Backmarker: Motorcycle Riding as a Social Benefit

Mark Gardiner | August 20, 2015

The other day, I came across a white paper issued by Deloitte University Press, which is the e-publishing arm of Deloitte Development LLC which, in turn, is a think tank that is part of the Deloitte group of companies – a global accounting and consulting company.

The report was on the topic of “Smart Mobility” in American cities, and it analyzed the potential impact of several urban transportation trends, including:
• Ridesharing (aka carpooling, which has declined since the 1960s but which could be poised to make a comeback if ridesharing apps become popular)
• Carsharing (including commercial operations like car2go and Zipcar, and peer-to-peer programs like Getaround and RelayRides)
• On-demand ride services, such as Uber and Lyft
• Bicycle commuting

The report concluded that “…these modes hold considerable promise for easing gridlock at a far lower cost than traditional approaches to congestion reduction,” such as improving road infrastructure and/or mass-transit options.

Lane-splitting.

Transport and Mobility Leuven is a transport research lab, and part of Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, in Belgium. The city of Leuven gathers real time traffic data that allowed TML to calculate that, if 10% of car commuters switched to motorcycles, the result would be a 63% decrease in “lost vehicle hours” – time wasted in stop-and-go traffic. This also equates to a 5% decrease in emissions from cars, as well as a significant drop (obviously) in the emissions generated by the commuters who switched. The increased efficiency of the cars in this study is because as speeds plummet in rush hour, motorcycles move out of the traffic column and into the spaces between cars. That’s a powerful argument to allow lane-splitting here in the U.S.

I’m bummed that it never occurred to Deloitte to examine the potential benefits of commuting motorcycles and scooters. That’s not really an oversight on Deloitte’s part, as much as it is a reflection of the fact that for decades the motorcycle industry has marketed motorcycles as toys, not practical vehicles.

According to Deloitte, about 0.6% of American commuters at least occasionally use bicycles; a far lower percentage than most European cities, although U.S. bicycle commuting is growing at an annual rate of 7.5%. Their analysis of 171 urban areas with good bicycling potential suggested that 635,000 U.S. residents currently use bicycles to commute. That number could, Deloitte says, grow as high as 29 million over 25 years, resulting in the following economic benefits, among others…
• $1.3 billion – Commuter annual fuel savings
• $15.8 billion – Savings resulting from reduced traffic delay
• $64.9 billion – Savings in reduced road construction costs
• $186.5 billion – Savings related to reduced carbon emissions

If the idea that almost 30 million Americans will be pedaling to work in 25 years seems wildly optimistic, I’ll note that even Deloitte admitted that number “assum[ed] a future state where barriers to bike commuting approach zero.” Maybe they should’ve considered the impact of motorcycles and scooters, which – while they share some of those barriers and have some of their own unique impediments to adoption – are in many ways more suitable to longer American-style commutes and offer many of the same advantages.

An increase in motorcycle or scooter use will result in some fuel and carbon-emissions cost savings too, (though obviously not as dramatic as the savings associated with human-powered cycles). Motorcycles and scooters would result in nearly comparable savings on the basis of reduced congestion and reduced wear and tear on roads. Deloitte appears to have overlooked the substantial costs associated with parking cars at commuters’ destinations. Like bicycles, motorcycles free up a lot of space which is at a premium in the crowded urban settings where two-wheeled commuting is most attractive.

Like bicycles, motorcycles and scooters present perceived and real risks associated with accidents, especially collisions with cars. And, obviously, the fact that most motorcycles and scooters require a special license endorsement is an additional barrier; you don’t need a special license to commute by bicycle.

Deloitte admits that reaching the ambitious goal of 50x the number of bicycle commuters would require some infrastructure changes, such as increasing the number of dedicated bicycle lanes. And they based their calculations on the number of commuters whose one-way commute is less than five miles. Motorcycles and scooters don’t need special lanes, and are far less distance-sensitive. Advantage, motorcycles.

At the risk of sounding like a bit of a whiner, it’s been years now that I’ve been calling for organizations like the AMA and Motorcycle Industry Council to take a more proactive role in promoting the idea that motorcycles and scooters are practical vehicles (as well as more engaging and satisfying than cars, even on mundane commutes). And, I’ve spent much of the last decade or so complaining that motorcycle manufacturers and dealers push glamorous and fast on consumers who might go for a short ride on a sunny Sunday afternoon, rather than affordable and approachable machines that are more likely to see daily use. As much as I love stuff like Ride to Work Day, it’s frustrating that we still identify one day.

But in spite of the fact that it never occurred to Deloitte to consider the potential benefits of increased motorcycle and scooter commuting, I’m actually starting to feel a little bit optimistic about the prospects for more “daily rider” type motorcycling.

Except for California, lane-splitting is currently illegal in the U.S., but in the last year or two it seems as if state bills to permit lane splitting have been taken a little more seriously. Washington, Oregon, Texas, Tennessee, and Arizona have all had bills under consideration; even the Wall Street Journal ran a balanced story on lane-splitting last spring. As an industry, we’ve got our work cut out for us when it comes to convincing the car-driving majority that lane-splitting can be safe (or at least, no more dangerous than riding in amongst cars in their lanes).

