Skills, Phenomenology, and Motorcycles: Why following rules, then forgetting them and taking risks makes you a better rider.


In high income Western countries, limited policy development has defined motorcycles as a road safety problem with minor road user benefits. The overriding narrative is motorcycles are unsafe; regulate for this safety risk.

It seems that motorcycles are the invisible mode in transport policy. Their use is too small to have a serious impact on the big transport issues of traffic congestion, vehicle emissions, accessibility, land use integration and the like. If it wasn’t for a bad road safety record and the resulting trauma, motorcycles and their riders would, it seems, not be included in transport policy.

To explore this idea, as a case study, let's look at how a modern transport strategy deals with motorcycling in a large Western city.



If you do a simple search of the UK government website with the keyword motorcycle, on the first few pages of the search query returns, you’ll get a list of mostly travel advice, motorcycle training URLs, and how-to information on gaining a license, with the odd report on user casualties. So far not much policy relating to motorcycles.

But maybe this is not a good way to assess how motorcycles and motorcycling is covered in UK transport planning and policy making. Maybe a review at the regional or local scale will be a better way to investigate motorcycles in transport policy. Luckily, London City recently undertook consultation on their draft Mayor's Transport Strategy, London, June 2017 (draft for public consultation).

The London Mayor's Transport Strategy is an interesting strategy, a comprehensive and coherent document that provides clear policy direction for transport across London. In essence, it’s your typical modern Western city transport strategy with an emphasis on reducing car journeys, particularly certain types of low occupancy vehicle trips, and increasing active travel along with public transport. Transport planners seek this objective primarily through a concept they call mode shift. For London, the core justification for this mode shift objective is an overarching health goal, The Healthy Streets Approach, which is a little unusual as transport strategies for modern Western cities are usually grounded in concepts like accessibility and integration.  

 “The success of London’s future transport system relies upon reducing Londoners’ dependency on cars in favour of increased walking, cycling and public transport use.” p.18


“[a] new type of thinking is required to put into practice the theory of reducing car dependency and increasing active and sustainable travel. It requires an understanding of how Londoners interact with their city and what defines their quality of life, with particular attention to the streets where daily life plays out.” p.36

As a positive, the draft Strategy has a section dedicated to motorcycles; the negative, it’s largely a safety policy position. The Strategy has motorcycles classified as private vehicles for personnel trips and therefore motorcycle use should be reduced or replaced by active and sustainable modes. Fair enough, that’s being consistent. Motorcycles are also classified as a health hazard. An objective analysis of road crash statistics supports this conclusion but the Strategy fails to provide a balanced assessment of all the benefits of two wheel transport. That’s a shame. However, the Strategy’s list of safety policy objectives seem reasonable and are certainly very important. One encouraging statement is found on the promotion of motorcycles for low-impact freight and service trips. Sadly, overall motorcycle travel seems to be misunderstood, given little analysis, and generally defined by road safety statistics.



Based on the professional nature of UK transport policy, public planning for motorcycles should be well formed and representative of other countries with similar planning legislation and liberal democratic governmental institutions. Like most modern, high income countries, the UK has a comprehensive set of transport policies on accessibility and mobility, land use, freight movement, sustainable and active travel, public transport, local transport, transport technologies, infrastructure, and climate change, to name most of the main policy areas. For the institutions setup to manage public goods through establishing and enacting legislation, funding public infrastructure and running policy programmes, motorcycling is all too often framed by a single issue definition. Few transport planners, and policy makers, it appears, see value in motorcycles as a mode of transport. Moreover, anyone who has travelled in low income countries has witnessed the value of motorcycles as a mode of transport (noting the obviously different economic and social factors at play here). And many people in high income countries choose to ride motorcycles to work, school or for fun, so there must be tangible benefits for them, based on the theory that voluntary consumption by each individual delivers a net benefit*, assuming most riders can choose some other transport mode like car, public transport, walk, or bicycle.

Now, road safety for motorcyclists is an important issue. Riding your motorcycle to work is significantly more dangerous than taking the bus. For example, recent analysis in 2015 by the New Zealand Transport Agency shows the risk of a motorcyclist being killed or seriously injured is about 21 times higher than for a car driver, when taking into account distance travelled (in short, motorcyclists on average travel less distance per crash and due to their vulnerability are more likely to be injured).

As a proportion of all trips by all types of vehicles, motorcycles in many high income countries make very few trips. In the UK it’s 1-2%; about the same for New Zealand. It’s easy to see why transport planners largely ignore motorcycles. It appears their only significant contribution is through terrible road safety statistics. This may be a fair conclusion when based on an assessment of motorcycle modeshare and kilometres travelled, two key metrics used by transport planners to measure the contribution of vehicles to the transport system. However, this simple two metric analysis provides a limited understanding of the potential benefits from motorcycle travel and, in many ways, devalues this means of transport. A more sophisticated analysis of the role for motorcycles is needed.

For example, motorcyclists don’t put too much additional demands on public funding for new infrastructure like, for example, the important ongoing need to provide for separate or properly engineered cycling and walking paths. Motorcycles can easily use the same type, and current allocation, of road space as cars, buses, taxis and trucks, and use this space more efficiently. Parking space for motorcycles is a good example of this, using less than cars. When you consider the low occupancy rates of cars used for journey to work trips, often with only one person per car, and where work destination parking is in short supply and expensive to fund, motorcycles come out okay in comparison to private cars, but certainly not as good as public transport or walking.



Areas where motorcycle advocates could argue for additional consideration include certain types of road infrastructure and maintenance (e.g., better designed guard rail and safety barriers, parking design, road markings, location of road side furniture, drainage channels and inspection covers), integration use policies on priority allocation of road space (use of bus and high occupancy vehicle lanes), intelligent transport systems (use of information & communication technology to manage traffic flows, parking allocation, road safety, etc) and the positive role motorcycles can play in road pricing schemes. Reducing road trauma, and the associated social costs, and making motorcycling safer is also an important objective.

A clear objective is finding a way to include motorcycles in public policy, making them a visible policy objective to ensure transport policy doesn’t reduce this mode to a single issue, road safety problem. And considering the future of modern transport, such as electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles, the sharing economy, AI and mobile technology, road pricing, etc, there’s value in considering how motorcycles and their riders fit into this mix.


* It is possible that voluntary consumption may not result in a net benefit to the consumer in every case. The voluntary consumer can easily underestimated the costs of riding a motorcycle or, on the other hand, overestimated the benefits and this would result in a net dis-benefit; the consumption (riding a motorcycle) is therefore harmful to the individual. However, it also seems clear that no outside observer can easily know this. What looks like over consumption of a risky activity to an outside observer might, in fact, be optimal consumption by the ‘risk taker’ based on their extreme liking for the activity, their assessment of the risk, their level of skill, etc. Also, alternatively it may look to an outsider that a person is under consuming an activity. They don’t partake in the activity because, for example, they haven’t experienced the joy of riding, the freedom it brings, shorter travel times, and therefore give up benefits due to their risk adverse lifestyle choice. That is, the consumer may be unaware of all the benefits. Clearly consumers can make mistakes in both directions, under or over estimate both costs and benefits. However, an outside observer cannot easily know, based on observing the voluntary consumption, whether a mistake is being made and in which direction. A best course of action is to therefore assume voluntary consumption results in a net benefit (otherwise the consumption wouldn’t occur especially if other travel substitutes are freely available).