Should scooters and motor cycles have a bigger role in cities?

John Adams - On the transmigration of souls (Tribute for 9/11)

I’ve argued before that scooters and motorcycles should play a much bigger part in meeting our future transport needs if the cost of motoring increases dramatically in real terms (here and here). That’s because Two Wheel Motorised Vehicles (2WMVs) are cheap to buy, they’re economical to run and they offer many of the advantages of a car, including on-demand convenience and speed. Moreover they’re easy to park and can be threaded through traffic.

We know 2WMVs are very popular in countries like Vietnam where vehicle purchase and running costs are very high relative to incomes, yet they don’t have a high profile in discussions within Australia about how to deal with peak oil and climate change. Because of their low fuel use, small 2WMVs with efficient, clean engines should garner greater attention as a more sustainable transport option.

A new study published earlier this year, The unpredicted rise of motor cycles: a cost-benefit analysis, might help to give more prominence to the two wheel powered option. It shows use of 2WMVs grew strongly in Paris from the start of the new century, when real oil prices began to rise.

Pierre Kopp from the Pantheon-Sorbonne University (Paris-1) found the number of passenger kilometres travelled by 2WMVs increased 36% in Paris between 2000 and 2007*. This was much higher than other modes – rail grew 12% and bus and car fell 21% and 24% respectively. By 2007, 2WMVs accounted for 16% of all road passenger kms in Paris (up from circa 10% in 2000), more than double the share of buses.

The growth in 2WMV use was primarily at the expense of public transport. Of the 380 million additional passenger kms attributable to 2WMVs, a fifth were generated by existing riders travelling more and 27% by travellers transferring from cars. However more than half (53%) came at the expense of public transport.

This is not surprising given the evidence the author presents for the point-to-point time savings offered by 2WMVs over all other modes. Within Paris, they are 46% faster than cars and 50% faster than the Metro. Within the suburbs of the metropolis, they are 39% faster than cars and 34% faster than the RER.

The author calculates the switch from cars to 2WMVs generated an annual travel time saving worth €93 million. He subtracts higher accident, pollution and other costs, giving a net benefit of €102 million. The net benefit from those who switched to 2WMVs from public transport is €62 million. In contrast, the share of the additional 2WMV travel generated by existing riders has a net cost of €3.7 million (mostly reflecting the absence of the sort of dramatic time savings obtained by those who switched from relatively slow cars, trains and buses).

Parisians who switch to 2WMVs are motivated primarily by time savings rather than fuel costs. On the other hand, the main deterrent is safety (interestingly, the big cost component by far is minor accidents rather than serious ones or fatalities). The importance of safety is illustrated by the fact that all the value of the extra trips taken by existing riders was cancelled out by higher accident costs.

The total €160 million net benefit from increased 2WMV travel over the period was achieved with little official support, according to the author. For example, parking for 2WMVs is limited and the number of parking fines doubled over the last seven years. The author contrasts the relatively high level of expenditure on infrastructure aimed at making cycling safer with the paucity of expenditure on 2WMVs, even though, he says, cycling accounts for a mere 0.8% of all road travel (and 6 deaths p.a.) in Paris whereas 2WMVs account for 16% (and 21 deaths p.a.).

I think it’s unfortunate that bicycles and 2WMVs are cast in competing roles for funding, but it’s nevertheless puzzling why small capacity 2WMVs (I exclude big motor bikes) have such a low profile in public policy as a relatively sustainable transport option. This seems as true in Australia as it apparently is in Paris.

It’s puzzling because 2WMVs have many advantages. Compared to bicycles they can travel longer distances, are harder to steal, are more accessible to those who are infirm, can carry a passenger and goods, and riders don’t need to take a shower. Compared to public transport they’re faster point-to-point, they’re private, most of the financial cost is borne by the owner, and they offer on-demand availability. And compared to cars they use less fuel and can handle congested conditions better.

Their downsides include noise and pollution, but these can and should be controlled more forcefully by regulation and price. New technologies like electrically powered scooters are likely to make that easier. The key point is 2WMVs can be more sustainable than cars and more convenient than public transport (albeit, on occasions wetter and colder!).

Like bicycles, the key deterrent to wider use of 2WMVs is safety. Part of the problem might be that they’re still seen as a motor vehicle, albeit one with two wheels. As I’ve argued before, what’s needed is a broader strategic vision that takes account of the multiple factors limiting 2WMV’s mode share and recognises their special characteristics. It might be that some road space, such as shared use of bus lanes, could be prioritised to 2WMVs.

As always, I’m cautious about extrapolating overseas experience directly to Australian conditions. We don’t, for example, have the culture of motor scooters of a country like Italy. Yet 2WMV registrations in Victoria increased 58% between 2002 and 2010 and the number of licence holders increased 36%. I don’t have any figures to hand on their share of passenger kms in Australia, but while I wouldn’t expect it to be anything like the Paris figure cited by Pierre Kop, I’ve no doubt it’s much higher than cycling’s share.

Scooters and motor cycles with clean, quiet, efficient engines ought to have a much more prominent place in our future transport planning than they do.

*I’m taking the numbers in this article pretty much as a given because I can’t quite figure out what’s going on, perhaps because the translation isn’t perfect.

UPDATE: BMW unveils its Concept e (electric) scooter – 100 km range, recharge from flat in 3 hours, and performance comparable with petrol scooters. “The Concept e is not the first electric-powered two-wheeler, with several brands offering zero-emissions city mobility. These include the likes of Honda, Vectrix, Yamaha and even traditional car manufacturers including Volkswagen and BMW’s own Mini brand”.

BOOK GIVEAWAYfollow this link to be in the running for one of two copies of Meg Mundell’s Black Glass. Entries close midday Thursday 15 September 2011.

