Cities worldwide face the pressing challenge of growing motorcycle fleets and remarkable increases in related traffic fatalities. With streets ill-prepared and motor-bikes whizzing in every direction, the scene might best be described as urban transport anarchy. The problem is especially grim in low- and middle-income countries, and poses a major challenge to meeting the goals of the United Nations Decade of Action on Road Safety.
Latin America’s motorcycle deaths tripled in the 2000s – most evident in places like Brazil and Colombia. In Malaysia – where motorcycles make up roughly half of the country’s vehicle fleet – two- and three-wheelers make up 59% of its nearly 7,000 annually reported traffic deaths. Similar trends are occurring in India, Vietnam, Indonesia, and other countries worldwide.
Motorcyclist behavior is one problem that, when changed, can reduce traffic deaths – especially through laws and campaigns for helmet wearing, driver education and licensing. More responsible motorcycle users will undoubtedly lead to fewer deaths. But there are also broader issues to consider when addressing this challenge, such as street design, the role (or lack thereof) of quality mass transport in cities, and the impact of motorcycles on bicyclists and pedestrians.
The impact of motorcycle crashes
Motorcycle crashes have significant social and economic costs. A study in São Paulo showed that 12% of all the city’s hospital internments were due to traffic crashes involving motorcycles. After six months of reevaluation, the study found that 73.5% of these patients couldn’t return to their professional routine and 80.9% needed extra money. The productivity loss and the increase in treatment expenses create serious financial difficulties for families. The economic and social costs of motorcycle use require urgent attention in public health, transport and economic policies.
Improving street design
Some infrastructure has been shown to be effective at reducing motorcycle accidents, such as exclusive motorcycle lanes on trunk roads in cities in Malaysia – a practice that has been replicated in Indonesia and the Philippines. It isn’t known if these exclusive lanes are appropriate in other locations, or on urban streets other than the primary roads. In São Paulo, for example, the impact of exclusive lanes has been described as mediocre, though the city did see a reduction in crashes when it banned motorcycles on the central lanes of a main expressway.
Other measures exist that improve safety for all road users – including motorcyclists – such as reducing speeds through traffic calming measures and limiting vehicular traffic. A study from Malaysia found that an increase in the speed at which vehicles approach signalized intersections is associated with more motorcycle crashes, and that more motorcycle crashes occur at signalized intersections located within commercial areas. Slowing all vehicles to safer speeds before signalized intersections – particularly in retail areas – may do a great deal to improve motorcycle safety.
Improving mobility options
Still, the longer-term solution to reducing motorcycle deaths requires thinking more broadly about improving mobility options. Motorcycles are a preferred option for many to get from one point to another where public transport is very poor quality, inaccessible, or nonexistent. In Hanoi, for example, a study showed that employment opportunities are much less accessible by public transport than by motorcycle or car, which explains why Hanoians “like” to use motorcycles instead of public transport. In addition, in Brazil, many travelers use motorcycles instead of public transport due to lower costs or the poor quality of public transport in their city. One study found that overall motorcycle operating costs were 25% lower than bus fares, and 66% lower when considering only fuel costs. And in Pune, India an EMBARQ India study showed that two-thirds of two-wheeler riders surveyed said they used public transport prior to using two-wheelers.
Motorcycles, however, have mobility limitations, especially in larger cities where trips are usually longer and more uncomfortable on two-wheels. Cities may be able to wean residents off motorcycles by building high-quality, integrated transport systems that can move people safety and in a comparable amount of time. Responses to the same EMBARQ study from Pune, India indicated that motorcycle riders would shift to public transport if it were made more reliable, comfortable, frequent, and clean.
Two cities with rising or dominating motorcycle use are taking such steps. Rio de Janeiro has constructed two new bus rapid transit (BRT) corridors and is planning to build two more by 2016. Even in Vietnam – where two and three-wheelers represent almost 100% of the country’s vehicle fleet – Ho Chi Minh City has a new BRT to provide a quality alternative.
Moreover, because many urban trips are short, providing bicycling and walking facilities – like Mexico City is doing, for example – or connecting these modes to mass transport can give residents alternative mobility options. Instead, some cities prioritize motor vehicles and motorcycles over cyclists, such as Kolkata, which banned cyclists on 200 streets outright.
There are many ways that cities can reduce motorcycle accidents, including improving street design and promoting safe, active transport for all. Still, there is a great need for more research, and more attention to motorcycles in cities.