The Pandemic Kick-Started an Urban Motorcycle Boom. Are Cities Ready?

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Listening to the sounds of the city in London right now, the chorus of street noise from cars, trucks and buses has been joined by a new, higher-pitched voice: the revving engines of motorcycles. 

The growing number of motorcycles in London predates the pandemic: Since 2010, the city has reportedly seen an 11% year-on-year increase in their numbers. Motorcycle registrations increased across the U.K. in 2019, marking a years-long upward trend. As lockdown eased, their numbers spiked anew. According to industry figures, new motorcycle registrations in the country are up 31.2% compared to September last year, with the biggest jump in small-capacity Vespa-style motor scooters. 

Europe and Asia are also seeing more two-wheeled traffic. Motorcycle and scooter sales figures this May in China, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands surpass last May’s benchmark. That comeback has continued into recent months, even surprising major manufacturers. In the U.S., as new car sales crashed, motorcycle companies reported their strongest sales in several years. Increases in riders aboard motorcycles, mopeds, and scooters have been noted in urban centers like New York, Rio de Janeiro and Athens.

Explanations for the spike vary. Like the supplementary bicyling boom, socially distanced rides are all the rage. “It isn’t just motorcycles and scooters but also e-bikes and electric skateboards and bicycles,” MotorCycles Data CEO Carlo Simongini told the Wall Street Journal. “They’re all great for people trying to avoid each other.” Perhaps most consequential, however, is the courier economy: Food delivery apps, which rely heavily on motorbikes to function, represent the fastest-growing sector in the U.K.’s restaurant industry, with trips rising 10% each year. That has only sped up with customers staying home: In 2020, Deliveroo, the country’s largest food delivery app, more than doubled its riders. 

Two-wheelers have long been major players in many formal and informal urban transport systems,especially in Asia. In cities, they have some clear advantages over their larger kin: Gas-sipping cycles can be a frugal alternative to public transportation for those who can’t afford a private car, and they can filter through traffic lanes jammed with four-wheelers in places that allow “lane splitting.” More motorcycles can translate into less traffic, says Colin Brown of the U.K.’s Motorcycle Action Group. One study showed that a 10% modal shift from single-occupancy cars to motorcycles can reduce time lost in traffic by 40% and total emissions by 6%.

“They are an economical, flexible and reliable option for their users, even in the most congested environments,” Brown told me.

But the pandemic-powered surge in usage is challenging some cities’ long-term goals for air and noise pollution, as well as safety. While motorcycles emit less carbon than cars mile to mile, they can give off a disproportionate amount of traffic-related pollutants, and make their presence known with a piercing howl that does not go unnoticed amid the silence of lockdowns. Relative to their volume, motorcycles play an outsized role in all traffic fatalities on streets. 

Luckily, city leaders in places that are seeing more motorcycles have a number of tools at their disposal to minimize these negative impacts, and maximize the positive ones.

Clearing the air

In 2019, Gary Fuller, a researcher at Imperial College and a founder of the London Air Quality Network, conducted a study with his colleagues to determine the street-level inequities in pollution, using Paris and London as case studies. For each road in question, they paired air quality measurements with traffic counters to build a statistical model, including predictors like heavy goods vehicles to explain variance. 

“One of the things that spun out of that was a growth in motorcycles, at least on the roads that we looked at. This was associated in the model with increases in NO2 and particulate matter (PM25),” Fuller told me. “We weren’t expecting this at all.” (The former pollutant stems from tailpipe exhaust; the latter, both the engine and tire wear.)

And vice versa: Parisian ring-roads with lower rates of PM25 were found to also have fewer motorcycles. The exacerbated pollution impact of these small vehicles is most apparent in places like moped-filled Hanoi, Vietnam, which ranks as one of the world’s most polluted cities. 

Generally, motorcycle emission standards are set at the national or extranational level: For example, the E.U. nations use the Euro I to VI standards, which major markets, like India and China, base their standards off of. In the U.S., motorcycle manufacturers must hit the Tier 2 exhaust standard from 2010, but they generally work with E.U. standards in mind. 