16 Comments on “Should scooters and motor cycles have a bigger role in cities?”

  1. mdonnellan63 says:

    2WMVs might be the lesser evil, compared to private cars, but there are two issues to be resolved:

    1. The clutter and inconvenience caused by parking (any) two wheeled vehicles on footpaths is a problem that can be addressed by converting on-road car-parks. How can we make this happen, especially as car parking is seen a right by most drivers?

    2. How soon can we regulate for their noise/smog reduction?

    • Alan Davies says:

      I’d say small capacity bikes can be a much lesser evil than cars!

      So far as smog is concerned, it’s harder to control on a bike (catalytic converters etc) but not impossible — European standard is Euro 3 for both 2 and 4 stroke machines, so we should be able to improve. Apparently some low cost bikes imported from some parts of Asia don’t meet these higher standards but they still comply with our low standards (see here).

      Electric bikes should be the answer to localised pollution and noise problems. That puts the focus on the electricity generation sector to use lower emissions sources.

    • Daniel says:

      Parking of motorcycles is becoming an issue in crowded areas such as the CBD. Given their large size compared to a pedestrian or a bicycle, the problem could get a lot worse if large numbers of people switch to these types of vehicles.

      See pics/discussion on this old post of mine:

      • Alan Davies says:

        I’m surprised we don’t hear more complaints about this. Some road space needs to be taken off cars and given over to riders for parking – and riders should pay to park.

  2. Urt says:

    Despite their obvious appeals, scooters are just not cool! They are too daggy for men and too dangerous for women. Motorbikes have their own image problems and you still need special gear. If you obey all the traffic rules applying to a 2WMV there’s little time advantage over a car (lane splitting and bike lane use are not permitted). But bicycling advocates are strong on e-bikes and I reckon that sector will continue to grow, possibly spilling into low power scooters.

  3. I must admit I’ve been thinking about sitting a motorbike licence test for many of the reasons you’ve identified. I think they can and should play a bigger part in transport policy.

    One very minor point though, if you are wearing the sort of protective gear that motorbike or scooter riders are encouraged to wear, you’ll still need a shower on a warm day. Numerous motorbike riding friends have told me how much they hate sitting at lights, surrounded by exhaust, in warm weather whilst wearing hot and heavy clothing, helmet included. Its certainly enough to work up a decent sweat.

    Similarly cycling doesn’t usually need to end in a shower. Just slow down a little and dress appropriately!

  4. kymbos says:

    As you note, the key issue is safety. You can look at the inhibiting factors afflicting 2WMVs all you like, but death and serious injury is the main reason we should caution their expanded use. They take a lot of skill to ride safely and even then you’re putting your life in danger when you get on one. I’ve been riding a motorbike for ten years, and I understand the risk I take when I ride – it’s essentially unjustifiable if you value your life.

  5. I’m a bit skeptical of the injury numbers in the paper.

    Looking at the bus numbers, they suggest that 201 million extra passenger-kilometres on 2WMVs will result in 3 extra fatalities (I presume the fatality rate for public transport is negligible). these stats from the USA for motorcycles claim a fatality rate of something like 39 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles, which works out to about 49 extra fatalities.

    Yes, motorcycles != scooters, France != the USA, and urban use != all use, but, still, the numbers do seem quite low.

    • Alan Davies says:

      As per my footnote in the post, I’m a bit cautious about the numbers in the paper too. Still, Kopp says there are 21 deaths p.a. from 2WMVs in Paris and they account for 1.44 billion km of passenger travel p.a. That squares with his estimate of 3 extra fatalities from public transport shifters.

      A generous interpretation is it’s comparing scooters with Harleys, narrow congested Parisian streets with suburban and country streets/highways, and ‘good ole boys’ with Parisian sophisticates – Kopp’s survey shows over half Parisian riders are “Managers” and “Liberal professionals”.

      I note that 42% of US fatalities were single vehicle crashes – that could imply speeds that would be hard to achieve in Paris. I see also that 41% of these victims had a BAC of 0.08% or higher (but I don’t know what Parisian’s propensity to drink that much and still ride is).

      P.S. Meant to add: that link also shows 95% of the bikes involved in fatal crashes in the US are over 500 cc (more than half are over 1,000 cc!). Since 250 cc is big for a scooter – many are around 125 cc – that probably says it all.

      • Yes, but I’ll bet that close to 95% of the road-registerable motorcycles sold in the USA are over 500cc. They don’t do scooters there.

        Having had the ignominy of falling off a scooter, I can assure you that 150cc is plenty fast enough to get oneself into trouble. Furthermore, they are plenty fast enough to get splattered over the road by cars, which I’ve personally seen happen in the inner suburbs.

        Yes, anecdote is not data, but I’d like to see much better stats on commuter motorcycle/scooter safety before encouraging their widespread adoption.

  6. […] and development issues with a particular focus on Melbourne, Australia Should scooters and motor cycles have a bigger role in cities? […]

  7. Johnyboy says:

    I dislike motor bikes and scooters. I think they are dangerous. I use to ride a motorcycle for 5 years. Though I have a license , I stopped ridding because of 10 people I know who ride bikes, 3 of them are in wheel chairs and 2 have other injuries that effect there quality of life. The worse injury is one of the poor saps in the wheel chair is incontinent. That is 50% injured over 10 years. I know my sample size is small.

    I do like the concept of smaller and lighter vechicles for travel. I have seen some concept cars that have two main wheels and 2 little wheels. They would have a smaller carbon foot print. I do get annoyed when I see most of the cars with only 1 person going to work when there is room for more.

  8. […] they’re not without problems (noise and pollution from two strokes), they’re a relatively efficient form of transport compared to cars and low occupancy buses. If cyclists can successfully share a lane with buses that […]

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