Two wheels to freedom: Melbourne’s motorcycle commuters
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They offer fun, freedom and an easier commute, so why aren’t more people riding motorcycles in Melbourne?
Story: Nick Place. Photos: Kim Tonelli and Shannon Morris
It seems like a no-brainer. Why sit in the ‘car parks’ that are Melbourne’s freeways and arterial roads in peak hour, when you could ditch that stationary car for a motorbike and beat the queues?
Many Asian cities flow with a river of motorbikes and you can’t help but think that Melbourne, with its wide and mostly flat streets and clear road rules and traffic lights, could be a scooter and bike city, instead of one dominated by cars.
But according to figures from the Victorian Motorcycle Council, only 0.5 per cent of peak-hour traffic on the Bolte Bridge is two wheeled.
Research conducted for the RACV even suggests that most motorcyclists use their bikes to commute sometimes, rather than always – just seven per cent nominate the motorbike as their main mode of transport.
‘Everything I do, I can do on a bike but in a fraction of the time and in an unplanned manner.’
Motorcycles are cheap to run and offer a freedom you won’t find with four wheels or public transport.
Anaesthetist Jennifer Reilly moved to Melbourne from Newcastle last year and realised her daily orbit was mostly going to be inner-city. So she bought herself a Vespa and now parks right outside the Alfred Hospital’s front door.
“It was the fun factor really,” Jennifer says. “The smile factor. It had to be a Vespa, and it had to be black. Everything I do, I can do on a bike but in a fraction of the time and in an unplanned manner.”
‘It is like a fire within me. It starts to affect me if I haven’t been for a ride for a while.’
Jacinta Siracusa has been riding for 15 years and has turned her love of motorbikes into a popular Instagram persona, @moto_doll. She has more than 35,000 followers, but that’s not why she rides. “It is like a fire within me,” she says. “I need to do it and it starts to affect me if I haven’t been for a ride for a while. It clears my mind. When I ride I’m not worrying about anything but the road.”
Jeremy Walton had no real interest in motorbikes and had caught the train into the city for work for most of his professional life. Then he took a job in Wantirna, met a few colleagues who rode, and decided to give it a try. At the age of 45, he bought his first motorbike and now, a few years later, is secretary of the Victorian Motorcycle Council.
As of 6 July 2018, there were 194,824 motorcycles registered in Victoria, a 51 per cent increase in registrations since 2006.
All three riders talk about the joy of “filtering” – which is being allowed to legally weave your way to the front of traffic at a red light, so that you sail away, first in the queue, when the lights go green – and all talk about the freedom they feel on their motorbikes.
It’s an enthusiasm that is catching on. VicRoads statistics reveal that, as of 6 July 2018, there were 194,824 motorcycles registered in Victoria; a 51 per cent increase in registrations since 2006. Research conducted on behalf of the RACV suggests that most commuters ride less than 20 kilometres to and from their work and that fun (45 per cent) and freedom (14 per cent) are the main reasons people ride, well ahead even of avoiding traffic/congestion (seven per cent) and ease of getting around (six per cent).
The RACV research, conducted by Starburst Insights, also suggests that motorcycle riders value the social aspect of being a rider, while scooter riders love the cheap maintenance, low fuel costs and the ability to park anywhere there’s a footpath.
And yet, despite the increase in interest in motorbikes, most of us have not bought into the movement. Is it fear? Motorcyclists surveyed for the RACV cited poor car-driver awareness, distracted drivers on mobile phones, lack of respect from cars, poor road quality, tram tracks and bad weather as key issues facing those on two wheels.
RACV mobility advocacy manager Dave Jones says it is “vital for all drivers on the road, no matter their vehicle, to remember the need for mutual care, because everybody is somebody’s husband, or sister, or child”.
Jacinta Giansiracusa is a lead rider for women's social riding group The Litas.
‘A little bingle between two vehicles may be nothing if a driver makes a mistake. However, the crash could be fatal if one of them is a rider.’
“Motorbikes, including scooters, are a practical and sensible choice for some commuters,” Dave says. “In metropolitan Melbourne, around 10,000 people ride to work on their motorcycles each day. We would say that all road users need to look out for each other.
