28 May 2018

Active-mobility- a cycling nation

With the growing popularity of cycling and e-scootering in Singapore, what does it take to make the use of such active mobility devices acceptable and safe?

Every week in Singapore, we see an average of three accidents involving users of personal mobility devices (PMDs), often e-scooters, on public roads and pathways.[1] The numbers of incidents involving e-bikes and PMDs is worrying. In the first half of 2017 alone, there were 90 accidents resulting in four fatalities and some 90 injuries.[2] The Land Transport Authority (LTA) impounded more than 480 PMDs in 2017, [3] and caught another 225 e-scooters in the first four months of 2018,[4] for riding illegally on the roads. On top of this, the entry of cheap and convenient dockless bike-sharing has led to unsightly and obstructive parked bicycles. It elicits a round of handwringing from pedestrians and road-users alike, and calls for stiffer penalties for those responsible.

The LTA acquired more regulatory “bite” when the Active Mobility Act came into effect on 1 May. The Act allows the LTA to regulate the types of mobility devices permitted, and the behaviour of device users, especially on public paths. Mandatory registration, already in place for e-bikes, is also expected to kick in for e-scooters. At the same time, the government has appealed repeatedly to cyclists and PMD users to ride safely on public paths, and observe the rules and code of conduct.

Is this enough? Active mobility is an important piece of the puzzle to nudge Singapore towards a “car-lite” society, but the proliferation of PMDs, e-bikes, shared bikes and the like in just a few years seems to have caught pedestrians, drivers and authorities flat-footed. Despite plans to double the cycling network island-wide to 700 km by 2030, they have created new challenges for Singapore’s planners unused to accommodating such users of road and paths. Singapore’s experience with the policy and infrastructure for cycling could be illustrative.

In 1960, there were 268,000 registered bicycles compared to 63,000 cars and 19,000 motorcycles, making cycling a major mode of transport. But like most cities, rising disposable incomes in the 1970s meant that car and motorcycle ownership soared, and cycling lost ground. Transport planning reflected such changes by focusing on building a comprehensive road network for motor vehicles. In the 1990s, it was non-transport agencies such as the National Parks Board (NParks) and Town Councils that were developing cycling infrastructure by creating park connectors, and cycling tracks in public housing estates respectively.

When the popularity of cycling and PMDs was taking off, transport planners took a measured approach towards cycling. The focus was primarily on facilitating first-and-last-mile journeys between homes and public transport nodes such as MRT stations. At a time when cycling was officially restricted to roads, Tampines became Singapore’s first designated cycling town, where cycling was permitted on footpaths. It was intended to test out interventions that would enable pedestrians and cyclists to share footpaths safely.

Following this, the Transport Ministry decided to extend the construction of cycling tracks in public housing towns, rather than legalise footway cycling island-wide, or build on-road cycling lanes. Nevertheless, conflicts between different users on increasingly crowded shared paths—such as park connector networks and cycling paths—and footpaths remained, with pedestrians often bearing the brunt when accidents happened.

By 2015 however, the prospects for active mobility were looking up, boosted by the “car-lite” vision articulated for Singapore. But a clear set of rules for off-road riding for bicycles and the plethora of PMDs was solely needed. This took the form of the Active Mobility Act passed in January 2017, which tried to strike a balance between the diverse needs of the different user groups. Significantly, it legalised the use of bicycles, PMDs and personal mobility aids (like mobility scooters used by the elderly) on all footpaths and shared paths provided they met the specified criteria. E-bikes remained banned on footpaths. The Act also specified penalties for offences such as reckless riding and hit-and-run accidents (see LTA’s Rules and Code of Conduct).

However one major sticking point has been the issue of compensation in accidents. While imposing a licensing regime with a mandatory insurance and compensation framework could be onerous on the majority of responsible users of active mobility devices, its absence has also meant that affected parties in accidents may have little recourse.

At the same time, the overnight popularity of privately operated bike-sharing schemes—numbering some 100,000 bicycles—came at a social cost. Bicycles were abused and parked indiscriminately, while existing bicycle parking infrastructure was overwhelmed. To curb the issue, the LTA introduced a licensing regime for bike-sharing operators effective by 7 July, which put the onus on operators to ensure that their bicycles are properly parked. At the same time, another 50,000 public bicycle parking spaces will added by 2020, while a new LTA provision standard requires residential, commercial and industrial developments to provide bicycle parking spaces. The LTA has also turned to the private sector and research community for potential solutions that optimise the distribution of shared bikes to better match supply with demand.

Equally important are effective enforcement and public education to manage errant users. To maximise effectiveness, enforcement teams have been deployed to hotspots identified based on public feedback. The LTA has also appointed volunteers as public path wardens with enforcement powers to educate the public on safe riding and deter reckless behaviour. However enforcement is manpower-intensive and limited. On the other hand, despite repeated pleas from the authorities for active mobility users to ride responsibly, public education remains a tough nut to crack. Nonetheless, active mobility appears to be an idea whose time has come.

For a more in-depth review of the issues and debate, read the case study, Changing Cities and Minds for Active Mobility, written by Alisha Gill, under the guidance of Jean Chia and funded by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

[1] “Parliament: About three accidents a week involving personal mobility device users,” The Straits Times, January 8, 2018, https://www.straitstimes.com/politics/parliament-average-of-three-accidents-a-month-involving-pedestrians-and-personal-mobility

[2] “Parliament: 90 accidents, with 4 deaths, involving e-bikes and personal mobility devices in first half of 2017,” The Straits Times, 2 October 2017, https://www.straitstimes.com/politics/parliament-90-accidents-involving-electric-bikes-and-personal-mobility-devices-in-first

[3] “More than 480 personal mobility devices seized in 2017: LTA,” Channel NewsAsia, December 19, 2017, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/more-than-480-personal-mobility-devices-seized-in-2017-lta-9510784

[4] Lydia Lam, “225 errant e-scooter users caught this year,” The Straits Times, May 1, 2018, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/225-errant-e-scooter-users-caught-this-year