Human powered two-wheelers on Beijing’s Changan Street in 1986 – when the cost of transport is high, many cities have traditionally relied on two wheels (photo via Beijing Shots)

Reliance on pedal power has limited the appeal of cycling in Australia’s low density cities, but the advent of viable power assistance makes two-wheelers accessible to a wider range of travellers, including those who’re unfit or who feel too old to push pedals. Batteries make topography largely irrelevant and eliminate the need for specialist clothing or showers at journey’s end.

Benefits

Powered two-wheelers have the potential to drive mode shift because they offer most of the advantages of private vehicles. Understanding this is critical. Like cars (and walking), they’re available on-demand; they’re private; and they take passengers directly from origin to destination i.e. point-to-point.

There’s no walking to a stop, waiting, sharing space with strangers, or transferring between services, as there is with public transport. And compared to a car, two-wheelers are easier to park and cheaper to buy and operate. In congested conditions they can be faster too.

The key advantage of two-wheelers from a social viewpoint derives from their small footprint and modest speeds. As Asian cities show, they’re potentially a congestion-buster; many more travellers can fit on a given road in peak periods if they ride two-wheelers than is possible with cars carrying on average just over one person.

Moreover, electric two-wheelers have a small environmental and amenity impact; require low-cost infrastructure; and demand little ongoing operational expenditure from government.

Deal-breakers

Nevertheless, there are some potential deal-breakers that must be addressed.

One: the biggest impediment to take-up of two-wheelers is safety. This must be tackled by providing a comprehensive network of segregated infrastructure and, where road space is necessarily shared with larger vehicles (e.g. close to home), imposing restrictions on the behaviour of drivers.

Two: as with public transport, the main driver of demand for two-wheelers will be constraints on the competitiveness of cars. This can be addressed by a combination of pricing access to road space (which is highly desirable anyway) and repurposing some road space for the exclusive use of two-wheelers.

Three: in order to realise the benefits, two-wheelers must be lightweight, limited to typical pedal speeds, and powered by either human effort or electricity. The potential road capacity, environmental, amenity and safety benefits will not be captured fully if travellers ride large or powerful motorcycles.

Four: electricity should be clean. This is an issue that applies to all electric vehicles and fortunately is being addressed by the broader shift to renewable energy sources.

Five: weather will limit the appeal of two-wheelers for some travellers, but the high proportion of Europeans who cycle in harsher conditions than Australia experiences show that this is not necessarily a deal-breaker. Travellers will take to powered two-wheelers if they see them as safe and if they out-compete other modes on travel time and cost.

Mode share

What sort of mode share could a network of powered two-wheelers win?

Cycling in central Amsterdam has a claimed mode share of 40%. That seems an unlikely goal in Australia, but even if two-wheelers accounted for just 5% of all motorised passenger travel (km) in Melbourne today, that’d be much larger than the 1.3% mode share of trams, or the 2.4% mode share of buses. If two-wheelers won 10%, they’d handsomely exceed the current 6.7% mode share of trains (although still a far cry from the current 89% mode share of private vehicles).

Measuring mode share by the number of trips rather than km of travel doesn’t change the overall calculation by much. According to VISTA, the share of motorised trips on a Melbourne weekday taken by tram and bus is 2.1% each. The mode share for train is 6.2% (88.5% for car).

Because two-wheelers offer many of the benefits of driving, they could draw significant numbers of travellers away from cars.

Infrastructure

Is the required infrastructure affordable?

It would be costly to build a largely segregated network for two-wheelers. However, their light weight and small size suggests the per km cost could be an order of magnitude lower than that required for new motorway and track-based infrastructure.

Expenditure in the order of $10 billion could establish the foundation for a safe metropolitan-wide two-wheeler network. I assume extensive traffic calming and intersection works, selected grade separations, and a number of entirely new roadways for two-wheelers. I also exclude existing shared trails; leave them for walkers!

That’s a lot of money but it’s not so daunting when we consider that the Victorian government is committed to building the $16 billion North-West link motorway, $11 billion Melbourne Metro tunnel, $10 billion airport rail link, and the promised $50 billion suburban rail loop.  Note also that the cost to build Melbourne’s 250 km tram system today would be around $35 billion, assuming an average $120 million per km, plus $5 billion for vehicles and supporting facilities.

Politics

The biggest problem would be political, particularly taking (some) road space away from cars. The key thing here, though, is that powered two-wheelers are a reasonably attractive substitute for cars because they also provide on-demand, point-to-point, private travel. Given sensible policy settings for cars, they would also offer faster trips in congested conditions, cost travellers less to own and operate, and be easier to park at home and at many destinations.

City managers could choose to make two-wheelers irresistible for many travellers, even in Australia’s big cities.