“Motorbike riders, like bicycle riders and pedestrians, are quite vulnerable in traffic. Car, truck and bus drivers need to be constantly alert, and watch out for riders when changing lanes and turning. A little bingle between two vehicles may be nothing if a driver makes a mistake. However, the crash could be fatal if one of them is a rider.”
Over the past decade, there has been an annual average of 41 deaths among Victorian motorcyclists (2017’s figure of 38 fatalities was seven per cent down on the average). TAC claims data shows that 1316 motorcyclists were admitted to hospital in 2017, a rise of 39 per cent on a decade before, but that needs to be balanced against the 50,000-plus extra riders on our roads today.
Without air bags, seatbelts, crumple zones or a car around them, motorcyclists are vulnerable, and protective clothing, boots and gloves are essential. Worryingly, Dave Jones says RACV data suggests some scooter riders are opting for fashion ahead of protection.
All the riders we spoke to were acutely aware of their need to manage their visibility and to be alert for car-driver behaviour, especially distracted drivers.
“I think I ride sensibly,” Jennifer says. “I work at the Alfred Hospital, so I see the trauma from major accidents every day. People’s lives are radically changed and often through no fault of their own. I bring that knowledge to my approach to riding.”
Jennifer rarely takes her Vespa out when it’s raining, has decided there will be times where she will leave the scooter overnight if conditions concern her, and is content to creep slowly along, on wet roads and around tram tracks, when required.
‘Are you going to live your life in cotton wool? It’s about not being stupid and riding within your skill set.’
As @moto_doll, Jacinta projects an image of a strong, confident rider, and she is, acting as a lead rider for social rides with women’s biker group The Litas, but she also readily recalls her earliest days of riding, when she would spend hours in the evening, in the quiet backstreets of Doncaster, practising gear changes and leans, and getting a feel for the heaviness of her first bike (a Kawasaki 250cc) and different braking strengths.
“If you take precautions, learn how to ride, train the skills and responses, you can minimise your risk,” she said. “Are you going to live your life in cotton wool? I’m not invincible and it does hurt when you come off, but it’s about not being stupid and riding within your skill set.”
Jeremy still begins every single ride by practising his emergency braking repeatedly in the first kilometre or so, refreshing muscle memory. He is a huge believer in planning your route, especially as an inexperienced rider, so you don’t encounter difficult intersections or other situations outside your skill set.
Motorcycle riding is not totally safe and never will be. But it’s probably not as dangerous as you think.
As a rookie rider, Jeremy worked out where he could ride onto the Eastern Freeway and off again at the next exit without having to merge lanes, to get used to the speed and the amount of traffic. If you have existing road sense, as a car driver, it transfers to reading traffic ahead and driver behaviour.
All three riders recommend starting slowly, never riding outside your comfort zone – not trying to keep up with accomplished riders on bigger bikes, on a weekend ride for example – and wearing the correct gear. Like driving a car, motorcycle riding is not totally safe and never will be. But it’s probably not as dangerous as you think, if you’re smart about it. And your commute time can be sliced. What’s not to like?
Freedom awaits – the choice is yours.
It’s impossible to define the perfect ‘starter motorbike’ because there are so many individual factors, such as the size of the rider and the reason for riding.
Today’s laws regarding suitable bikes for new riders are all about power-to-weight ratios, so that learner riders are on limited power, as defined by the Learner Approved Motorcycle Scheme (LAMS) guidelines, no matter how big their bike.
If you plan to ride on a freeway or cruise to Daylesford on a weekend, you need a heavier, mid-sized bike, while inner-city commuting lends itself to a scooter.
Here are a few popular options, if you’re revving up for the first time:
Honda Grom (125cc): Super cheap to run, and distinctive looking with its small wheels, this is a cult lightweight favourite mixing mini sport bike with scooter sensibilities. ($4000*) hondagrom.com.au
Kawasaki Ninja (300cc or 400cc): This is a bigger, mid-sized superbike design but with learners in mind. It’s heavy enough for freeway riding, and loaded with ABS braking, good suspension and other features. ($6000*) kawasaki.com.au
Honda CB500: Aimed at learner riders, as a perfect balance of commuter bike and weekend cruiser ($8000*). motorcycles.honda.com.au
Vespa Primavera (125cc or 150cc): This classic has been made over, adding a 200-millimetre disc brake, ABS and better front suspension. ($6000*) vespa.com.au