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Pandering to the two wheeled motorist?

February 14, 2004 12:00 AM
By Richard Thomas in Challenge

Of the major Parties, it is the Lib Dems that have been making the most positive noises about motorbikes. Richard Thomas argues that, far from being part of the solution, motorbikes are part of the problem.

Motorbikes, scooters and mopeds, known in the jargon as powered two wheelers (PTWs), are increasingly prevalent in the UK as a mode of transport. Some cities are experimenting with allowing PTWs to use cycle facilities and bus lanes; and their use is increasing in London as they are exempt from the congestion charge for driving into central London.

But, whilst more and more facilities for motorbikes are being installed, few policy makers seem to have asked the basic question: should motorbikes be encouraged or not?

Along with many local authorities, the Greater London Authority and the Department for Transport, we Liberal Democrats have nevertheless come up with an answer and it is an unequivocal 'Yes'.

It is easy to see why.

Motorbike and scooter users, like cyclists, are vulnerable road users who suffer from a lack of attention both from other drivers and from policy makers in terms of their safety and the security of their vehicles when parked. Ignored for decades, the motorbike lobby has made a good case for more recognition. Keen to be at the forefront of policy making - and no doubt only too pleased to be given an alternative to the private motor car - Liberal Democrats have clutched at the promotion of PTWs with increasing enthusiasm.

But catering for motorcyclists and ensuring we do ignore their needs is very different to actively encouraging a modal shift from the private motor car to motorbikes - or, worse still, from bicycle, foot, public transport and car-sharing.

The Lib Dem love affair is not a flash in the pan. This is not the obsession of one parliamentary spokesperson. Liberal Democrats have been the most pro-motorbike of the three main Parties at the last two General elections.

Last year, conference passed its most pro-motorbike policy yet in the Transport for People policy paper. Transport for People boldly declares that "Two-wheeled motor vehicles are almost always less environmentally damaging than single occupancy cars".

It was not made clear where the research came from to back up this statement. I suspect it was based ore on a commonly held misconception than fact. Since PTWs often use less fuel, many presume that they are environmental advantageous. In fact, small PTWs with oil and petrol burning 2-stroke engines and larger ones with un-catalysed 4-stroke engines are some of the dirtiest forms of transport on the road.

In its 20th report published in 1997, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution stated that:

"Because two wheeled vehicles can carry at most two people, energy consumption at average occupancy is higher than for a small car or most modes of public transport. Emissions from motorcycles have not hitherto been subject to statutory regulation, but are covered in a comprehensive EC type approval directive due to take effect in 1999/2000. This will allow motorcycles to emit much higher levels of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons than a stage II petrol car, and mopeds to emit a higher combined total of hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides than a stage II petrol car."

But the picture is not black and white. In London, estimates for 2000 based on calculations of pollutants per passenger kilometre for London show that PTWs have a slight advantage (7.8%) for carbon dioxide over cars. Only for nitrous oxide and nitrogen oxides do they have a significant advantage over the more sophisticated engines, emitting about 23% of that of cars.

However, for the other significant pollutants PTWS are shown to be significantly worse than their four wheeled garage mates:

Comparison figures with buses per passenger kilometre tell a similar story.

These figures are, of course, bad enough but the comparative figures between cars and bikes are getting worse as cars are made to clean up their act whilst the pollution spewed from the back of PTWs is overlooked by policy makers, particularly the EU. Older, dirtier cars and buses are being replaced by vehicles meeting ever stricter emission controls set by the EU but these don't apply to PTWs.

So in any policy on PTWs we should be arguing for emission controls to be brought into line with other vehicles as soon as possible. And according to the polluter pays principle we should be arguing broadly for a higher rate of tax for polluting PTWs than small cars, not for a lower one.

Speed is another concern. Of course, not all motorbikes are driven fast and not all riders are lawbreakers. But as PTWs often have high power to weight ratios than cars they tend to travel faster than other vehicles. A great number motorists consistently break the speed limit and PTW riders are no exception. But they typically do so by much greater margins. Government statistics show that the proportion of PTW users exceeding urban speed limits by more than 5mph is much higher than for car drivers.

As for danger, PTWs are generally recorded as being the most hazardous form of road transport for their users.

We recently passed a forward-thinking road safety policy at our Brighton conference. But when we have known since 1984 that "two wheeled motor vehicles, per mile driven, were five times more likely than cars to cause the death or serious injury of a pedestrian", then shouldn't we be looking at what an overtly pro-PTW policy will do for pedestrian safety?

As well as being more dangerous to their own riders and more dangerous to pedestrians, PTWs are also more dangerous to cyclists. According to Department for Transport figures, they are twice as likely per mile travelled to kill or seriously injure a cyclist compared with a car.

Noise pollution is a serious environmental issue both in urban areas and rural villages. According to a 2002 DEFRA report, more people report hearing traffic noise than any other external noise and, of those, 78% objected to motor cycle/scooter noise compared to 72% for heavy lorries and 64% for cars and vans.

There are still relatively few PTWs, yet 69% of people report being "annoyed" by PTW noise compared to 65% and 63% for heavy lorries and cars respectively. In terms of their use of road space and, therefore, congestion, the fans of PTWs are most sure of their arguments. It is surely self evident that PTWs take up less space and reduce congestion. They certainly take up less space than a parked car.

But the claims of reduced congestion are challenged by many, including the cycle lobby, claiming that "As their road speed increases, the area required for safe stopping of a PTW increases exponentially, reducing any space and congestion advantage they may have over other types of motor vehicle. Hence a PTW requires a disproportionate area of road space for the size of vehicle."

Even if an increase in PTWs were to help ease congestion, the evidence suggests that the cost of pursuing this goal would be the failure to meet a series of policy targets for improving road safety, health, noise and air pollution.

The debate has been brought into sharp relief in London since the Mayor of London has decided to exempt PTWs from the £5 congestion charge to take a motor vehicle into central London.

Research by Stephen Plowden before the charge was brought in predicted scores of extra deaths and hundreds of serious casualties if the charge was implemented with this exemption for PTWs. Initial reports suggest that there has been a twenty per cent increase in motorcycle use since the introduction of congestion charging. The jury remains out on whether there has been a comparable increase in crashes and serious injuries.

None of this is to argue that we should not develop policies to address motorcycling. Of course we should. But we should be careful of two things.

Firstly, we should not become part of the trend towards considering motorcycle policy alongside policy for cyclists and pedestrians. Secondly, we should be careful that the impression is not given that motorcycling is a benign mode of transport.

Liberal Democrats should strongly oppose the use by PTWs of bus lanes or of facilities that are designed to encourage and protect cyclists such as cycle lanes and advance stop lines. And in London and elsewhere we should support measures to charge motorbikes for entering the congestion charge zone.

Unless we curb our enthusiasm for motorbikes we will end up undermining attempts to attract car drivers to more sustainable alternatives. Increasing the attractiveness of PTW use would directly weaken attempts to encourage cycling and walking as the danger and intimidation posed to pedestrians increases. And in the worst case scenario we could end up with people switching from public transport, cycling and walking back to motorised personal travel.