Should motorcycles have a bigger role?Posted: June 6, 2011
Public transport, cycling and hybrid cars get a lot of attention as responses to climate change and peak oil, but the potential of scooters and small motorcycles seems to pass largely unnoticed. That’s a pity because powered two wheelers are the mode of choice in places like Hanoi where fuel prices are very high relative to incomes. They offer the key advantages of cars – on-demand response, a direct route to the traveller’s destination and speed – but at much lower 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 transport.
A lot of policy attention is quite properly given to improving the safety of riders, but very little is given to developing scooters and motorcycles (hereinafter SAMs) as part of a comprehensive transport strategy. That’s unfortunate because there would potentially be many benefits for the wider society if they had a much larger share of all travel within our capital cities.
SAMs (and I include power-assisted bicycles in this category) have many attractions for riders. They are remarkably inexpensive to purchase and cost little to run. They can be ‘threaded’ through congested traffic, are cheap to park, and in some places they can be parked legally on footpaths. Most machines can carry a passenger and small items like groceries (or much more in Hanoi!). Most importantly, riders don’t have to wait for them, or transfer to another one mid-journey, or stop frequently, or take a circuitous route to get where they’re going. In most places they’re so easy to park that riders don’t have to walk far to them either.
Compared to the large proportion of car journeys that involve only the driver, SAMs also have many social benefits. They require only a fraction of the road space, consume much less fuel and emit considerably less greenhouse gas. They need little space for parking and don’t require new dedicated infrastructure (although some improvements to roads would help). Most importantly, they are potentially attractive to new classes of travellers because, like bicycles, they’re private and hence flexible.
The share of trips taken by SAMs may increase organically in the future in response to higher petrol prices and increasing traffic congestion. But given their social benefits, it would be good policy to actively encourage greater uptake of SAMs in lieu of driving. Safety is the key obstacle, so that’s where any strategy has to start. Current approaches to safety stress factors like rider skills and greater awareness of SAMs on the part of drivers. These are important, however within large urban areas the best strategy is safety in numbers. Achieving a critical mass of riders could be facilitated by initiatives such as lowering registration charges for small capacity SAMs, relaxing restrictions on lane-splitting, giving riders access to transit lanes, and increasing the supply of dedicated parking spaces (with locking points). There might also be scope for small works – for example, access lanes could be reserved to enable riders to move directly to the head of traffic at intersections.
But there are other important issues that need to be addressed too. Engines in SAMs are not generally as sophisticated in dealing with pollutants on a per kilometre basis as car engines. Nor are they generally as quiet under acceleration. These drawbacks are partly technical – it’s harder, for example, to incorporate catalytic converters in SAMs – but they can also be addressed through better regulations and more pro-active enforcement. In the medium term, electrically powered SAMs may mitigate some of these problems.
Rather than see increased uptake of SAMs solely as a possible (or more likely probable) market response to higher transport costs, it would be desirable to set increased mode share as a prominent objective of planning and transport policy. Getting drivers out of cars and onto SAMs is a good thing for the environment, for effectively increasing road capacity and for balancing both domestic and public budgets. More riders should also mean greater mutual safety. SAMs might not be as good environmentally as peak hour public transport, but then again I think that drivers who don’t work in the CBD (i.e. the vast bulk of them) are more likely to turn to a SAM than to a bus. And SAMS will be better environmentally in the off-peak than public transport.
Much as I like my bicycle, I’m surprised that SAMs don’t get more attention than cycling as a possible alternative to cars, especially for commuting. SAMs have potential as “second cars” and as the prime means of transport for households without kids. In my home we replaced the second car three years ago with a much more economical and environmentally-friendly 125 cc scooter. Our working assumption is you’re very safe if you ride only in the city, are over 25, ride a lower power machine and assume a defensive attitude. I know the casualty stats are worse for SAMs than bicycles but the former seems safer to me because the rider isn’t marginalised on the side of the road.
Safety is quite properly a key focus of current policy because, as is the case with bicycles, it is undoubtedly the main reason SAMs are a minority mode. However it’s time to take a broader look at the multiple factors that limit SAM’s mode share and develop a comprehensive transport strategy aimed at significantly increasing their share of trips.
Update: The Age reports this morning that “overwhelmingly, motorcyclists killed this year are over 30 years of age, which authorities believe reflects former riders returning in their middle years”. The significance of this, I think, is some people — perhaps high risk-takers — are particularly vulnerable on motorcycles.