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Oct 10, 2013

Can scooters make our cities work better?

Scooters have enormous potential as a sustainable and efficient mode of urban transport. However increasing their mode share will likely cause conflict with both motorists and cyclists

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Light mopeds like this one can legally use bicycle paths in Amsterdam (source: Bicycle Dutch)

Amsterdam has a problem with motorised scooters using bicycle paths and lanes. So-called ‘light mopeds’ (like the one pictured) can use bicycle paths provided they don’t exceed 25 kmh. Trouble is, a survey by The Cyclists Union found 97% go faster than the limit and 44% exceed 39 kph.

According to a report on Bicycle Dutch (The moped menace in the Netherlands), light mopeds must have an engine smaller than 50 cc and a governor to limit the maximum speed to 25 kph. However disabling the speed controllers is easy and appears to be a near universal practice (1)

Moped riders are much more likely to injure themselves than hurt cyclists, but the latter feel threatened by these wider, heavier and faster vehicles. There’re calls to ban them from bicycle paths and require riders to wear helmets.

The conflict is a serious worry because Powered 2 Wheelers (P2W) like E-bikes, mopeds, scooters and (small) motorcycles, offer enormous potential as an alternative mainstream travel mode in our growing cities.

P2Ws require considerably less power than cars and with an appropriate power plant can be much more sustainable (and with electric power they can even be quiet!). They’re relatively inexpensive and occupy little road space (and even less when parked).

Their really big advantage, though, is they’re a private form of transport and so have many of the attributes that make cars so attractive. They could potentially be used for the many dispersed trips that cars excel at but public transport struggles to service successfully.

Like cars, P2Ws are available on demand, at all times of the day, go everywhere, and travel direct from origin to destination without stopping or without the need for transfers.

Like cars they don’t involve sharing with strangers and they can carry personal belongings. They also don’t need special infrastructure – they use the existing road system. Importantly, most of the (financial) costs are paid by the travellers themselves e.g. purchase, maintenance, service, fuel, oil.

Small P2Ws like electric bicycles (E-bikes) are more expensive than conventional bicycles, but they provide advantages. In particular, they give travellers of all fitness levels the option of travelling further or faster, over demanding terrain, without raising a sweat.

Although they don’t offer good weather protection, in theory P2Ws should be a more attractive alternative to cars than public transport for many urban trips. However they have a huge downside – poor safety.

Much of that poor record can be sheeted home to risk-takers riding large and powerful motor bikes without due care and inevitably coming to grief. The outlook for riders of smaller P2Ws is much better but, as is the case for cycling, the perception of danger deters many potential riders from taking to the streets.

There’s a very strong case for encouraging more trip-makers to substitute bicycles and small P2Ws for cars and, in some cases, for public transport. However a significant change won’t happen without a substantial improvement in real and perceived safety.

Most of the official policy-making on safety continues to treat P2Ws like cars. That’s possibly appropriate for large motor bikes, but smaller P2Ws need to be thought of as having vulnerabilities that are more akin to bicycles.

Giving small P2Ws priority over other motorised vehicles on roads is one approach. Potential strategies include stronger regulation of driver behaviour; lower speeds for all vehicles; construction of more traffic calming infrastructure; and in particular, reallocating road space for priority and/or separated P2W routes.

Of course that’d be bound to generate opposition from drivers of cars and trucks. It would also be likely to create conflict with cyclists.

We’re already seeing a surge in interest in E-bikes, pushed along by lower prices and better technology. So long as they’re speed limited, require pedals, and retain the form factor of a bicycle, they probably won’t cause a problem on bike paths.

That’s a big “so long as”, though. Some riders will inevitably fit larger power plants and disable speed limiters. Policing will inevitably be inadequate. It won’t be a problem on roads but on off-road paths it’ll create conflict with both cyclists and pedestrians (2).

However I expect competition for road space would be the major problem area. Both P2W riders and cyclists need a sense of ‘subjective safety’ to increase their mode share significantly.

There are already instances of scooters and cyclists clashing over the use of bicycle lanes. There’s bound to be conflict whenever there’s a significant difference in speed and size.

It’s an important issue because the potential market for small P2Ws, given safe conditions, is likely to be bigger than that for cycling. In fact it’s probably much bigger.

There needs to be a discussion around how to make the roads so safe that drivers are confident enough to shift from cars to riding bicycles and small P2Ws. In terms of managing the growth of our cities, two wheels has a big future; the form that takes – whether human powered or motor powered – isn’t the key issue (3).


  1. Riders must be 16 years of age or older, have a licence and third party insurance, but like cyclists they’re are not required to wear a helmet.
  2. It seems it’s the combination of both the speed and size of light mopeds that presents the problem on bike paths in The Netherlands.
  3. We have bicycles and a motor scooter in my house; my personal choice is to cycle (primarily because of the fitness benefit) but I recognise it’s not for everyone.

    Mods in Brighton (Rock)

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17 thoughts on “Can scooters make our cities work better?

  1. Burke John

    100% true Alan, but Sydney and Melbourne are not Amsterdam or Copenhagen and not everyone thinks 15ks at 20kph is gonna work for them.

