Sep 24, 2014

Scooters: the way forward for Australia’s traffic congestion problem – Opinion – The Guardian

Motorcycle and scooter use is climbing – we should embrace the trend and think about its potential to boost productivity in cities by reducing traffic congestion

An old friend of mine recently bought a Vespa Italian scooter to ride to work in the city. He’s a married man with a family – not a young student or an image conscious bloke looking to turn heads.

“Mid-life crisis?’’ my friend is sometimes asked.

His stock reply is simple.

“No. Traffic crisis. I find it much easier to get around the city on two wheels.’’

The comment highlights the increasing trend toward motorcycle and scooter use in Australia, as people look for ways to avoid worsening traffic congestion in our cities.

It’s a trend that should be encouraged. It means fewer cars on the road, less call for parking spaces and greater convenience for commuters. But I worry that while people are happily making the switch to two wheels, policy makers continue to view these vehicles through the prism of safety only, rather than also on the basis of their contribution to reducing urban congestion.

For the sake of our cities, this needs to change.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, sales of motorcycles and scooters climbed 25% between 2009 and 2014. The Australian Motorcycle Council says the number of people who travel on motorised two-wheelers has doubled to more than 700,000 in recent years. Australians are looking for greater convenience and they are increasingly confounded by traffic congestion.

But to this point in our history, when legislators have talked about reducing urban congestion, they have discussed cycling, walking or encouraging greater use of public transport. While all of these are potent weapons in the war against congestion, so too is greater use of motorcycles and scooters. They are cheap, popular, often easy to operate and simple to park.

While two wheels are not for everyone, governments are not doing enough to encourage those who favour this form of transport. Because of this, they are missing out on the potential to make cities more efficient by reducing congestion.

A study in Brussels in 2011 found that if one in 10 people gave up their car and used a motorcycle or scooter, traffic congestion would be reduced by 40%.

The study, conducted by the University of Leuven, found that the shift could avoid the loss of 15,000 hours lost in traffic each day, equivalent to time savings of approximately 350,000 euros a day. That is an enormous productivity dividend.

Australia has much to learn from the City of Melbourne, which, according to council’s website, is the only Australian capital city where people can legally park their motorcycles or scooters on the footpath. The vehicles must be at least one motorcycle length from the building line to allow for pedestrian traffic and at least one wheel diameter from the kerb or parked vehicles. Melbourne also has more than 300 on-road parking spaces specifically for motorcycles.

Other cities are also changing.

Brisbane is building 400 new motorcycle spaces between now and 2016 and has some parking areas on footpaths. In Sydney motorcyclists do not have to pay to park in some parts of the city, although they must still observe time limits.

It’s time for a closer look at these issues. It makes no sense to ignore the fact that motorcycle and scooter use is climbing. We should embrace the trend and think about its potential to boost productivity in cities by reducing traffic congestion.

No serious government can ignore the potential for increased productivity. Flexible legislators carefully weigh the benefits of societal trends against the cost of catering to them and act accordingly. I’m convinced there is room for Commonwealth leadership in urban policy across a range of areas including traffic congestion, housing density, public transport planning and delivery and better urban design.

Labor believes that while councils and state governments are responsible for regulation affecting cities, the Commonwealth can provide leadership and help them make our cities productive, sustainable and liveable. The Commonwealth is best paced to provide policy leadership to bring together all parties to urban policy – governments, businesses, planning experts and others. It is also capable of investing in solutions to the challenges facing cities.

If such investment is well targeted, it can pay for itself in increased productivity. On the specific issue of motorcycles and scooters, the Commonwealth should be promoting policy advances at meetings of state and commonwealth transport ministers. It can also engage with councils on the issue through groups including the Australian Local Government Association.

Governments could also investigate removing all parking fees on motorcycles and scooters, particularly if it can be shown that the productivity gains in encouraging their use exceed the money being raised by parking fees. Motorcycle and scooter use is low-hanging fruit for inter-governmental policy collaboration.

But don’t hold your breath waiting for urban policy leadership from the current Commonwealth government. Tony Abbott has no interest in policies affecting productivity in cities, even though they produce 80% of our nation’s gross domestic product. Since taking office, he has abolished the Major Cities Unit, stopped the Urban Policy Forum meeting and vetoed funding for any public transport project not already under construction.

In this most-urbanised of nations, this is against our national interest. We can, and must, do better.

This article was originally published by The Guardian Australia.