The Big Read: E-scooter footpath ban — lessons from the PMD saga and where to go from here
The task of tackling the PMD scourge is the latest regulatory headache confronting Singapore’s transport policymakers.
SINGAPORE: It came swiftly and with little warning.
On Nov 4, the authorities declared that electric scooters - which have become a fixture of Singapore’s streets in recent years - would be barred from footpaths the next day.
Even as pedestrians cheered, the news set off a furore among many users of the ubiquitous “e-scooters”, as they are known in the city-state. The loudest protests came from 7,000 or so food-delivery riders whose jobs depended on these vehicles.
In the past fortnight, they have taken their objections to Members of Parliament (MPs) - with riders turning up in the hundreds on at least one occasion - venting their frustrations at meet-the-people and dialogue sessions. Petitions against the ban have also been started, with one drawing more than 25,000 signatures.
READ: E-scooter riders gather to voice frustration over ban at Meet-the-People session in Ang Mo Kio
In an effort to soothe concerns, the Government, along with three major food-delivery firms, unveiled a S$7 million grant to help riders switch to other vehicles.
Those who trade in their e-scooters will each receive up to S$1,000 to switch to electric bicycles (or e-bikes) or personal mobility aids meant for the less mobile, such as mobility scooters. For those wishing to switch to a bicycle, the grant is up to S$600.
E-bikes may be used on roads, while bicycles are allowed on footpaths and roads. By contrast, e-scooters are now confined to bicycle tracks, paths shared by pedestrians and cyclists, and park connectors.
The grant, announced four days after the ban was made public, did little to mollify riders, who argued that those with health problems cannot cycle for hours on end. As bicycles are slower than e-scooters, their takings would also be hit.
In response to queries, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) said there was no “one-size-fits-all” solution to managing different technologies and business models, and it sought to strike a balance between “facilitating and minimising” public disamenities.
“Ensuring the safety of pedestrians, commuters and all users of Singapore’s land-transport system is the LTA’s top priority,” its spokesperson said.
The events of the past fortnight have, nevertheless, raised questions on whether the issue could have been managed better.
With the benefit of hindsight, analysts, MPs and industry players said there were lessons to be gleaned not only from what unfolded in recent weeks, but from the time when personal mobility devices (PMDs) started becoming popular.
Still, they pointed out that no matter the path policymakers had chosen, there would be trade-offs and challenges.
And while the boat may have sailed for some of the options that were previously available to the authorities, they could offer clues on the way forward - given that the problems and opportunities arising from the proliferation of PMDs would not go away anytime soon.
1. COULD IMPORTS HAVE BEEN RESTRICTED?
From an estimated several thousand units four years ago, the number of e-scooters has ballooned to nearly 100,000 at last count, buoyed by their convenience for daily commutes and food-delivery services.
But dangers lurked as e-scooters snowballed. In the past year, e-scooters and other mobility vehicles left charging overnight in public-housing flats had caught fire, destroyed homes, triggered evacuations, and caused injuries and a death.
On footpaths, riders going at high speed and using overweight scooters had ploughed into pedestrians. In September, cyclist Ong Bee Eng became the first fatality from a collision with an e-scooter rider, who was using a non-compliant and unregistered vehicle.
In hindsight, the authorities should have controlled the types of PMDs that were imported and sold in Singapore, said Mountbatten MP Lim Biow Chuan, a member of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Transport.
Even so, he acknowledged that it would have been impossible to foresee that some PMDs would burst into flames.
“None of us would know that people would import illegally modified PMDs such that they speed and operate almost like a motorbike,” added Mr Lim.
Import controls would entail the Singapore Customs checking these vehicles, their battery power and weight, but then again, Mr Lim conceded that users could modify them illegally, making enforcement difficult.
Transport economist Walter Theseira, from the Singapore University of Social Sciences, said that unlike for motorcycles and cars from established manufacturers, standards for PMDs would have to be developed from scratch.
Two or three years ago, when these devices began to gain popularity, Singapore would not have been able to learn how other countries were dealing with the issue, as there was “very little practice elsewhere of regulating the construction and safety standards of these devices”, said Associate Professor Theseira.
Mr Denis Koh, chairman of Big Wheel Scooters Singapore (BWSS) - the largest online community of e-scooter enthusiasts here with about 26,600 members - said the LTA’s speed, width and weight restrictions for devices allowed in public spaces had achieved the same effects as import controls.
The requirements, passed into law last year, meant that it was no longer feasible for retailers to bring in non-compliant devices, said Mr Koh, who is also a member of the Active Mobility Advisory Panel.
The panel, set up in 2015, looks into rules governing the use of PMDs, bicycles and other equipment.
He added that the requirement for all mobility vehicles to meet UL2272, a safety standard that reduces the risk of fires, by July next year also weeds out illegal modification.
