every day because I prefer it to all reasonable alternatives. That shouldn’t come as a surprise: I do publish this whole website primarily about cycling, after all!
Of course I’ve aimed to compare objectively here, but that’s never entirely possible. Avid motorcyclists might disagree on many accounts, and that’s A-OK.
As always, firsthand experience is the best way to answer these questions personally and definitively. So, above all, I encourage you to take this as food for thought, then get out there and experience all forms of two wheels for yourself.