    Its clearly a better thing to replace cars with P2Ws but that can never happen whilst cars maintain a “special” status in Australia.

    Four Corners detailed the killing of 2 teenagers killed by a reversing ute at a rural party last night with driver getting off scot free. The applied legal argument was that in NSW you have to be on a public road to commit a driving offence.

    Was I the only one to question whether he got away with it because it was a car and not a gun or absolutely any other article? Does manslaughter really not apply if you are driving a car?

    While that is the default position in Australia it will be difficult for bikes powered or not to obtain critical mass here

  2. Alan Davies

    Burke John #15:

    Maybe it’s because cyclists’ average speed is usually way lower than 40 kph? I cycle every day but only average 20 kph – I reckon I’d need a bit of a slope to sustain 40 kph for any length of time. OTOH, E-bikes can presumably hit and maintain high speeds, even if briefly, on demanding terrain.

  3. Burke John

    As far as E-bikes being “speed limited” it sounds like an ok concept but can anyone explain why that limit should be set at 25kph which is 15kph below any reasonably fit cyclist? 25kph is also a bit slow for lengthy Australian commutes.

    I have been riding E-bikes for 15 years (pre-lithium!) now and predictably have only seen repressive policies instigated to date. The E-bike rider is despised by cyclists and motorists alike, neither fish nor fowl it seems.

    The problem of acceptance seems in fact to be cultural and this excellent urban transport solution for Australia (as well as other PW2’s) is likely to be greatly inhibited in uptake whilst all thought is really about keeping car as king in this country.

    I’m sure fans of the Urbanist would have noted that one of the 4 pillars of Mr Abbotts Primeministership as repeatedly stated is “building the roads of the 21st century” which of course means investing in 20th century car infrastructure.

    Mr Abbott is newly elected by a good majority and I think all that is very relevant to discussion of scooters and E-bikes.

  4. Alan Davies

    wamut #13:

    My household’s 125 cc scooter is certainly louder at idle than our cars. It might not be noisier at speed than a single car (I don’t know) but the thing about noise annoyance is it has a lot to do with pitch and other (including psychological) factors. I agree though that a lot of the noise is due to lack of enforcement (assuming those Harleys don’t have some special dispensation to sound like a chopper). Which makes me wonder: what ever happened to enforcement?

  5. wamut

    I’m still disturbed by the assertions made in comments and by the author of this article that noise pollution is an issue regarding scooters and motorcycles.

    I really beg to differ (although a quick search didn’t bring up any research-based evidence). I feel quite certain that a well-maintained, not-hotted-up motorbike or scooter is not noisier than a car at all. (I’ve spent the past few mornings observating this while waiting at my bus stop). It is true that when a bike or scooter goes past you can clearly hear its engine, but in most cases it’s not particularly loud. What you don’t get however, is the noise from tyres that you get from cars, especially how the sound of 4 wide-based tyres reverberates between the car body and the road before reaching your ear. When two cars are travelling side-by-side this reverberation increases again. Never noticed this noise before? It’s so ubiquitous that you probably haven’t. However the noise of a motorbike or scooter whizzing past isn’t ubiquitous, so it’s more noticeable. It’s a different kind of noise (all engine, no tyre). But I very much doubt that it’s louder.

    So please in future, be fair about the noise of motorbikes and scooters, or at least have some evidence to back up your claims about their noisiness. You’re doing them a disservice by unfairly countering their clear potential to contribute to a cleaner environment and cheaper and more manageable transport infrastructure in our towns and cities.

  6. Sean Doyle

    Up here in Harbin, China, small electric powered scooters are pretty popular as a cheaper form of motorised transport. They generally go at about 30-35km/h and are very quiet besides some of the aftermarket horns some users add to them. The battery can be taken out and recharged from any power point so the bike can still be left outside. Most models also include pedals so the bike can still be manually pedalled home if the battery does die on you when on the road. Overall, they’re pretty handy for shorter trips and merge well many of the advantages of cars and bicycles.

    The main problem for their widespread adoption in Australia I think is safety perceptions. Basically, most thinking about transport in Australia is car focused and until this attitude changes then bikes, both manual and motorised, will struggle to become a major mode of transport in Australia.

  7. Dylan Nicholson

    Matthew, surely it’s the noise and pollution that should be banned – it’s irrelevant what sort of vehicle it is! If the noise level goes over x dB or pollution is more than y parts per million of a toxic particulate, it shouldn’t be on the road. After all, it’s not inconceivable that such a ban might inspire engineers to come up with a 2-stroke engine that’s relatively quiet and pollution-free.
    And yes, wamut, the licensing requirements for scooters are silly. I was interested in getting one until I looked into what it would involve in Victoria. I couldn’t even take one for a test ride.
    Ultimately for me though the only regularly occasion I need motorised transport is when I take my son to school, and I wouldn’t be comfortable doing that on a scooter, common as it may be in many parts of the world. And the train is indisputably much safer (though the given the number of cancellations and delays I’ve experienced recently I don’t blame people for wanting transport they feel more in control of).

