Will the streets of Melbourne look more like Hanoi than Manhattan in the future?Posted: April 21, 2010
I’ve believed for some years that motor scooters and motorcycles are likely to become a much more important component of Melbourne’s transport system if the cost of fuel increases dramatically.
Scooters and small motorcycles are extremely popular in cities like Hanoi where, like the probable Melbourne of the future, the cost of transport is very high relative to incomes.
Like cars, scooters offer a very high degree of personal mobility. They also have the advantage that they can ‘thread’ their way through congested traffic, are easy to park and are light on fuel.
Given that a high proportion of car trips involve only the driver, I expect that many motorists would respond to dramatically higher fuel prices by shifting to scooters rather than to public transport. The advantages of on-demand transport should not be underestimated – the streets of Melbourne might look much more like Hanoi than Manhattan if fuel prices rise dramatically.
The main reason scooters aren’t more widely used at present is because both cars and petrol are still relatively cheap compared to incomes. It’s also true that most of the time our roads are relatively uncongested so motorists are generally under no great pressure to find an alternative to the car.
In addition, scooters are perceived – probably correctly – as very unsafe compared to cars (although I’ve no doubt the danger is much lower if the rider is not in one of the high risk demographics).
It seems to me however that the very same high fuel prices that would boost the demand for scooters would also reduce the average speed and size of cars and vans, making scooting somewhat safer. If scooters were consequently to become a major mode on our roads, this would inevitably have the effect of slowing cars or at least make drivers more respectful.
Even so, I think some drastic government action, like seriously higher taxes on big vehicles and more aggressive speed controls, will be needed to make roads safer for scooters and motorcycles. In turn, there is a need to find ways of reducing the noise made by two wheelers.
Scooters are likely to capture a considerable proportion of those shorter trips that it is often assumed will be picked up by cycling. Yes, scooters are more expensive to buy and run but they can cruise with the traffic at 60 km/hr (although not all can accelerate as fast as a car) and hence can unequivocally ‘claim’ a lane, giving them a high level of visibility. They’re also harder to steal, you don’t need a shower at the end of the trip, you can wear a much stronger helmet than on a bicycle, you can carry more stuff and even “helmet hair” is less of a problem.
Let me come clean and acknowledge that my household owns a 125 cc scooter, which cost around $4,000 two years ago (it’s not a Vespa!). The disappointing aspect is that it costs about half as much to register as our 2,400 cc people mover. I appreciate that Vicroad’s administrative costs are the same irrespective of engine size but I think a lightweight scooter with little potential to injure third parties should enjoy a larger discount relative to a car. The $50 discount for hybrids should be increased and extended to vehicles that are just as fuel-efficient.
This interview with Ryan Chin of the MIT Media Lab is about the RoboScooter. It’s electric and is half the weight of a conventional scooter. It overcomes the noisiness of many scooters and could be the way of the future as and when electricity generation becomes more sustainable.