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Motorcycles beat public transport every time

The fact that policymakers do not see motorcycles as a serious alternative for public transport is a missed opportunity, says FEMA’s Dolf Willigers.

In recent times, the theme of transport in and around the city (‘urban mobility’) came back repeatedly in my work for FEMA. Last summer I wrote about the constraints that more and more governments introduce to enter the city, especially for diesel vehicles.

Recent examples where such restrictions have been announced are Arnhem in the Netherlands and Brussels in Belgium. Fortunately, it is still about cars with diesel engines. Of course, it is never a good idea to get into a town by car and then try to find a parking space. As motorcyclists we know that there has been a much better alternative for a long time, and we do not try to find it in public transport, cycling and walking (although, for short distances, there is nothing wrong with cycling and walking). When I’m in Brussels, the fastest way to get to another meeting is often walking.

It is a different matter for those who need to travel to the city for work from outside the city. The European mobility test we held in 2014 already showed that the motorcycle was undoubtedly the winner for this kind of travel. This year FEMA organized such a test again, to see if there were a lot of changes.

In fourteen cities, spread across seven European countries, mobility tests were organized. The assignment was to travel a typical commuting route, from home to work, from outside the city into the city, over a distance of 15 to 30 kilometres. This had to be done in different ways. Of course by motorcycle, but also by car, moped, bicycle/e-bike and public transport. The test teams took their task seriously: they selected as representative routes as possible, and also the departure times were chosen to match the local habits as accurately as possible. The photos taken by the test teams show motivated people: ready for departure with the clear intention of putting the best time possible on the clock.

The result is not surprising: the motorcycle proved to be the winner at twelve of the fourteen tests. More surprisingly, twice the motorcycle lost. One time the motorcycle was defeated by the car. This proved to be mainly because the motorcyclist had taken a longer route to avoid traffic congestion. He apparently did not fully understand what the test was about. The other time the moped was just a little bit faster than the motorcycle. Not very strange of course: when traffic is really busy, you will benefit from the even greater manoeuvrability of the moped.

The surprise of this mobility test was therefore not the winner. What was a surprise was the time lost on public transport. Once more it was shown that it sounds nice: ‘public transport, cycling and walking’, but that these are not always the best options. For travelling inside the city, public transport will undoubtedly be a good option. For the average residential worker who wants to enter the city from outside the city or from a suburb, public transport means you need a lot of patience. Even the car was found to be significantly faster than a bus or tram. And what about the fact that many public transport companies are already complaining that they are on the limits of their capacity? This autumn, the Dutch railways asked the passengers to look for alternatives for the train in rush hour because they could not handle the expected number of passengers.

I once tried to travel home from Brussels by train. I knew that this would cost me more time than the usual motorcycle ride, but I wanted to try it. After waiting for five hours on windy platforms and getting stuck in a far too overcrowded commuter train (the train I was supposed to catch had been cancelled) and after five transfers and with the prospect of some more, I gave up and arranged a car to get me home. Normally, with the motorcycle it takes me 75 to 90 minutes to get home, not 300 minutes. Public transport is beautiful, but often it is not an option.

No, for me the results of our mobility test were not surprising and they also confirmed the flop of public transport. Authorities and politicians may keep telling us that we all have to use public transport and bicycles, but in practice public transport in particular does not work to well, even within cities. The problem is mainly in waiting times when switching and what in the Brussels bubble is called ‘the last mile’.

From station to station and from bus stop to bus stop, public transport is usually faster than other modes of transport. But first you must get to that station or bus stop, and once you arrived at the bus stop or station near your destination, you must always walk or cycle to your actual destination. And those two things cost a lot of time. Numerous smart people are now turning out solutions like small autonomous electric cars to bridge that ‘last mile’, but I have my doubts.

Of course, for a distance of only a few kilometres, I also take the bicycle or I just walk, but for trips of more than ten kilometres, or if there’s a lot of city traffic, the motorcycle is often the best option. We already knew.

Organizations like FEMA, the national motorcyclists’ organizations and ACEM (the European organization of motorcycle manufacturers) have been saying this for years, but are not heard. In the eyes of the majority of policymakers, motorcycles are mainly polluting, dangerous and noisy. They often seem to overlook the fact that modern motorcycles are becoming cleaner and quieter, and that motorcycles themselves are not involved in accidents more than cars. This is a missed opportunity, because the motorcycle is really the better alternative to public transport to and from the cities.

Written by Dolf Willigers

Click here to see the full report of the mobility test 2017.