Will the streets of Melbourne look more like Hanoi than Manhattan in the future?

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.

I took this photo out of the back of a taxi in downtown Hanoi in 2005 (click to enlarge)

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.

14 Comments on “Will the streets of Melbourne look more like Hanoi than Manhattan in the future?”

  1. Michael says:

    What do you think of the idea of power assisted bicycles? I think they could be usable in the future if speeds can be increased to 40km/hr. When I was living in Singapore there was a sudden growth in small petrol engines being attached to bicycles. These were unregulated, unregistered, unlicensed but not specifically outlawed and some were quite fast and probably capable of powering the old steel bikes they were attached to at about 30-40km/hr. The government quickly acted to outlaw them. They suffered from being noisy and polluting but they were cheap and it did demonstrate a gap in the transport market. The government decided to allow only slow electric bicycles and that seemed to pretty much put an end to the whole trend.
    Maybe if someone developed a category of powered bicycles designed for speed and created a high profile race with some decent prize money then some interesting designs might appear. It would be more useful than pouring millions into the obsolete F1.

    • Alan Davies says:

      I reckon they’re a great idea but the problem of noise would have to be addressed – it would be a show-stopper. And if they have to be 2 stroke that would be another problem. I’ve seen electrically assisted bicycles but I think their range is pretty poor ATM. Perhaps that can be improved.

      Any small motor brings up the issue of where Governments draw the line on regulation. Some States permit sub 50cc scooters and some don’t. So anyone using a power assisted bicycle might have to accept that it would have to be registered. Wouldn’t bother me, I can see that human-powered vs machine-powered or assisted is a logical point of distinction.

  2. lock says:

    I do believe scooters/motorcycles will become an important part of our future transport system. Furthermore I also agree that an increased motorcycle presence on our roads will increase safety for all road users once motorists have adapted their behavior appropriately.

    BUT, its the bit about them being safer than cycling thats got me a thinking. I think you’ll find that you’re about twice as likely to be killed or seriously injured on a motorcycle than a bicycle. Its a UK study, but still somewhat relevant http://www.dft.gov.uk/pgr/roadsafety/research/rsrr/theme5/indepthstudyofmotorcycleacc.pdf . Interestingly that report seems to show that small capacity motorcycles/scooters are over-represented in the accident figures (albeit most likely due to inexperienced riders).

    Do you have any evidence that scooter’ing is safer than cycling? I’d be interested to read it. Yeah, I’m a cyclist, but you know that already 😉

    • Alan Davies says:

      You’re right – see here. My thinking wasn’t ‘statistical’ enough at the time I wrote those words; rather, I had in my mind’s eye a very narrow example of my wife either commuting in peak hour on her scooter or riding her bike. I was actually thinking along the lines of the ‘vehicular cycling’ argument. Anyway, I’ve amended the offending words (unfortunately the ‘cross out’ function isn’t working so I’ve had to delete them).

      I ‘feel’ she is safer on her scooter than on her bicycle when commuting at peak hour for the reasons I outlined. I may be overly optimistic or the motorcycle figures might be heavily biased by a high proportion of riders who travel too fast for the prevailing conditions. BTW I’m a cyclist too.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Update on cycling safety. Here’s a story from ABC News with the results of a study in the ACT where it’s claimed that cyclists account for 10-20% of all road trauma injuries. It’s claimed that 98% of cycling accident injuries are not showing up in official accident statistics.

  3. Michael says:

    An example of an e-bike that might be comparable to a scooter is the Optibike USV
    It has a range of 37kmh (light pedal assist) or range 32 km electric only and a top speed of 45+km with moderate pedalling. It has a price of $5995.00 USD at the moment which puts it out of reach.
    This is a bit off topic – Smart Cities Group’s RoboScooter, CityCar and GreenWheel designs are all interesting, but I’m not convinced these kinds of products will or should be developed primarily for “mobility on demand” purposes. I can see a place for mobility on demand but once you get beyond bicycles it seems a little Le Corbusian in it’s new era planning perspective.
    I don’t know what the correct term should be but one of the usability heuristics is “control”. People like to feel “control” over things and part of the success of the car is it’s personal availability. The car also flourished as an adventure vehicle and expression of people’s personalities (often producing negative effects – but that’s another matter). There seems precious little awareness amongst futurologist designers of this reality. The segway suffered from this IMHO as well as other problems.