But motorbikes have “perhaps been left behind in terms of exhaust emissions control,” Fuller told me. Emission standards for two-wheeled vehicles are less readily updated than they are for cars; for example, petrol- and diesel-based cars in Europe have been on the NO2-stringent Euro VI standard for five years now, while motorcycles were only first introduced in January to equivalent measures (Euro V for this classification), which aim to crack down on particulate matter. (Additionally, those haven’t been phased in entirely due to coronavirus.)

Fuller argues that manufacturers must face greater pressure from regulators to produce motorcycles that are actually low-emissions. “They can build affordable technologies into motorbikes,” Fuller said, “so people who use them can do so without massive environmental harm.” 

Cities can help force their hand, by instituting stiffer limits on what kinds of vehicles are allowed to operate in certain areas. London’s ultra-low emissions zone (ULEZ), for example, charges users who drive older, higher-polluting vehicles a fee to enter. According to a new report, the number of people exposed to illegal levels of air pollutants dropped from 2 million to nearly 120,000 since the ULEZ’s introduction  in central London in 2016; its area will expand to cover most of the city next October. 

To drive within it, motorbikes and mopeds must meet Euro 3 standards for emissions, which are generally built after 2007. Similar to a proposed SUV charge in Berlin, cities can raise standards to ride on their streets in order to get the industry to comply. “The manufacturers need to step up to ensure that the motorcycles keep up with the changes that are happening in other transport sectors,” Fuller said.

The loudness factor

The other bike-related pollution of concern is noise, which has been a focus of growing debate in the U.K.. Over the last four years, close to 33,000 motorbikes failed their annual inspection due to “excessive noise.” 

As this BBC video from July showed, a single unmuffled motorcycle crossing central Paris could be heard by at least 11,000 people. A friend living there told me that the traffic noise he hears on the streets “is almost entirely motorbikes.” In France, “anti-noise patrols” and “noise cameras” that can track down the offending machines are popping up; London, too, has installed its first noise camera. In the U.S., meanwhile, several states haveno motorcycle noise regulations at all. During spring and summer lockdowns, New Yorkers flooded 311 lines with complaints about revving cycles on pandemic-emptied streets.

Beyond tougher laws and new technology, is there anything else cities could do to muffle motorbikes? I reached out to Antonella Radicchi, a soundscape architect at the Technical University of Berlin. Back in 2019, Radicchi took me on a “sound walk” around downtown Manhattan for CityLab to map out quiet sanctuaries on the blaring streets using her Hush City app. Helicopters and motorcycle engines were two prime culprits.

For Radicchi, creating a quieter city is more about planning that prioritizes people and places over traffic. She cited Barcelona’s renowned “superblocks” as an example; the Catalan capital has grouped together sets of streets and cut off through-traffic from entering, only limiting access to residents at very low speeds. London’s low-traffic neighborhoods and adoption of “slow streets” during the Covid-19 crisis offer similar models for silencing all manner of vehicular racket, including those from motorcycles. 

“What Barcelona did is not only to block out the cars and the traffic, but also to renovate, redesign and rethink the public spaces of the streets that are now empty and free from cars,” she said. “That created very nice areas for kids to play, for pedestrians to sit and relax and enjoy plenty of greenery.”

She cited the French composer Pierre Schaeffer,a pioneer in sound sampling whose work, she said, embodied this idea: “When there is noise, there is power.” In other words, instead of just cursing the aural assault that loud vehicles might generate, think about the underlying structures that gives them such free rein. “Let’s unpack this source of power and understand the power dynamics behind the noise,” she said.

Enter the electric revolution

The rise of electric motorcycles and e-scooters stands to help motorcycles clean up their act, both air- andvolume-wise. As with cars, electrification in the motorcycle industry is well underway, says Colin Brown of MAG. Several manufacturers now offer full-size electric motorcycles, ranging from the $30,000 Harley-Davidson LiveWire to budget models under $10,000. They currently represent just a small fraction of the global motorcycle market. (In India, the world’s largest motorcycle market, it’s less than 1%.) But that share is growing as technology advances and prices drop. In Vietnam, as Bloomberg Businessweek recently reported, the EV company VinFast is pursuing its plan to replace that nation’s vast fleet of combustion motorbikes with locally made electric ones. 

