It’s believed that motorcycles are superior to four-wheeled vehicles in an urban setting from an environmental standpoint, as well as a traffic decongestion perspective. However, motorcycles have their own shortcomings and their benefits are limited unless urban planners take certain measures, such as improving parking and developing a robust transit and cycling systems.
There are many things to be said about the role that motorcycles have in improving the efficiency of urban transport systems. Typically, motorcycles use only 15-20% of the space per person required by a car. They also consume less energy per distance traveled and emit less CO2 per person. What’s more, motorcycles require less space for parking and require less maintenance, per this review.
Due to their convenience and the fact that they can cost 10 times less than a car, motorcycle ownership has generally risen across the world.
In the UK, for instance, motorcycle traffic has increased by nearly 50% between 1998 and 2003. In Italy, where the famous Vespa brand was born, 26% own a motorcycle, while Greece claims 23% motorcycle ownership.
However, nowhere are two-wheelers more popular than in Asia. More than eight-in-ten in Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia own a scooter. And the next tier of motorcycle owners are all in Asia: China at 60%, India at 47%, and Pakistan at 43%.
Motorcycles or cars: which is better for city life?
But are motorcycles really superior to four-wheeled vehicles? Yes and no, according to a 2017 study performed by researchers affiliated with the Research Center of Transport Planning and Traffic Engineering at the Vienna University of Technology.
For their study, the researchers used mobility data from Chiang Mai, the main city of Chiang Mai province, located in the northern region of Thailand. Like most of other Thai cities, Chiang Mai is known for its high number of motorcycles, comprising 60% of all registered vehicles.
Yet despite the high motorcycle ownership, Chiang Mai faces many problems, including a rise in congestion, traffic accidents, worsening of air quality, and increased street noise. The city’s biggest problem, however, is its lack of quality public transport system.
Using an aggregated dynamic land-use/transport interaction model called MARS, the researchers could calculate the distance and travel time for various forms of transportation in Chiang Mai, such as walking and cycling, as well as motorcycles and cars.
According to the results, cars are the fastest mode of travel, although motorcycles and shared-taxi speeds are comparable averaging between 17.3 and 26 kilometers per hour. Nevertheless, these findings contradict the notion that motorcycles are faster than cars in a city.
For shorter distances, however, motorcycles seem superior to cars, as the authors found that “motorcycle’s average trip time taken and trip distance to be approximately 50% less than the private car.”
The enticing nature of motorcycles of cars is also due to lower walking time to and from embarking points.
“The results show that motorcycles are parked closer to their origins and destinations than either the car or the shared-taxi, the latter being the furthest away. Thus, the motorcycle has a higher ease of access than the car and shared-taxi as the shorter walking distance results in greater convenience and less effort expended by motorcycle riders and passengers,” the authors wrote in their study, which was published in the journal Transportation Research Procedia.
Concerning the impact of motorcycle on congestion and pollution, the researchers found mixed researchers depending on the scenarios that they analyzed.
The assessment suggests that an increase in motorcycle ownership can help to delay the effect of negative transport externalities by slowing down the rate of increases in fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. However, these effects are limited.
“High motorcycle growth will delay the level of fuel consumption reached by the baseline scenario for only 1 year, and the level of CO2 emission by 2 years. Moreover, motorcycle promotion will lead to increased motorcycle usage, at the cost of other modes, especially walking and cycling. It is likely the motorcycle effects walking and cycling in particular because of its ability to park closer to origin and destination,” the authors wrote.
The fuel consumption benefit gains from the promotion of motorcycle use become insignificant after 4 years and the CO2 emission reduction become obsolete after 9 years, the researchers also found.
“Promotion of motorcycle usage (Scenario B2) seems to produce mixed results. It reduces fuel consumption and emissions per trip. It also lowers the average trip distance and increases accessibility rating. However, it also seems to increase indicators associated with high vehicle use; i.e. higher levels of cumulative fuel and emission consumption, higher road casualties, and lower proportionate use of non-motorised transport. This scenario thus illustrates that improvements in some specific areas may lead to an overall undesirable result,” they wrote.
In conclusion, the authors claim that motorcycles can indeed deteriorate some specific areas of the transport system but can lead to an overall enhancement of the system as long as some mitigation strategies are implemented.
“A policy to promote motorcycles shows localised benefits, such as reduced fuel consumption and emission per trip, but produces cumulative losses, such as increased overall fuel consumption and emission. The benefit gained in delayed fuel consumption and emission is also minute. It can be likened to replacing one ‘deadly addictive drug’ with a milder substitute. The only gain is the delay of the negative effects. Even worse, the motorcycle seems to have a reducing effect on non-motorised transport modes and may have a stronger ‘lock-in’ effect due to its higher potential to save body energy.”