    • Alan Davies says:

      You might not be all that keen then on the views of Peter Daimandis. I love this quote:

      I think 100 years from now, people will look back and say, “Really? People used to drive their cars? What were they, insane?

      • Michael says:

        A lot of his ideas I can agree with; lighter, fuel efficient and beautifully designed cars (although the aesthetic appeal is ultimately subjective) and no road accident deaths – sounds good if not a little wishful.

        I find his description of a car as a womb interesting. Car design seems to be heading in the direction of removing direct control and sensory experience away from the driver. I’m interested in the idea of creating an appropriate sensation of speed and danger in cars at lower speeds to combat the aloofness of drivers. I can’t see how driving a car at 100km/hr and virtually being lulled to sleep in quiet comfort is good for safety. If you are on a bicycle at 40km/hr an hour you aren’t likely to be texting.

        One of the appeals of cars is that they are enjoyable to drive – maybe this isn’t a US perspective given their cars. I’m not convinced SUV’s were only attractive as defensive vehicles in accidents. That is a factor, but I think the bigger attraction is the potential for adventure and escape, hence the almost obligatory sand dunes and stream crossings in SUV ads. This of course is a fantasy in most cases, but a powerful appeal.

        The autonomous cars may be a reality in the future when the technology exists and they would certainly have many uses. In Singapore which already faces many of the future transport issues we might face already has lower cost taxis, premium taxis and car co-ops. These could be seen as serving as proto-autonomous car services or mobility on demand services. It is interesting to note that although Singapore has good public transport and cheaper taxis with large barriers to car ownership and high chargers for use about a third of the population still use cars. Another analogue to the autonomous car found in Singapore is the personal driver favoured by busy tycoons, but this is a small market. Maybe that is where they will get there start, in million dollar Mercs.

        I can see that more and more assistive technologies will be fitted to cars to make them safer. They probably won’t achieve much market penetration for fully autonomous cars in the next two decades – but who knows, we might all be wearing matching white jump suits working on farms on the moon 🙂

  4. Zuko says:

    In fact, day by day the streets of Hanoi, HCM, Phnom Penh and other SEA cities reliant on two wheels look more like Melbourne or Manhattan. Car ownership is booming, for many reasons.

    I agree that a Melbourne CBD dominated by low polluting low noise two wheel vehicles would be a good thing. We should start with taxis. Motorcycle/scooter taxis must be among the most efficient and convenient forms of CBD transport any country has devised. From my own experience, I also reckon motorcycle/scooter dominated roads (in CBDs) are much safer for cyclists. Same height, same visibility, roughly the same speed.

  5. […] trying something more modest. Fortuitously, hot on the heels of my post earlier this week about motor scooters, The Age has some related storeys today. The first is Surge in motor cycle deaths hits move to […]

  6. scooter says:

    The people wouldn’t turn to public transportation because the service quality of the mass transport is below the standar and riding on a scooter is more convenient and cheaper. I think this problem happens in most of South East Asia countries.

  7. Steve says:

    Battery powered bikes are the way to go. For most small errands in an urban environment they’re perfect. They’ll never get you on your 160km commute, but if its only a few kilometers, then its perfect. The trick is going to be extending range.

  8. […] cost. Indeed, if fuel prices go stratospheric, I expect a very large number of urban Australians will choose this mode of travel ahead of public […]

  9. […] transport needs in the event the cost of motoring were to increase dramatically in real terms (here and here). That’s because Two Wheel Motorised Vehicles (2WMVs) are cheap to buy, they’re […]

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