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Cars & traffic

Sep 12, 2011

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

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

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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.

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