Electric unicycles, minifarthings and the future of urban transport

Is this our transport future? If the regulatory and safety issues are ironed out, many more of us could be boarding personal mobility devices for short commutes. Nelson Pavlosky

Whether we like it or not, there is a pecking order on the road. At the top, either high performance sports cars or the massive B-double freight trucks reign supreme. On the lower rungs, pedestrians and cyclists vie for the last place in transport planning.

And somewhere near the bottom, perhaps a rung or two above pedestrians and cyclists, you’ll find motorised mobility scooters (gophers), the Segway personal transporter, and a variety of not-so-acceptable and not-so-well-known electric-motored mobility devices. But these devices could be the answer to an intractable challenge: getting people out of their cars for short trips.

Personal mobility devices, or PMDs, are worth a fresh look as a solution to urban travel. You just need to search on Google or Youtube to find a range of PMDs being promoted. These can be characterised as:

Many people – including most road users and many road transport officials and researchers - have no idea how many PMDs are available. People have heard of electric bikes and mopeds, and motorised mobility scooters are now common across Australian suburbia, but few have given serious thought to PMDs as a transport option.

Why are PMDs interesting transport alternatives?

A PMD rider can travel short distances quickly. The electric-powered devices are reasonably environmentally friendly, an alternative to using a diesel or petrol-driven personal motor vehicle for short trips: based on similar costs for charging an electric bike, it is estimated that the monthly cost for charging a PMD for short trip distances will be less than $5. Portable PMDs can be easily integrated with public transport, making public transport more appealing if there’s a long walk to the closest bus stop.

So PMDs may address one of the key challenges in transport planning: reducing private car use for trips of less than 5km. For as much as we might think it desirable, people are reluctant to walk the “first and last mile”. These journeys are most commonly made by private car, contributing to congestion, road safety risks, reduced air quality, and poor community amenity.

Transport planners are looking for ways to reduce the peak Robyn Jay

The 2010/2011 NSW Household Travel Survey revealed that for trips of 1-2km, 67% were made by car either as a driver or as passenger, while only 25% were walked or cycled. For trips of 2-5km, 78% were made by car compared to less than 6% walking and cycling. In an average weekday, 48% of drivers used their cars for distances shorter than 5km.

But there are more reasons to use PMDs than saving fuel and reducing emissions. For most people, daily travel coincides with periods of high demand on the road transport system. These “peak hours” now extend for several hours and often result in severe localised congestion. Using public transport combined with PMDs for those first and last few kilometres of the daily commute could significantly reduce journey travel times and congestion.

Cool and fun, sure; but realistic?

Novel solutions to personal mobility face major hurdles: regulatory, safety and usability. And there is no Australian evidence which considers the viability of PMDs. We have been working with the City of Ryde to start providing this evidence.

We are looking at the legislative, policy, social and infrastructure issues that will need to be addressed if these kinds of vehicles are to be allowed for use.

Works great in the showroom - how about on the street? exo_duz/Flickr

A looming issue is the safety of PMDs, manifest in debates about speed limiting. Are the Australian Road Rules for mobility devices - which state they must not be capable of travelling at more than 10km/h on flat ground - appropriate? For PMDs not fitted with a speedometer, how realistic is it to comply with the road rules?

Another critical safety issue is the interaction of PMDs with pedestrians and cyclists. How do pedestrians and cyclists react, if at all, to the presence of PMDs and their passage in close shared spaces? How do PMD riders interact with other persons who may have mobility or sensory impairments?

And really, how useable are these devices in practice? Are they too heavy or too bulky to be a fully “portable” device that can be taken onto a bus or train? Can a PMD rider safely carry a laptop, bag or shopping when moving? Are there panniers for storage of a helmet? Can a PMD be locked up safely and left while a rider goes shopping or to work? Can a PMD be fitted with a cover to screen the sun or light rain?

Does riding a particular PMD require too much training, as after all, learning to use many PMD types may not be at all like riding a bike! And are PMDs usable by the majority of our population, or just the athletic, adventurous or those with a great sense of balance?

With this information, a novel, practical and legal mode of travel around the city may emerge.

This article was co-authored by Monica Zarafu, Project Manager, Personal Mobility Device Trial Research, Macquarie-Ryde Futures Partnership. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the City of Ryde.