Asked in Parliament last month if the Government would stop the sale and imports of PMDs to curb the problem, Dr Janil Puthucheary, Senior Minister of State for Transport, said it could be considered.
But he noted that the measures in place would already “mean that new devices and new imports need to be compliant and … registered”.
“Given the number of these devices that are already here in Singapore, on our footpaths and on our roads, I think there are other steps that we need to consider for early intervention in the first place,” he said, without elaborating.
2. WOULD LIMITED TRIALS HAVE BEEN USEFUL?
Besides stemming the flow of PMDs into Singapore, analysts and industry players suggested that the Government could have explored small-scale trials in selected towns to assess the risks and benefits of these vehicles, before subjecting them to tougher rules or allowing wider adoption.
Assoc Prof Theseira said the challenge for PMDs and shared bicycles was that they had no “regulatory sandbox” or controlled trial environment that would allow the Government to assess the benefits and risks before deciding on the next moves.
This is unlike the financial sector, which has sandbox regulations that allow financial-technology firms to test products and services in a live environment within certain boundaries before becoming subject to greater regulation, he said.
Mr Navin Kumar, head of supply chain at micro-mobility firm Helbiz - one of 14 applicants that were vying for a licence to operate shared PMDs in Singapore - said his firm believed a smaller-scale pilot sandbox licence could have been done in areas such as the Central Business District with “strict regulations on usage and safety”.
“A shorter-term (test) could have been given to service providers, to study the impact and determine a wider decision upon the end of that term,” he said.
Still, such trials are not without downsides.
If they were to be done, Assoc Prof Theseira said towns best suited to PMDs, based on their cycling networks, would naturally be picked and the results might not be the same when applied elsewhere.
While a trial may have been possible several years ago, it is difficult today as residents of a town earmarked for it would question why they are being victimised, said Assoc Prof Theseira.
On the other end, PMD users from another town would ask: “Why is that town so lucky?”
Transport consultant Gopinath Menon noted that trials had been conducted before in Tampines town on how pedestrians and cyclists could share footpaths, and this concept was expanded only after it was found to be working satisfactorily, in tandem with improvements to pathways.
“It would have been reasonable to assume that PMD riders would behave more or less as most cyclists did,” said Mr Menon.
Assoc Prof Theseira added: “Unfortunately, in the case of PMDs… their growth was so rapid that it became difficult to introduce the concept as a trial… Events really overtook the Government in this case.”
Mr Lim, the Mountbatten MP, said restricting riding to certain towns would be difficult to manage.
Nevertheless, Mr Steven Lim, president of the Safe Cycling Task Force (SCTF), said such trials could still be considered in future as an avenue to allow e-scooters to run on a wider scale again with appropriate controls.
3. WOULD LICENSING RIDERS HAVE HELPED?
Another move that could have been explored was to subject riders to a licensing regime: Just as motorcyclists and drivers need licences to operate their vehicles, so should PMD users.
In a letter last month, reader Kenneth Tan Sheng Han suggested that short of a ban, the authorities could create a class of driver’s licence for such users. He also proposed that the Road Safety Community Park in the East Coast Park be redeveloped to accommodate testing for users.
The idea was also mooted in Parliament. But Dr Lam Pin Min, Senior Minister of State for Transport, said last week in response to a question from MP Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon Group Representation Constituency) that the Government had no intention to roll out mandatory licensing at this point.
Mr Lim Biow Chuan said that subjecting riders to a licensing regime would promote responsible behaviour, as users risk being punished or losing their licence if they flout the rules.
BWSS’ Mr Koh agreed that the Government could have studied the licensing option, complete with training and insurance for those who use these vehicles for work, such as delivery riders.
Still, Mr Lim Biow Chuan acknowledged that a licensing regime - which had been discussed among some MPs - would take time, as the Government would have to study the structure of traffic rules for PMDs, and lay out the criteria for licences as well as insurance requirements where necessary.
With a licensing regime for e-scooter riders, Assoc Prof Theseira said some would ask if it should also apply to users of e-bikes and bicycles, since these devices could harm pedestrians, too.
PMDs also come in a myriad of forms and devising a practical test that would apply to all types of PMDs would require some thought, he said.
The authorities, while designing the test, may also find certain types of PMDs safer than others in, say, braking and manoeuvring capabilities. As it would not make sense for a licensing regime to ensure safe riders when vehicles themselves were poorly made, the Government would then have to devise criteria for the safe design and operation of all devices, and work with the market to ensure that these were reasonable and followed.
This, said Assoc Prof Theseira, would be an “expensive and arduous undertaking” that would receive pushback from importers who may have to dip into their pockets to have their PMDs tested.
4. COULD MORE CYCLING AND SHARED PATHS BE BUILT EARLIER?
Singapore could also have built paths needed to accommodate e-scooters and other innovative transport modes earlier, said those interviewed.