Electric vehicles (EVs) are not a magic climate bullet, but Brown points out that, in addition to having no tailpipe emissions, electric motorbikes spew less PM25 from tire wear than battery-powered cars or SUVS. “These cars do nothing to ease the gridlock on our congested streets,” Brown said. “We must also remember that the carbon footprint for the manufacture of a motorcycle is a fraction of that for a car.”

Many city-dwellers have already been introduced to electric two-wheeling thanks to the rise of micromobility startups like Bird and Spin, which have been filling cities with tiny, rentable e-scooters and e-bikes since 2017. Another company, Revel, rents faster, longer-range electric mopeds in several U.S. cities. If a city’s goal is getting more drivers out of their cars, encouraging these options is wise. “What cities can do is nudge people towards these quieter, cleaner choices by making them affordable, available and accessible,” says Sarah Kaufman, the associate director of NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation. 

For example, EV charging sites and street parking can include spaces specifically designated for electrified two-wheeled vehicles. To boost personal ownership, cities can offer incentives: Paris’s regional government has made subsidies available for e-bikes, and Geneva recently announced “soft mobility” discounts to residents buying e-cargo bikes. (The U.S. has federal tax subsidies for EVs,including motorcycles, butnot e-bikes.)

Street design, such as substantially segregated lanes for micromobility, can further encourage the modal shift; in London, for example, both motorcycles and bicycles can use the bus lane, as it’s been shown to help unclog congestion. (But tiny e-scooters are still banned from most public lanes.) Kaufman noted that Citi Bike, New York’s bikeshare program, had a record ridership month in September, signaling a clear appetite for two-wheeled travel amidst the pandemic. 

“Keep this momentum going, which would help people travel in a healthy and socially distanced way,” she said, “as well as nudge the city towards the emission goals it’s laid out for itself.”

The pursuit of safer streets

As more motorcycles mingle with cars, bikes and pedestrians, safety concerns — and conflicts — are also rising. 

In a recent tweet, Danny Perlstein, the policy and communications director for Riders Alliance, a transit advocacy group in New York, pointed out that enforcement that fails to stop deadly SUVs “also won’t work against motorcycles.” He cited a news article about a recent crash in Brooklyn, where a 31-year-old nurse was killedwhile biking home after being struck by a motorcyclist.

Drivers of cars, not motorcycles, are behind the vast majority of cyclist and pedestrian fatalities in New York. But motorcycles do attract a great deal of safety-related attention, both for riders and other road users. In a follow-up, Perlstein told me that the Covid shutdowns that temporarily cleared traffic also led to a speeding epidemic that has set modern records for crash fatalities in New York. (The streets this summer have proved beenespecially deadly for motorcyclists. Andnotjustin New York City.) “Policymakers should act fast to head off more crash deaths,” he said. Devices like bus lanes, busways, visible crossings and speed cameras could better deter reckless driving and riding. “Mayors and other elected officials must empower engineers to improve street safety and equity.”

The dangers of traveling on two wheels, both real and perceived, keep many would-be riders off the saddle. Motorcycle advocates often point out thatrisks can be mitigated by avoiding alcohol, which plays a role in a large share of cycle fatalities, and proper training and licensing. Still, riders remain far more vulnerable than other kinds of vehicle users: According to U.K. government figures, motorcyclists are 38 more times likely to be killed on the road than car drivers. In 2017, Transport for London (TfL) reported that motorcycle riders and passengers accounted for more than a quarter of all traffic-related injuries and fatalities in the city, even though they made up just 2% of all road traffic that year. 

In response, TfL expanded a scheme to help motorcycle delivery companies better train their riders, and create a universal safety standard with auditing authority. But Colin Brown, at MAG, has argued that the outsized attention paid to the riskiness of motorcycling overlooks the threat posed by drivers of four-wheeled vehicles.

“As vulnerable road users, we need to see real action to raise the standards of driving,” Brown said in 2019 MAG statement. “Simply focusing on training and safety gear for the victim is not going to cut it.”

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