  8. Alan Davies

    Matthew Thredgold #8,9:

    I’m with you 100% about the pollution from 2 strokes and the noise from motor bikes and scooters.

  9. Matthew Thredgold

    Simply 2-stroke motors should be banned. They ruin urban environments. The carcinogenic and foul-tasting exhausts and their loud and annoying engine noise destroys ambience for pedestrians and cyclists alike. Not only should 2-strokes be banned on cycle paths, they should be banned on roads. Plus I would phase out 2-stroke engines in lawn mowers, powertools, garden tools and in other small engines too. They are far, far dirtier than 4-stroke engines. Choice Australia won’t even review 2-stroke lawnmowers now as they are all too polluting.

    On e-bikes, I’ve been riding them for over 4 years now. Firstly they are quiet and clean, and for me at least I am regularly overtaken by normal cyclists. A good cyclist on skinny tyres is doing 40km/hr. If I pedal my guts out I go 30km/hr even with assitance on fat tyres, fat rider ahem, and heavy, solid, sit up bike. e-bikes can share cycle lanes quite happily without annoying anyone (except maybe those normal cyclists who I can overtake in wind and on hills).

    Electric scooters may have a role in general traffic, but 2-strokes are definitely not fantastic for the environment, and as I said should be banned on environmental grounds.

    I have seen an uptick in scooter use in Wellington New Zealand, and it does degrade the experience of walking on city streets (yes cars are annoying too, but one 2-stroke scooter is more annoying than a car easily), and the cities in SE Asia it might make sense space wise, but air quality is shocking. In Bangkok I get nose bleeds from the pollution, and even in a small city like Phitsanulok I got nose bleeds.

    There’s also some petrol powered kick scooters, and petrol powered bicycle conversions I’ve seen kicking around, and I hate them all. They definitely do not belong on a cycle path. Pre-emptive legislation should ban the sale of all 2-stroke mopeds and scooters before their is wider uptake because they will ruin cities for pedestrians and cyclists.

    Electric good. Petrol bad.

  10. wamut

    People are complaining about the noise scooters make??! Surely it’s less than what cars make. At home, I get traffic and pedestrian noise all the time and I tell you, scooters are the least of my concerns. The benefits of less congestion and less carbon emissions surely outweigh any minor inconvenience of a buzzing scooter?

    I’m a proud scooter owner/rider in Katherine, NT. I bought it after seeing how prevalent they are in SE Asia, how easy they are to get around in and wondering why Aussies aren’t scooter crazy too. And when Kevin Rudd sent me $700 in the mail a few years back, I finally bought one – a very groovy looking Honda Scoopy. It’s been a dream. So cheap to run. So good for travelling around a small flat town like Katherine. It’s actually fun to ride and I never have to give anyone a lift anywhere!

    When I moved to Canberra temporarily for a few years, I was keen to ride a scooter there too. But I was put off not by the safety factor which the article focuses on, but by licensing requirements. In the NT, my 50cc Scoopy has a governor restricting it to 50km/h max speed and I can ride it with just my car license (this rule applies in Qld, WA and SA too). But to ride it in the ACT, I’d need to get a motorbike license and I just couldn’t be bothered. A real pity that this requirement might be resulting in less scooters and more cars on Canberra roads. I think scooters are fantastic for the environment and for reducing traffic.

    And I wouldn’t ride a scooter in bicycle lanes. That’s just rude. Surely police could easily ticket any rider who does so??

  11. pedals

    Irrespective of the interactions with cyclists, cars etc, the real issue for me regarding scooters is noise. They are just as frustratingly like a ‘dog peeing on every tree’ as a selfish bikie on a Harley -always unnecessarily ‘squirting’ decibels off every traffic light.

    Two words to consider: Naples & Paris.

  12. Richard Butcher

    Good to see this article – warms my heart as an ex motorcyclist and current train commuter.
    I long for the day when train, tram and bus rolling stock accommodate bikes of all kinds in their design. I’d be more inclined to buy a scooter if I could roll onto a train then hop off in Berwick for a ride in the suburbs.

  13. suburbanite

    I’ve been overtaken by someone riding a fast high-powered e-bike on the St Georges rd bike path in Northcote a couple of times. He must have been doing at least 40kms/hr up hill – this is not the kind generally sold in bikeshops and not legal for road use. It’s a little dispiriting, but not particularly dangerous. If there were a large number of them tooling around on bike paths it might be a different story

  14. Persia

    It makes more sense to have individuals on scooters in the CBD, rather than as sole occupants of cars, providing, as motor vehicles, they keep out of the bike lanes.

    In higher-speed environments, scooters don’t have the grunt to get out of trouble and are high-risk.

  15. Jacob HSR

    What about the legalization of Segway in Brisbane?

    It would be much easier to speed-limit Segways than mopeds. Especially if there is a Segway share scheme like the bicycle share scheme.

  16. MarkD

    Yep, more scooters on shared paths and pedestrian crossings is gunna be terrific…and who doesn’t enjoy the sound of those motors?