The true cost of motorcycling to society

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Published on 16 January 2020 by Mike Waters

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Filed under Category: Features

As a controversial report arguing that motorcycles are the most costly form of transport to society causes uproar, Mike Waters finds it’s not that simple…

An influential report published by the Dutch consultancy firm CE Delft on behalf of the European Commission – ‘Sustainable Transport Infrastructure Charging and Internalisation of Transport Externalities’, to give it its full title – has concluded that “due to relatively high noise and accident costs”, motorcycles are the most expensive form of transport for society by far.

As might be expected, this conclusion has proven highly contentious. Future decisions on taxes and tolls for motorcycles will be made with this report in mind, so this is no mere academic exercise. Because of that, both this report and the fundamental issue it is focusing on – the true costs of different modes of transport to society with all things considered – deserve a much closer look. 

motorcycle 2186589 1920 1The fundamentals
Simply put, there are two kinds of transport costs: internal and external. Internal costs are the direct kind that the user pays up front, such as buying the bike, fuelling it, gear and so on. External costs are the indirect kind that wider society ultimately covers somehow, such as building and maintaining roads, road policing and traffic management, public health costs from injuries or pollution and so on. This report looked at seven categories of external costs, which were accidents, noise, air pollution, climate, well-to-tank emissions, congestion and habitat damage.

These seven categories were balanced against each other. Motorcycles are famously good ways to prevent or beat congestion and are very competitive when it comes to pollution too but, with the external costs from accidents and noise being so high, these benefits are greatly outweighed and the report’s authors found that motorcycles are right at the top of the chart with a societal cost of €0.24/pkm – double that of cars. This begs the question: are the external costs of motorcycling to wider society so huge that motorcycling itself is not in society’s best interests? 

motorcycle 2186592 1920Hang on a minute…
But the assumptions this report’s arguments rest on deserve some attention, as the Federation of European Motorcyclists’ Associations’ Dolf Willigers was quick to point out in a rebuttal to the report. His rebuttal, which can be found in full on the FEMA website here, focussed on two key points.

Firstly, Willigers argues that one of the report’s major assumptions has an equally major problem. It is a grim fact that motorcyclists are indeed sometimes killed and injured in accidents and, logically, the involvement of the emergency services, healthcare system and other expenses will occur as a result. That’s not in dispute, but what causes those accidents in the first instance? In many cases, and perhaps even in most depending on where you live, the cause of the accident was likely a car, van or lorry driver hitting the biker or some other factor completely outside the biker’s control. However, Willigers states that the report attributed all of these costs to the biker even though the fault was probably in no way theirs – a textbook case of blaming the victim – and he notes that “The fact that costs are allocated to victims instead of perpetrators is strange and wrong in our view”. 

Secondly, his critique of the report’s coverage of noise-related issues questions the integrity of the study’s sources. Noise is considered a factor in calculating external costs because it causes stress, prompts the soundproofing of buildings and so on, but how is the financial cost of all this calculated, exactly? This is a complex issue, with what counts as ‘excessive’ noise being famously difficult to pin down and varying from person to person at different times of the day, and rigorous scientific findings would be helpful. However, Willigers noted that statistics for motorcycles and mopeds in one source were stated to be “based on our own expert guess”. This leads Willigers to simply conclude that “the figures about noise prove to be made up by the author of the report”.

mountains 844871 1920Good faith, bad thinking
While these are serious criticisms indeed, let’s be charitable and take the view that this report is indeed a sincere attempt in good faith to grapple with a huge, complicated problem. Even so, there are two even larger issues with it that arise not because of things it might have got wrong somehow, but because of things it doesn’t consider at all.

The first is a common sense comparing-apples-and-oranges error. The report found that motorcycling has the highest external costs to society and maritime shipping has the lowest. Even if that happens to be true, comparing a motorcycle and a ship in this context is meaningless because they are used for entirely different purposes. A ship can move vast amounts of people or cargo economically at sea, but it’s completely useless on land. They may indeed have the lowest external cost to society, but is everyone really supposed to crush their bikes and commute by freighter instead? That’s like curing a headache by jumping into a volcano – yes, it will work by the strictest definition of the words, but that’s not the only thing to consider.

The second, and greater, problem with the report is a pitfall known as McNamara’s fallacy. Sometimes also known as the quantitative fallacy, it is a mental trap that scientists, doctors and analysts take great care to avoid. It is named after Robert McNamara, the US Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War, who believed that the path to victory in the chaotic jungle conflict lay through decisions based on mathematics – X many soldiers can patrol Y many square miles, for example. That’s not a terrible idea in itself, but his mistake came from taking it much too far. By obsessing on what he could measure, McNamara either deliberately ignored or accidentally missed things that he couldn’t track on a chart but which were still crucial – like, say, the determination of the communists to keep fighting no matter how many soldiers per Y square miles were sent after them.

sunrise 3563339 1920This report has fallen into the same trap. It has measured and considered seven factors which are indeed important, but only those seven. What about all the other things that can’t be easily measured – and might not even be physically ‘real’ – but still matter when it comes to calculating the true impact of motorcycles to society? How many lost days of productivity due to stress-related illnesses have been avoided by bikers having a relaxing ride of a weekend or unwinding on the ride home after a tough day? How are we to calculate the monetary worth of all the lives saved by volunteer Blood Bikers or motorcycle-riding paramedics? What crimes have been prevented by motorcycle-riding police officers before they could happen and so never made it onto official statistics? It is impossible to answer these essentially hypothetical questions in a monetary figure broken down by person/kilometre, but their answers all matter and they formed no part of this report at all. 

A broken equation
So where does this leave us? Well, right back where we started with a lot of wasted time, effort, money and paper. If calculating a truly accurate financial figure for the external costs of motorcycling to wider society is even possible at all, and it probably isn’t, this report definitely doesn’t have the right answer. Yes, motorcycles have external costs to society just like everything does, but this report mistakes the end of the spreadsheet for the extent of the issue and forgets to look up at the real world where ‘cost’ and ‘value’ aren’t the same thing. It has failed to do what it set out to achieve, so everyone’s none the wiser. Better luck next time.


This article originally appeared in the Autumn 2019 edition of BMF Motorcycle Rider.

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