So far, we’ve done a crappy job of explaining that, in fact, while lane-splitting motorcyclists get where they’re going a lot faster than car drivers who are stuck in stop-and-go traffic, even those angry cagers get where they’re going a little bit faster when motorcycles stay out of the traffic column.

And, when car drivers get where they’re going, there’s an excellent chance they’ll find a parking spot left vacant because a motorcyclist found some interstitial space to leave his bike. We’ve managed to get lane splitting on the agenda; we’re beginning to have some intelligent discussions with lawmakers. It’s time to press on and get some laws passed.

Since the 2008 recession cut the legs out from under motorcycle sales here, we’ve also finally seen manufacturers and the motorcycle media take small displacement, beginner friendly, fuel-efficient commuter bikes seriously. Don’t get me started on the damage that was done in the ‘90s and early 2000s by motorcycle dealers who seriously proposed that a 600cc supersport bike was a good choice for a novice rider.

The motorcycle industry, particularly at the retail level, has been notoriously sexist, and that has surely driven away potential female customers. But industry sexism is, at least, something that’s now openly discussed. That’s a first step towards eliminating another barrier.

One of the keys to increasing the use of motorcycles and scooters in daily use is getting new riders safely up to speed. Insurance statistics show that a new rider’s first year is vastly more dangerous than any subsequent year. In fact the first 30 days for a new rider are more dangerous than his (or her) entire second year. More than half of all insurance claims on supersport bikes come in the first three months of the policy.

According to an Insurance Journal story (which refers to the U.S. as a whole and which predated the change to California new-rider training) motorcycle training courses like MSF have an ambiguous effect on accident rates, at best. Some courses actually seem to increase accident risk.

Recently, California dropped the MSF course for new riders, which was better than nothing but in need of improvement, and replaced it with a program created and run by Lee Parks, whose ‘Total Control’ program is well-regarded. I admit that I used to refer all new riders to the MSF course because it was widely available. But after they completed the course, I had to explain that much of what my newbie friends had learned was inadequate or oversimplified. I haven’t sampled Parks’ new course, but I imagine it’s a bit better.

Laugh at me if you want, but when Polaris announced that it was acquiring Brammo, it occurred to me that with far better distribution and the potential for increased production, beginner-friendly twist-and-go electric bikes like the Brammo Enertia could be a gateway for new riders, too. And last but not least, global warming has caused the Department of Agriculture to redraw the map of American planting zones, which could just as well be described as a motorcycle hardiness map. (Deloitte actually didn’t assume that bicyclists are that hardy; it based its estimates on an average of 96 bicycle days per year.)

Deloitte’s initial estimate of 0.6% bicycle commuters at present is consistent with the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent estimate. According to the same Census study, 0.2% of U.S. commuters use motorcycles. What if motorcycle use was to increase at the rate Deloitte modeled for bicycles?

If Deloitte’s numbers can be trusted, it’s conservative to assume that corresponding increase amongst motorcycle commuters would yield $200 million in direct fuel savings and $30 million in reduced carbon costs every year. Over the 25-year period Deloitte modeled, increased motorcycle use would save $5 billion in delay costs, and cut $20 billion off road construction and maintenance costs.

To be clear, I’m not saying that I’m completely confident in Deloitte’s numbers (although they are accountants and they should be good at adding things up). Nor am I prepared to swear by the back-of-the-envelope methods I used to extrapolate the economic benefit associated with increased motorcycle use.

But I would love to see a serious study, perhaps based on Deloitte’s methodology, which would give the AMA, MIC and other motorcycle lobbyists the ammunition they need to argue for law changes providing for lane-splitting, reduced tolls for motorcycles, and more motorcycle-only parking in urban areas.

Deloitte noted (but did not back up with data) the fact that even much smaller increases in bicycle use could result in markedly less congestion. This is because the difference between free-flowing freeway traffic, and stop-and-go traffic, can be as little as a few percent, in terms of vehicles in an “accordion-ing” traffic column. The AMA and MIC should also be armed with traffic studies and accurate models that quantify the benefits that motorcycle lane splitting confers to cars.

The motorcycle industry is typically on its back foot when it comes to statistics. Usually we’re responding to stats about the rates of accidental death and injury. Those numbers don’t increase our political clout; it’s hard to be taken seriously when you appear before a legislative committee with a badge identifying you as a member of the death-and-dismemberment machine industry.

It’s time to quantify the social benefit associated with motorcycles.

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Mark Gardiner

Contributing Editor| Articles | In 2001, Mark Gardiner gave up his career in advertising, and moved to the Isle of Man to live out his childhood dream of racing in the TT. After returning to the U.S., he wrote a memoir of that experience, Riding Man, which is now in development as a feature film. His column, Backmarker, looks at everything from the motorcycle industry as a whole to intensely personal 'inside stories.'

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