Professor Sam Park, who heads the division of strategy, international business and entrepreneurship at the Nanyang Business School, said Singapore does not have the proper infrastructure to make e-scooters valuable for people.
“Companies pushed out the products with little concern about public safety. Other than their profit-making effort, they did not exert any effort to address the potential public hazard,” he said.
At the same time, the Government was for a while not ready for this innovation and did not provide the necessary infrastructure, Prof Park added.
Assistant Professor He Long of the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School, whose research covers shared-transport systems, said the Government could have proactively studied the impact of scooter use two years ago, at an early stage of rising adoption, and built the necessary infrastructure earlier.
Singapore’s network of cycling paths is set to be expanded from 440km to 750km by 2025. By 2030, the network will be thrice the present distance, and all Housing and Development Board (HDB) towns will have a cycling-path network.
Speaking to reporters this week after a dialogue session with more than 300 food-delivery riders and retailers, Dr Lam reiterated that ramping up the infrastructure was a work in progress and it was the Government’s “long-term vision to promote active mobility”.
Yet former Nominated MP Calvin Cheng believed that the Government needed to speed things up, as he argued that building “a comprehensive network of cycling lanes is… a matter of political will and budget”.
“Singapore is a compact, urbanised city… If (the Government) can build the Marina Coastal Expressway in five years, they can do this,” he said on Facebook.
A transport consultant, who declined to be named because of the “sensitive” nature of the issue, said that much more needed to be done on the infrastructural front.
Existing cycling paths and park connectors need to be complemented with “a network of local cycling paths and connectors” to improve connectivity, he said.
The footpath ban, along with an earlier move by town councils of the ruling People’s Action Party to keep HDB void decks and common areas off-limits to PMDs, has removed “this very important connectivity factor”, he said.
5. COULD BAN HAVE BEEN EXECUTED BETTER?
The abruptness of the ban - announced less than 24 hours before it set in - was stark, with riders and industry insiders saying that it left riders with little room to react.
Mr Koh said the PMD community respected the decision, but he felt that the authorities could have given riders more heads-up, since their livelihoods were at stake.
The authorities could have studied the situation on the ground and considered giving the 7,000 or so food-delivery riders longer leeway - say, three or six months - depending on the conditions, he said.
More than one in three GrabFood delivery riders relied on e-scooters to fulfil orders. For its two rivals, 5 per cent of Deliveroo riders used PMDs, and for Foodpanda, it was 12 per cent.
Agreeing, Mr Lim Biow Chuan said that ideally, the Government could have given users more advance notice, but this carried risks.
“If someone else dies in between … people will say ‘why did you wait’ or ‘why did you give them so much time’?” said Mr Lim. “It is an unenviable situation.”
Alongside the decision to ban e-scooters from footpaths, the Government also scrapped plans to award licences to companies hoping to run shared e-scooters.
Firms said that they felt the Government could have engaged them more deeply and worked together to resolve safety issues.
Mr Christopher Hilton, vice-president for corporate affairs at Beam, said: “If there was a real chance of these regulatory changes happening, (the Government) would have been better served to both engage operators earlier on in a more robust way and also be frank in saying that.
“It feels somewhat knee-jerk that we were moving towards licensing and then moved away from it.”
Ms Gan Jin Ni, chief executive officer of Telepod, felt that there could have been greater engagement by the authorities to brainstorm solutions to solve the issues facing the industry.
To this, an LTA spokesperson replied that the agency had engaged licence applicants regularly to tell them about the safety concerns with PMD use.
“LTA is open to technological solutions to improve path safety, and has consulted other government agencies, institutes of higher learning and companies,” added the spokesperson.
Some licence applicants, nevertheless, said the writing was on the wall.
Anywheel’s chief executive officer Htay Aung said the two delays in awarding licences this year were signs that e-scooters might be banned. “It was not sudden. There were already so many signals.”
As recently as last month, Dr Puthucheary had warned that the Government would have no choice but to ban PMDs in Singapore if user behaviour did not improve.
Ang Mo Kio Group Representation Constituency MP Ang Hin Kee, deputy chairperson of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Transport, said food-delivery riders would have been more assured had the Government announced the footpath ban and the S$7 million trade-in grant at the same time, rather than several days apart.
This delay caused anxiety among riders about their livelihoods.
“It would be much more reassuring if the authorities had worked with food-delivery companies to engage the riders and give them some form of reassurance, so that when the ban is made known, people immediately know what to do,” said Mr Ang, who is also assistant director-general of the National Trades Union Congress.
“You have to both preserve lives and preserve livelihoods.”
HOW TO MOVE FORWARD
As food-delivery riders scramble to find alternatives and the Government grapples with the fallout, analysts, industry players and MPs suggested ways to move forward on the matter, both in the immediate and longer term.
