Should motorcycles have a bigger role?

Scooters and Motorcycles (SAMs) in Hanoi

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.

10 Comments on “Should motorcycles have a bigger role?”

  1. RED says:

    As with bicycles, it’s the crazy few motor-bikers that put other people off using them as a transport mode. Motor-bike gangs and idiots that ride around in t-shirts and thongs (yes, I’ve seen it!) have given motor-bikes a bad reputation. I agree that they are a terrific solution to rising fuel prices. They would also help alleviate road congestion.
    Added bonus: you can park several motor-bikes in the same space as one car, hence reducing parking problems in popular areas.

  2. Matthew says:

    Scooters and motorcycles can be anti-pedestrian. The noise and the fumes can really degrade an environment. Simply put 2 stroke engines should be banned. Even so called clean 2 strokes aren’t clean enough. Loud motorcycles should also be muffled. I can’t stand it when a fat old bloke rides by on a Harley. The noise is hugely offensive. And they tend to take joy in revving the engines near pedestrians even when I’m walking through a tunnel. Bastards.

    However electric scooters, electric motorcycles, and electric bicycles are wonderful. Battery swap schemes for such bikes would be feasible, especially if it is to be done for cars as seems to be on the table. There are quality issues at the low end of the market, and the Chinese lead-acid bikes and scooters are usually crap quality. Lithium batteries or better are necessary.

    And you are right about safety being all important.

    So encourage small vehicles, but legislate against noisy and smelly ones. I have no problem banning petrol motorcycles, and I look forward to the day when petrol and diesel cars are similarly banned. Hopefully sooner than later.

  3. Oz says:

    There are several other effective advocates on the subject of two wheelers in Melbourne including:
    Alan Parker, (details and Geoff Rose (details who is
    leading an ARC Linkage Project on Powered-2-wheel vehicles in the context of sustainable transport.

  4. wilful says:

    Seen the weather in Melbourne today?

    As a rider, I wouldn’t be riding today.

    Just a thought, more “SAMs” would mean many more dirtbikes. Which would suck.

  5. I’ve thought along very similar lines many times Alan. I think an additional step would be to include Motorcycle education in schools, in the same way that Driver education takes place in (all?) government high-schools.

    In a similar vein, skateboards should be encouraged more. Seen by most as a dangerous anti-social and ‘fringe’ activity there’s potential to greatly increase their use in short trips. Some longboards in particular serve this purpose, they’re faster, quieter and more stable than shorter trick-style boards and have been engineered for commuting. They’re like a commuter-cycle compared to a BMX.

    All skateboards have the added advantage of being highly compatible with public transport. I use my long board the vast majority of time I want to catch the tram which is about a 20 minute walk, or 7 minute skate from my house.

    A similar schooling approach could be used to encourage this, except instead of high-school make it in primary school, like bicycle education.

    • Michael says:

      There should be an effort to separate antisocial behaviour from the mode of transport. I must admit skateboards immediately bring to mind people endlessly trying to do tricks in inappropriate places and failing creating an embarrassing scene for everyone not to mention a nuisance. This is the same as objections SAMs because of noisy motorbikes or cycling because of cyclists who ride through red lights – the mode shouldn’t be judged by it’s least civil users.

  6. Sammy says:

    Motorbike and scooter taxis should also be part of this discussion. For moving around the CBD and inner suburbs during the working day I would very happily to sit on the back of a bike. In fact I would prefer it to riding my bicycle.

  7. T says:

    Great in theory, but I would never get on a motorcycle or scooter. You’re way too vulnerable as a rider – the risk just isn’t worth is with so many crazy drivers out there! I’m already nervous enough in my five star safety 6 air-bag 4wheel drive that could crush most cars, I’m not exposing myself to the hoons in the interest of convenience. Add inclement weather to the equation and, well, let’s just say it’s not for everybody. But they do seem convenient for those who are brave enough to face the traffic and the weather, and if it means less cars on the road, I fully support this movement.

  8. […] 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 economical to […]

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