Bikers Look to Make Money and Save Lives

MTA biker with Moto-Taxi, Moscow's first motorbike taxi service, ferrying a client across town. If a client wants to go to the airport, an extra bike carries luggage.
As Moscow's traffic grinds to a halt, only one form of transport can slip through the jams: motorbikes. And dedicated bikers are promoting this advantage as a way to save time -- and lives.

Four years ago, Vladimir Minin waited 40 minutes for an ambulance after his motorbike crashed into a water truck. The traffic policemen at the scene smoked cigarettes and chatted as he lay with his legs crushed, he said.

The accident didn't put him off motorbikes. He went on to ride around the world in a solo trip. But it gave him an idea. And he is now lobbying for a new paramedic service -- with trained first-aid specialists on bikes.

His case wasn't unusual. More than half of those killed in car accidents never even reach a hospital. "In Russia, by the time the ambulance arrives, there isn't anyone to save," Minin said.

Minin thinks that he has a solution: trained paramedics on motorbikes who would patrol accident-prone areas with lifesaving equipment such as defibrillators. "This simply doesn't exist in Russia," he said.

Traffic jams can be fatal for victims of traffic accidents. A study by the World Health Organization found that the victims survive in 90 percent of cases where they receive qualified help within nine minutes of a road accident. But the survival rate percentage plummets to 15 percent if help arrives within 19 minutes.

Minin said he came up with the idea after his own accident but said he has so far has been ignored by officials.

The 28-year-old biker proposed to the Emergency Situations Ministry that it hire an experimental brigade of 10 paramedics this summer and drew up a business plan.

"I said to them, guys, I'm ready to work for free and launch a test project," Minin said.

Minin said he talked to Christian Kremer, the president of BMW Russia, and agreed to a provisional deal on bikes and driving lessons. But he is still waiting for an official answer from the ministry.

"Unfortunately, it isn't really working out," he said. "I need to get support from the government. I sent all the materials to the Emergency Situations Ministry -- there is no answer."

Minin is far from a stereotypical biker. He runs a baby clothing business with his wife and says he doesn't drink or take drugs.

"The culture is developing very quickly here," he said. "It used to be rockers, punks and alcoholics, an anti-culture. But now, people live very much in harmony."

Motorbikes can travel through traffic far more quickly than cars or ambulances, Minin said. The trip from his home in the Moscow region town of Odintsovo to central Moscow takes 20 minutes by motorbike, he said. By car, it takes 1 1/2 hours. "Ambulances take an average of an hour to arrive. It should be 15 minutes," Minin said.

The head of Moscow's main ambulance station, Nikolai Plavunov, told Moskovsky Komsomolets last year that 85 percent of ambulances arrive within the official guideline of 20 minutes. A written request to Plavunov to comment for this report went unanswered.

For MT
After waiting 40 minutes for an ambulance, Vladimir Minin, above, wants to place trained paramedics on motorbikes.
The Emergency Situations Ministry does own some motorbikes, but they are "terrible" Russian-made bikes with sidecars, Minin said. "They're not maneuverable, and they use a lot of gas," he said. "They're not suitable for this task."

He added that officials had told him off the record that many of the bikes are damaged or rusting and are not used.

Yevgeny Bobylyov, a spokesman for the ministry's Moscow branch, said emergency workers do not use motorbikes in Moscow.

Paramedics on motorbikes should be brought in not only in Moscow but in all of Russia's large cities, Minin said.

Road fatalities nationwide last year jumped last year to 33,308, Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov said in February. President Dmitry Medvedev said in a speech last year that almost 60 percent of those who die on Russia's roads never reached a hospital.

"Every year, it's like a war," Minin said.

Reducing the number of road deaths is the aim of a federal program for which the government has earmarked more than 52 billion rubles ($2 billion). Its 2012 target is to cut road fatalities by a third compared to 2004 figures.

Nevertheless, motorbikes have a major drawback: They cannot be used in winter. The generally accepted motorbike season lasts only three months, and for that reason motorbikes are more often used as expensive toys than as a means of transportation.

But the situation is changing.

This spring, 24-year-old biker Maxim Nochovny founded the city's first motorbike taxi service, Moto-Taxi, whose slogan is: "Only planes are faster than us." He aims to run the service from April to October.

Passengers sit pillion with the driver and must wear a helmet and gloves. If they order a taxi to the airport, an extra bike can carry their suitcase.

Arriving for an interview last week, Nochovny peeled off his helmet and balaclava and unzipped his jacket before talking. "It's so hot, you can't imagine," he admitted.

Nochovny said he has ridden bikes "since childhood." He trained as a mechanic and then studied economics and is now taking law classes.

The idea for the company dawned on him after seeing motorbike taxis in Thailand. "We wanted to bring this into everyday life and show people that it's not as scary as it sounds," Nochovny said.

Business is light so far, with up to six fares a day. The company also does courier work. Nochovny said he has around 20 friends working for him as part-time drivers.

"We all have higher education, and we're all cultured people," he said. "We follow the traffic rules."

Most clients order bikes for fun at weekends, birthdays or proms, and around 60 percent of clients are young women, Nochovny said. "Boys don't feel so comfortable riding pillion."

"We thought it would be businessmen who are always hurrying to get somewhere, but it's all types of people," said Alexander Zhirnov, a tanned biker in a net vest who said he earns a living primarily as a dance teacher. "Sometimes it's tourists who want to have a ride round the city."

A motorbike taxi can travel from Moscow's southern outskirts to the northern edge in 30 minutes and from central Moscow to Sheremetyevo airport in 30 to 40 minutes, Nochovny said.

So far his company has only one competitor in Moscow, a scooter-taxi service, but there are already two motorbike taxi firms in St. Petersburg.

"Motorbike taxis are becoming more popular every day," Nochovny said. "People understand that it's not so dangerous, and it's becoming quite acceptable."