IN FOCUS: The PMD footpath ban a year on - what has changed?
The soaring popularity of e-scooters and other personal mobility devices hit a roadblock when their use on Singapore's footpaths was banned in November last year, amid safety concerns. CNA looks at how the situation has changed since then and whether pavements have become safer.
SINGAPORE: In May last year, former Senior Minister of State for Transport Lam Pin Min said that the Ministry of Transport (MOT) had no plans to ban personal mobility devices (PMDs) from footpaths, citing their usefulness for short trips as well as first-and-last mile journeys.
Such devices were an important part of Singapore’s car-lite vision, he said in Parliament at the time, adding that “graciousness, responsibility and respect” were needed in the sharing of common spaces.
About six months later, MOT would reverse its position.
In November, Dr Lam announced that the use of e-scooters on footpaths would be banned, almost three years after their use on footpaths was made legal under the Active Mobility Act.
This came amid an increasing number of accidents involving such PMDs.
Then-Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan noted at the time that about 300 people were treated in hospital for PMD-related accidents in 2018, based on figures from the National Trauma Registry.
In September last year, 65-year-old cyclist Madam Ong Bee Eng died following a crash with a PMD rider, in what is believed to be the first fatality from a collision with such devices.
In April this year, the footpath ban was extended to other motorised PMDs, such as hoverboards and electric unicycles.
Although they are banned from footpaths, all such devices can still be used on cycling paths and Park Connector Networks.
Cycling paths currently stretch about 440km islandwide, although this is expected to expand to more than 1,300km by 2030.
In comparison, there are about 5,500km of footpaths across Singapore.
“We expected the co-sharing of footpaths to be challenging but were hopeful that with public education, PMD users would be gracious and responsible,” said Dr Lam when he announced the footpath ban in November last year.
“Unfortunately, this was not so.”
Describing the decision on the ban as a difficult one, Dr Lam said it was a “necessary step” to allow pedestrians to feel safe again on public paths, adding that the use of e-scooters could grow together with the development of Singapore’s cycling paths.
WAS IT THE RIGHT MOVE?
PMD advocate Denis Koh described the footpath ban as “appropriate but abrupt”, noting the disruption caused to responsible users as well as those who depended on such devices for work.
“At best, we can have a good solution as opposed to a bad one,” said the chairman of PMD enthusiast group Big Wheel Scooters Singapore.
Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) lecturer Cecilia Rojas, whose research has focused on active mobility, said a longer notice time might have allowed those who used PMDs for work, such as delivery riders, more time to cope with the changes.
Following the announcement of the footpath ban last year, hundreds of riders turned up at the Meet-the-People sessions by various Members of Parliament to voice their concerns about how the ban would affect their livelihoods.
This was later addressed by the S$7 million E-scooter Trade-in Grant, co-funded by the Government and the three major food delivery companies here, which provided riders up to S$1,000 to switch to a bicycle or e-bike.
Mr Koh added that a resulting fall in PMD imports, plus new requirements such as mandatory inspections and theory tests, have made it unattractive to own the devices.
He noted that following the footpath ban, he has switched to using bicycles or even driving more due to the inconvenience of travelling by PMD.
HAS SAFETY IMPROVED?
But has safety on public paths improved as a result of the ban? Statistics suggest that it has.
The Land Transport Authority (LTA) said the number of accidents involving motorised PMDs on footpaths in the first half of this year was 77 per cent lower than the corresponding period last year, with active mobility accidents on public paths dropping by about half over the past year.
Despite the possible impact on Singapore's car-lite ambitions, the ban was a “good price” to pay for improved safety, said Dr Rojas, noting that the ban was not a total one as people are still able to use PMDs on cycling paths.
She suggested that there is room to do more, such as having greater clarity in the markings used to differentiate pathways.
“Better demarcation (between paths) and more signals specifically designed for pedestrians, cyclists, and PMD riders would be great to improve safety,” said Dr Rojas.
There also needs to be greater standardisation between path markings, she said, noting that markings along the Park Connector Network are often different from those on shared paths.
READ: E-scooter accidents drop by 30% after footpath ban; more than S$1b needed to complete cycling path network
“Education, education, education,” said Mr Koh, when asked what else could have been done to address the issue of safety on public paths.
“Ultimately everyone keeps blaming the device instead of the errant rider,” said the former member of the Active Mobility Advisory Panel, which proposes regulations on the safe use of bicycles and PMDs in public places here.
“Remove the PMDs (and) these errant riders will use bicycles, then we will go back to all the complaints about cyclists we had six to eight years ago.”
FALL IN DEMAND
The number of e-scooters has plunged over the past year.
There were about 100,000 registered e-scooters in Singapore last year - in addition to an unknown number of unregistered e-scooters as well as other PMDs.
This number dropped to 67,900 as at the end of May this year.
The decrease came amid an early disposal incentive scheme for e-scooters, introduced last year for devices which do not meet the mandatory UL2272 fire certification standard, as well as the E-scooter Trade-in Grant for food delivery riders.
In addition, all e-scooters which do not meet the UL2272 standard were automatically deregistered as of July 1, 2020, disallowing them from being used in public.
The decrease in the number of e-scooters has moved in tandem with an increase in the number of power-assisted bicycles (PABs) - more commonly known as electric bicycles or e-bikes.
While the e-bike population has barely moved since January 2018 when registration of the devices was made mandatory, their numbers went up slightly this year to about 15,800 as of May - a 16 per cent increase from October last year when their numbers stood at about 13,600.
There has also been a slight increase in the number of e-bike accidents.
