Cars & traffic

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).

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  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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