I'm an out-and-out petrolhead. My regular mode of transport is a
WRX. Fun as it is, it's
not all that sensible a vehicle for the daily commute. It's
relatively thirsty for a small vehicle, requires the more-expensive
premium fuel, and the expensive tyres don't
last particularly long. Add to this an extra AUD3.30 (about 2 USD) in
parking fees, and you're starting to chew up serious cash. It gets
me to work in about 25-30 minutes if I avoid traffic -- more like 45 minutes at peak hour, though.
So to public transport. I live in the inner suburbs,
not more than 4 kilometres from the centre of the city. I have two tram
(light rail) lines approximately five minutes walk from my house, and a
heavy rail line perhaps another minute away. There is a train station
at my destination, which is about six or so kilometres from the
city. Should be perfect, right?
Unfortunately, things don't work out so well in practice. The train
only runs every twenty minutes or so, so you have to be very disciplined
to leave home at exactly the right time or you'll be facing a twenty
minute wait for a train. Worse, I have to change trains in the city.Whichever train I take, there is at least a fifteen minute wait
on the changeover. Therefore, my short train journey usually takes
over an hour! The light rail runs slightly more often, but the
slowness of its journey into the city (and the same wait for a train)
makes it even slower.
So public transport was out. What about a motorcycle? They're still a bit expensive to keep running. Bicycle? Within feasible
range, probably, but with a substantial hill on every
conceivable route to work I'm not sure I'd want to do it every day.
In the end I bought myself a second-hand moped for 1500AUD (about 900 USD). It's
made by a Taiwanese company with a charmingly homespun website,
Rotary Bicycle. They sell complete machines, and also conversion kits for existing bicycles.
Essentially, the machine is a contemporary mountain bike, with front
suspension, the usual derailleur gears (though only three cogs on the
back) except for the rear wheel assembly. The usual wire-spoked wheel
has been replaced by a thickly-spoked steel wheel with
a 30cc two-stroke engine in the middle. The only extra
controls are a combination on-off switch and choke on the left, and a
twist-grip throttle on the right, just like a motorcycle. It's a
pull-start, but your grandmother wouldn't have any trouble with it, and
it starts first or second pull on most occasions.
Under Australian regulations, mopeds are restricted to 200 watts
maximum engine power, and 25km/h maximum speeds. Yes, it's not hard to ride a bicycle faster than that, and indeed you can pedal it over the 25 km/h mark for a short time. It's not a great bicycle, though. It's heavy and the wide, treaded tyres sap energy when you rely exclusively on pedal power. You're
allowed to ride them anywhere you can ride a bicycle, and you don't
need to register them or to get a motorcycle license.
Riding the machine is quite straightforward -- if you can ride a bicycle,
this won't be much of a problem. You pedal it just like you would a normal
bike, and when you want assistance from the motor you just twist the throttle.
You need to pedal a couple of times to move off from rest, but once that's
done it'll go at the maximum legislated speed on flat ground without
any assistance. It'll climb slight grades without having to pedal. If things get a little steeper, you'll have to do some work.
However, the effort required is very much reduced from what you'd have
to do on a normal bicycle. Without getting
out of my seat or working up a sweat I can continue up a hill at nearly
full speed. The regular cyclists, meanwhile, are puffing their way up in
granny gear (barely above walking pace).
Traffic safety was a major concern when I bought the bike. In practice
there are bike lanes along most of the route, which drivers usually respect.
The biggest issue is probably drivers opening their doors straight
into the bike lane. I keep a very watchful eye open for that. In any
case, the lower speeds should reduce the risk of injury when compared
with a motorcycle.
In the end, the journey on the moped takes approximately 35 minutes - 10
minutes longer than by car, but much, much faster than public
transport. At peak hour I can generally zip up the bike lanes
unimpeded. If I'm not in a hurry, I can take the scenic route on the
recreational bike trails through the parks and wildlife reserves of the
River. And, best of all, I can ride it to a bike parking spot
right next to the door of my workplace, and park it there for free.
It has a 2 litre (less than 1/2 gallon) fuel tank, and that lasts for
more than 100 kilometres. You need to mix in a little 2-stroke oil. I filled a 10 litre (2 and a bit gallon) jerry can with fuel mix three weeks ago, and
there's still plenty left in it.
I have no intention of riding it on rainy days - I'll either take the
car or public transport, and I'm not sure how I'll go on cold (by
Australian standards - still well above freezing) winter mornings.
But even if I ride it to work two days a week, that's going to cut my
overall fuel bill by more than a third.
Now, obviously a moped isn't going to be the solution for everybody.
If the commute was a little flatter, a stock-standard bicycle would
probably be the solution. A little further and a fully-fledged
motor scooter or commuter motorcycle would probably be necessary. The point is that there are alternatives out there to driving to work every day. They can save you serious money and, as a bonus, help the environment.