Restricted use on minor roads, public-housing car parks, and footpaths: Assoc Prof Theseira said the authorities could consider whether PMDs might be allowed on minor roads and in car parks in HDB towns, as well as on roads in private-housing estates.
These areas have less vehicular traffic, and allowing riders on smaller roads would reduce the need for them to dismount and push their vehicles.
Mr Koh agreed that allowing users on minor roads would help, but he said HDB car parks have blind spots, which make the commingling of cars and PMD users unsafe for motorists leaving their parking spots.
Instead, he suggested that certain e-scooter users, such as those who use the devices to commute to work or take their children to school, could be permitted on footpaths within restricted hours at the start and end of each day, when there are fewer pedestrians.
SCTF’s Mr Steven Lim, who is also a member of the Active Mobility Advisory Panel, said extensive studies must be done before designating roads with fewer vehicles and blind spots for PMD use.
Others begged to differ.
Mr Lim Biow Chuan said the idea would not go down well with residents in private and public residential estates. “All you need are a few reckless guys to do it again,” he said. “Do we have enough people to enforce the rules on private roads and in HDB car parks?”
Infrastructural changes and improvements: On the infrastructural front, observers suggested that larger footpaths could be converted into shared tracks.
Assoc Prof Theseira said that such larger paths could be segregated for pedestrians and PMD users with obvious markings.
Mr Koh suggested that footpaths wider than 2m could be reclassified as shared paths. This would add to the “connectivity to the major shared paths”, such as park connectors. As for existing footpaths that are narrower and have room to be widened, he said the authorities could speed up the process.
There will be trade-offs, though. For one, roads will become narrower, Mr Lim Biow Chuan said.
Assoc Prof Theseira said that reclaiming road space could increase congestion for motorists. Widening paths could also entail felling mature trees, he added.
But over the longer term, industry observers said PMD use would become more feasible as the Government pushes ahead with its cycling-path upgrades.
Licensing riders: The idea of a licensing regime could still be considered, said MPs and analysts.
But Assoc Prof Theseira said that while it is a good idea, licensing is unlikely to be an immediate solution.
“It took decades for motor vehicles and drivers to be fully licensed for safety, standards and operator behaviour,” he said.
“To have Singapore come up with those rules from scratch is quite difficult in the short term.”
THE BIG PICTURE: KEEPING PACE WITH INNOVATIONS
The task of tackling the PMD scourge is the latest regulatory headache confronting Singapore’s transport policymakers.
In recent years, technological disruption and innovations have kept policymakers on their toes.
First, it was the ride-sharing sector, as American firm Uber and regional company Grab revolutionised point-to-point transport and disrupted incumbent taxi firms.
As the Government tightens its reins on the industry, larger operators of street-hail and ride-hailing services are set to be licensed under a new regulatory framework from June next year.
The authorities have also had to deal with other conundrums, including the proliferation of shared bicycles strewn irresponsibly across the island, for which a licensing regime was instituted last year.
Then came the dangers of drones encroaching on key national installations, with multiple intrusions reported in June over Changi Airport, an important regional air hub.
There is “no single approach to transport innovation and disruption”, said Assoc Prof Theseira. “The principle has to be what are the benefits of innovation, balanced against the risks or harm that it poses.”
Singapore’s approach, he said, has been consistent: It has allowed innovations to establish themselves and flourish to the extent that it can determine their costs and benefits, and put in place regulations where necessary.
Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said as much earlier this month when he weighed in on the footpath ban. “Technological progress and continuing innovations have been a boon for the transport sector… As regulators, we try to facilitate innovations so that responsible consumers can enjoy the benefits. But we cannot be sure of how the devices may be abused.”
Indeed, Associate Professor Lawrence Loh of the NUS Business School said that there cannot be an unbridled allowance of business and innovation. “There are often overriding concerns like public safety that are immutable,” he said.
LTA’s spokesperson said the agency keeps an open mind to innovations that can benefit the public. Where necessary, it tightens measures to ensure responsible use.
“This is why we license bicycle-sharing operators, and have decided to limit motorised PMDs to cycling paths and park-connector networks,” said the spokesperson.
“Adapting policies in the light of implementation experience is important, given that technology and business models are rapidly evolving.
“Our regulations must also evolve alongside the readiness of society to accept such innovations,” added the spokesperson, citing the “careful approach” to autonomous vehicles as an example.
Still, Assoc Prof Theseira said the Government would err less on the side of permissiveness in the transport arena moving ahead.
For some time, the implicit approach has been that the whole of Singapore is a sandbox for new transport concepts.
“One thing we would learn… going forward is we cannot quite do this anymore with transport innovations, even for off-road use,” he said.
“We have to think more carefully about whether we should design a sandbox environment for us to evaluate such things in the future.”