For personal transport, powered two-wheelers will be the logical choice after Coronavirus, says FEMA’s Dolf Willigers.
If we have to believe the experts, travelling will never be the same again. Even when the COVID-19 virus itself is under control, we have to take into account that the risk of contamination or a new wave of the pandemic for a long time, if not forever. Already politicians and medical experts speak of the 1.5-meter society: a society in which we have to keep our distance from each other in the public space, including public transport, schools, restaurants. et cetera.
Another thing we can already see is that interest groups like the cyclists and pedestrians’ organisations, road safety organizations and environmentalists already take an advance on the future and advocate a status quo in transport of the present situation. A bit short sighted, because sometimes it is very hard to keep a distance on the sidewalks or on the bicycle: just look what happens when a group of cyclists has to wait for a traffic light in a Dutch city. Even a mouse has trouble to squeeze in between them. But the present situation also means that many jobs are lost, self-employed people have lost their income, people suffer from social isolation and the economy has dropped dramatically. Our society and economy need transport of people and goods and this will come back one way or the other when the present restrictions are partly or totally lifted.
So, the question is how are we organize transport and tourism when we are allowed to travel again. Goods will have to be moved and people need to go to their work, school, shops or will be on the way for social reasons. To keep your distance in public transport is very hard, especially in rush hour, but also on railway-, underground- and bus stations and airports. The idea behind public transport is that many people take little space, i.e. sit or stand closely together. This is just what we are supposed not to do anymore. The capacity of public transport will drop dramatically with 60-80 percent if we must keep a distance from each other of 1.5 meter. In fact, the question rises if public transport is even affordable anymore in future, given the fact that already it is heavily subsidized in most countries. For short distances, walking and cycling are very good, pleasant and recommendable alternatives, even while it can be hard to keep your distance, but they offer no alternative for longer distances.
This leaves personal motorized transport: car and powered two-wheelers. Securing a distance from other persons of 1.5 meter is probably easiest in the car, at least as long as you are the only occupant. More or less the situation you could already see before the Coronavirus outbreak when you entered Brussels or other cities in rush hour. However, this leads to other problems, as we could see earlier already. With people changing from public transport to cars and with only one occupant per car there will be even more traffic jams, parking problems, air pollution, greenhouse gasses emissions than there was before Coronavirus. Besides, when more people choose for cycling and walking while keeping a safe distance, they need more space. In this scenario, cars take up too much space, they are just too big. The same can be said for transport of goods in urban areas. The vans of the parcel deliverers and suppliers of shops and other companies take up much space, perhaps too much when the city councils allocate more space to cyclists and pedestrians. In fact, in many cities already temporarily, at least that is what we are told, parts of the road that before were allocated to cars are now allocated to bicycles and pedestrians. In Brussels, the centre of the city will be changed from the first of May 2020 to a 20 kph area with priority to pedestrians and cyclists.
There is only one way out: next to more people walking, cycling or using e/scooters, people who have to travel a longer distance and for who public transport is no longer an option will have to choose for a powered two-wheeler. This might be a (preferably electric) moped or a motorcycle. Powered two-wheelers allow to keep a safe space from other people. Motorcycles can ride both long and short distances, take far less space than cars (and use less fuel) and bad weather isn’t a problem anymore with good clothing. Modern motorcycles have low emissions and we even see more and more electric motorcycles and mopeds coming. In many countries it is even possible to ride a 125cc or equivalent electric motorcycle(-scooter) with a B-licence and some additional training. Several tests from FEMA and others (organizations, newspapers) have showed that powered two-wheelers are by far the fastest way to commute. It is also cheaper than using a car or public transport, and always available. In some European cities it is even possible to use an electric moped in a sharing system. When more people choose for powered two-wheelers, this means that there is more room left for other road users like cyclists and pedestrians. Even the remaining car drivers profit: research from the Belgian research institute Transport & Mobility from 2011 learned that not only the motorcyclists but also the car drivers profited. When 10 percent of the car drivers changed to motorcycles the total of lost travel hours was reduced with 63 percent. For goods, other solutions must be found. Partly by way of electrified cargo bikes, partly by quadricycles and other light vehicles. Options like cargo boats or even drones and the like may be possible too, but that is out of our scope.
Not mentioned yet are the impacts of COVID-19 on tourism. We are used to sitting with 180 or more other people in a cramped airplane for hours, with barely room to move and breathing used air. But who still wants to do this with the knowledge that when somebody is contaminated with a virus it would be a miracle not to catch it? Or who would want to find his or her way in a crowded tourist trap with 1.5-centimetre social distance instead of 1.5 meter? The way to avoid that is using more individual ways to travel: to go with your own vehicle to the good old camping site or to a hotel. But not all with cars, because then we will have the same problem as when we commute with the car. Too many cars will jam the roads to our favourite destinations (assumed we are still allowed to go there in future) because they are still too big. Better go with the motorcycle, when you are in the position to do that of course and many of us are. To have that feeling of freedom and independency motorcycling brings is something all motorcyclists know and value.
Conclusion: assuming that we will be able to travel freely soon, there will probably, at least for a period of time, be limitations to our freedom. Not in distance or direction, but in the way we travel as a result of the need to keep distance from each other. The capacity of public transport, airplanes and the such will be limited, and we will have to switch to more individual ways. At the same time, city councils allocate more space to pedestrians and cyclists instead of cars and goods vehicles. This calls for vehicles that are smaller than cars and trucks. For personal transport and partly for goods transport, powered two-wheelers (motorcycles, mopeds, e-bikes, speed-pedelecs, cargo-bikes et cetera) will be the logical choice.
Road authorities and city councils should keep the use of motorcycles possible and facilitate the use of them by keeping roads open for them, create dedicated parking spaces and create safe charging infrastructure for electric powered two-wheelers. The use of small individual motorized transport – as powered two-wheelers are – allow people to travel into the cities while maintaining the needed social distance and leaving room for pedestrians, cyclists and users of other kinds of micro-mobility.
Written by Dolf Willigers
Top photograph courtesy of Rieju