I noted last time there could be an extended post-lockdown period when public transport has insufficient capacity to cope with demand (see How will the pandemic impact public transport?).

I’m not so pessimistic that I think trains will operate at just 30% – 50% capacity, but the fear of coronavirus and possibly other pandemics is likely to be a major deterrent to peak-period use of public transport.

There are various ways of dealing with this problem as I’ve discussed before. But here’s an important one.

Governments should get off their collective arses and urgently take action to give urban travellers the ability to commute to work on two-wheels i.e. on bicycles, scooters, motor bikes.

Safety is far and away the main obstacle holding back use of two-wheelers. Workers won’t ride in significant numbers if they continue to feel their lives are at risk from cars, trucks and buses.

This isn’t just about seeing the pandemic as an opportunity to reset the way we do things in cities. The impending loss in public transport capacity makes it a necessity. Other cities are reportedly taking similar action.

With relaxation of the lock-down starting, speed of implementation is of the essence now. We must talk in months, not years. The other critical issue is winning acceptance from motorists, who’ll inevitably have to give some ground; their opposition could easily be fatal to the whole project.

What’s needed?

Here’re some possible actions.

In the first instance, designate an emergency ‘two-wheel route network’ radiating 15 km (say) around the CBD. This would partly be assembled from off-road trails and repurposed road space, but most of it should be made up of linked local streets and secondary roads where riders and motorists would share road space.

 The key principles for shared streets (similar to bicycle boulevards) should be:

  • Riders share the whole street with motorists – there would be no marked lanes for two-wheelers.
  • Riders have formal priority over motorists i.e. four wheels gives way to two wheels.
  • Through-vehicle traffic is prevented; only local access is permitted.
  • The maximum speed for all users is 30 km/h.  

There isn’t time to plan and build elaborate works. The priority is to set up the initial network quickly, using simple management works like bollards and signs. It should be supported, though, by an accelerated program of building fully separated routes, giving precedence to corridors of high demand.

There’s also a need for a metropolitan-wide set of measures to build a positive culture around travelling on two wheels. Some possible actions to consider:

  • Pass ‘a metre matters’ legislation in those States where it’s languished.
  • Expand free, secure parking for two-wheelers in the CBD and major destinations.
  • Require mandatory ‘refresher’ training for truck/bus drivers on protecting vulnerable road users.
  • Reduce the speed limit on all arterial roads to 50 km/hr. In the city centre, reduce the limit on all streets to 30 km/hr.
  • Strengthen penalties for driving offences that present the most danger to vulnerable road users.
  • Increase policing of driver behaviour.

One of the most important actions would be to promote the importance of two-wheelers to the functioning of the city. This would rely heavily on marketing campaigns and jawboning i.e. the Premier and community leaders advocating use of two-wheelers and convincing the population that protecting riders is in everyone’s interest.

Questions

Why ‘emergency’? Promoting the network as necessary and (implicitly as) temporary is important for maximising acceptance given 90% of motorised passenger travel in Australia’s capitals is by car. The optimistic take is a ‘trial’ is the thin end of the wedge – the public will see the benefit and demand it stays and is improved.

Why 15 km? The inner city/inner suburbs are a logical starting point. They accommodate a high proportion of those who use public transport (i.e. who work in or close to the city centre). They also house the vast bulk of those who are likely to ride.

Will workers take to two-wheelers? Yes, because the alternatives will be less attractive than they were pre-pandemic. Electric bicycles have in any event changed the game. It’s no longer necessary in order to ride to be fit, to avoid hills, to wear special clothing, or have access to change facilities at work. Electric bicycles don’t require a licence.

What about big powerful motorcycles? Too difficult administratively to rule them out of shared streets, but with a maximum speed of 30 km/hr, many bikers would prefer to stick with vehicular traffic. Motorcycles aren’t permitted on bicycle paths/trails/lanes.

Why share with cars? Why not 100% separated paths? The need to move quickly is one reason. The other is motorists aren’t going to roll over. They’ll inevitably have to give up some road space and with 70% of motorised work trips in inner/middle Melbourne taken by car, this is a tricky issue.

Takeaway

Like cars, two-wheelers are a private mode, but they avoid many of the problems of cars. They take up little road space and parking space, they’re quiet and clean, and they don’t require mega-expensive infrastructure (c.f. motorways). Provided two-wheelers are slow and small, many more can fit in a given road space than cars.

There are doubtless other ways of doing this, but the key point is this isn’t a post-pandemic ‘nice to have’; it’s a necessity. The immediate priorities are speed and acceptance. Fortunately, there’s a lot of road space that can be used much more efficiently to deliver workers to jobs in the city centre.