Friday, June 30, 2006

Urban Mobility: Are Two-Wheelers The Ultimate Solution?

This Erion-tuned CBR929RR really should be ideal for any daily commute...

Rising prices of petrol and diesel, and traffic congestion that’s getting unbearable - these are just two factors that are making cars almost redundant for many. It doesn’t matter anymore whether I can or cannot afford to buy a car. It doesn’t even matter that my employers offer to pay for the fuel. What matters is traffic in Mumbai (where I used to live, before I moved to Pune three months ago...), which gets worse every day. At any given point, any day of the week, roads are clogged to bursting point with cars, UVs, autorickshaws, trucks, buses and two-wheelers. It’s one gigantic, smoke spewing, honking, weaving, swearing, struggling, simmering cauldron of catastrophe. And I haven’t even started talking about the months when it’s raining.

For me, and I’m sure countless other people in Mumbai, getting from home to office and back every day is one big challenge. Is there a solution? Clean, quick and efficient public transport systems – those that aren’t crowded enough to make you dread going to work – will happen when (and if at all…) they happen. In the meanwhile, perhaps it’s time for a lot of car users to start looking at the humble old two-wheeler all over again. Traffic congestion and parking woes are less of a problem on nifty little scooters and motorcycles, and you’ll be burning less fuel in the process. In fact, according to one research report which I read recently, two-wheelers account for only one percent of the fuel consumption in individual modes of transport, 0.5 percent of total road transport NOx emissions, and 1.6 percent of the total PM emissions. A large part of this can probably be attributed to two-stroke engines having died out in most countries. Also, these figures are for the European market and I do suppose they might be higher for India, but you’ll probably agree that these facts and figures should command some serious attention from road users everywhere.

Of late, there’s been a significant increase in motorcycling in several countries in Europe, with people turning to motorcycles to beat traffic congestion during their daily commute. We are talking about people who can easily afford to buy one or more cars (and most of whom already do own at least one car), and yet, these people are turning to small two-wheelers for traveling within their cities. Already, some EU countries have a formal national strategy for promoting the use of motorcycles and scooters, along with clearly defined lines of action in terms of rider training, and smart traffic management which favours two-wheeler users. Policy makers in some of these countries have realised that greater adoption of two-wheelers, rather than space and fuel hogging four-wheelers, can greatly improve urban life, and hence, integrating two-wheelers in their transport policies has become a clear priority for them.

A recent survey carried out in Europe, for what was called the National Motorcycle Week, revealed that two-wheeler riders, as well as a large majority of non-riders, agree that the top three benefits of traveling to work on a two-wheeler are reduced journey time, reduced cost (compared with cars and/or public transport) and a general reduction in congestion on city roads. And as a reflection of that increasing general acceptance of two-wheelers as a more viable mode of city transport, sale of scooters in the UK has increased from 500 units in 1993, to 8,000 units in 2004. There’s also been a drop in new car registrations in the UK and in France. Cars have, indeed, served us very well for the last many decades, but given the ever-increasing congestion on our roads, how long will it be before the car simply ceases to be a viable mode of transport, at least in cities? Some major cities in the West levy ‘congestion charges’ on car users who use their vehicles in city centres during peak rush hours, and it seems inevitable that something on these lines will have to be done in India as well. If not now, maybe five years down the line.

With monthly sales of more than 6,000,000 units, India is already one of the biggest two-wheeler markets in the world, and it’s growing. Our Central and State governments should certainly ensure they include motorcycles and scooters in mainstream public transportation planning, and help create an environment that allows two-wheeler riders to commute easily and safely.

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