Figures from the Traffic Police show that there were 10 road accidents involving e-bikes in the first three months of this year alone, two of which were fatal.
In comparison, there were seven road accidents involving e-bikes during the same period last year.
There were 24 such accidents for the whole of 2019, none of which was fatal.
Mr Koh noted that there is potentially greater risk for the safety of PAB riders as they are only able to ride on cycling paths or roads, where they have to share space with motor vehicles.
IMPACT ON BUSINESSES
Businesses initially impacted by the ban have adapted.
Food delivery services Deliveroo, foodpanda and GrabFood all said they have stopped accepting delivery riders who use PMDs.
“We have not received any complaints or penalties from the government for incidents involving PMD or PAB riders on footpaths,” said a Deliveroo spokesperson.
There has been no impact on delivery times even with the increased demand for deliveries since the COVID-19 outbreak began, said foodpanda logistics head Lim Zheng Gang.
“Alongside the increase in demand for food deliveries, we also saw an increase in rider sign-ups especially during the earlier stages of the circuit breaker. By May this year, we recorded a reliable freelance rider fleet of more than 10,000 riders," said Mr Lim, adding that the company’s dispatch algorithm allows it to anticipate surges in demand.
Another group initially affected by the footpath ban were PMD retailers, some of whom had thousands of devices that could not be sold following the ban.
One of the companies hit was Mobot, which had told the media last year it had about S$1.5 million in unsold stock in its Ubi warehouse.
“Seeing no hope for the local market, we managed to export to overseas business friends on a consignment basis,” said Mobot managing director Ifrey Lai, noting that it was able to get back part of its recovery cost but incurred a “slight loss” in doing so.
“Indeed, we felt that the Government should have given some form of support to retailers, especially those who had invested heavily in the UL2272 certification and/or brought in a lot of stock for the year-end sales,” added Mobot general manager Chew Boon Hur.
“But as a business, we have to move on and find other markets for these UL2272 e-scooters.”
Mobot has since pivoted to focus more on bicycles, which it did not carry before, as well as e-bikes. The company now offers 10 different models of bicycles as well as 12 e-bike models, compared to just one before.
Without providing figures, Mr Chew told CNA that there has been an increase in the sales of both, although he noted that the spike can be attributed to the COVID-19 outbreak.
He said “quite a few” retailers that did not carry e-bikes chose to exit the market.
In line with the ban, LTA also scrapped plans for a PMD-sharing service licence, which saw 12 firms vying to operate under the scheme.
Several of the Singapore-based companies competing for the licence are expanding elsewhere, despite no longer being able to operate in their home market.
QIQ, for example, operates a fleet of shared e-bikes and e-scooters in Hanoi. In August, it told CNA that it hopes to launch a trial of shared electric micro-cars in Singapore by next year.
Other players such as Beam, which raised US$26 million in May, and Neuron Mobility, which raised US$12 million in funding last month, now operate in a number of other countries, including Australia and New Zealand.
Neuron Mobility said that given the COVID-19 crisis, micromobility - a buzzword referring to transport modes such as bicycles and e-scooters - presents a form of individual movement that takes the pressure off public transport and allows people to practise social distancing.
“We started off in Singapore with one of the first rental e-scooter programmes, and subsequently made a strategic decision to concentrate our efforts in Australia and New Zealand (ANZ),” said a Neuron spokesperson.
The two countries have cities highly suited for micromobility in terms of infrastructure and regulations, he said, adding that the city councils have been “keen to push the boundaries of what can be done with technology to make e-scooter programmes better and safer”.
“However, Singapore remains integral to Neuron's business as it is the home of our global headquarters, where we continue to hire a variety of management roles,” said the spokesperson, adding that the company is looking to expand in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.
Not all have been so fortunate.
Singapore-based Telepod - which formed in 2016 as one of the first e-scooter sharing services here - has since shuttered. The firm is now in voluntary liquidation, according to BizFile data.
Last year, both Neuron and Telepod were fined a combined S$54,000 for offering their PMDs for hire in public spaces without a licence or an exemption from the Transport Minister.
Both companies had previously operated in Singapore under an exemption, which allowed their devices to be used without a licence within specific areas under an agreement with land owners.
A FUTURE FOR PMDS IN SINGAPORE?
Mr Koh believes the current regulations will result in a downward spiral in the popularity of PMDs, suggesting that better infrastructure and a more accepting mindset is needed.
“Without a change in culture, we will see the emergence of complaints against bicycles or PABs once again and later, anything on wheels plying the shared paths,” he said.
Education is needed not just on the part of riders, but also the wider community, he said.
Others, however, were more optimistic.
“Some people will still choose PMDs, especially as path connectivity is improved and new modes of active transport will come and we should be prepared for adding them to the current mix,” said Dr Rojas from SUSS.
“Look around the world and you will be able to see people adopting this new, affordable personal mobility transport mode,” said Mobot’s Mr Chew.
It is up to cities to put into place the regulations and infrastructure needed to make the devices work as a mode of transport, he said, adding that he expects more people in Singapore to take to PMDs again as the country’s cycling paths expand.
“Together with the implementation of mandatory inspections, rider theory test and safety education, Singapore will be in a much better position to embrace this new mode of transport in the near future,” said Mr Chew.
Dr Rojas said the authorities need to stay on their toes to deal with evolving types of commuting, describing transport planning as a “constantly challenging game”.
“The modes of transport will keep changing. Now we have PMDs, but with the advance of technology, there might be other modes that we'll need to deal with and accommodate (in Singapore’s limited space),” she said.