Beginning January 1, Singapore will enforce a “zero-tolerance” ban on the use of personal mobility devices (PMDs) such as electric scooters, or “e-scooters”, on pedestrian footpaths.
The urbanized city-state had been actively fine-tuning regulations on the usage and safety of the widely popular devices, but in a surprise policy U-turn ordered an immediate sidewalk ban on all e-scooters in November.
The move followed a spate of injuries and fatal accidents involving PMDs, as well as fires in public housing blocks caused by faulty e-scooter batteries.
While pedestrians broadly welcomed the ban, it sparked a furor among food-delivery riders whose livelihoods depended on e-scooters, as well as retailers of the once-ubiquitous vehicles.
Since an “advisory period” on the use of e-scooters took effect on November 5, the devices have largely, though not entirely, disappeared from public footpaths.
Touted as a game-changer for short-distance travel, PMDs were seen as a convenient solution to last-mile commutes between a person’s home and their nearest train or bus station.
While e-scooter advocates say the majority had operated their devices responsibly, speeding and reckless riding were widespread enough that – despite attempts by authorities to ramp up enforcement – public opinion in the city-state hardened in favor of banning e-scooters altogether.
Now, those caught riding e-scooters on footpaths face possible criminal charges, with offenders liable for fines of up to S$2,000 (US$1,479) and up to three months of imprisonment if convicted.
“From 1 January 2020, a zero-tolerance approach will be taken and those caught riding an e-scooter on footpaths will face regulatory action,” said the Land Transport Authority (LTA) in an email response to Asia Times.
E-scooter riders will still be allowed to use their devices in parks and on cycling paths, but retailers have taken little comfort in the caveat.
Some observers argue that confining PMDs to the city-state’s 440 kilometers of cycling paths – down from 5,500 kilometers of footpaths previously – renders the devices impractical for daily commuting and commercial use.
“The ban, of course, came as a surprise…and it has effected retailers very badly,” said Denis Koh, chairman of PMD enthusiast group Big Wheel Scooters Singapore.
Koh added that PMD retailers in Singapore had stocked up on inventory ahead of the Singles’ Day shopping holiday (November 11) and Christmas season expecting to meet growing demand.
“When the footpath ban was announced very abruptly, all this inventory was as good as redundant,” Koh said, estimating that industry-wide losses from the ban amounted to several million dollars.
“I know of three retailers who have closed and some of the big players have retrenched 30 people at one go. Many of them have downsized.”
Walter Theseira, a transport economist and associate professor at the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS), said that authorities had tried to regulate and promote various forms of off-road personal transport such as PMDs as an alternative to private cars and ease pressures to provide costly, high-frequency public transport services.
But while PMDs offered energy efficiency and flexibility, Theseira, who is a nominated Member of Parliament, said perceptions among policymakers were that tighter regulations and enforcement were not improving safety, and further infrastructure enhancements to accommodate PMDs would take considerable time.
“Pedestrians were becoming increasingly vocal about what they saw as a plague of inconsiderate PMD users putting pedestrians at risk, and a few high-profile injuries and deaths added to those concerns,” he told Asia Times.
That political consideration is likely why there were no public or closed-door consultations with the PMD community ahead of the ban, Theseira believes. “Generally, the government tries to avoid situations where there could be strong opposing views fighting it out over an issue in public.”
Such a consultation would likely result in the PMD community pitted against the pedestrian community, he added.
“This may seem antithetical to democratic principles as practiced elsewhere, but the government has concerns that such debates could quickly get out of hand in Singapore, especially if the parties to the debate split on other social fault lines.
“As it turns out, the fault lines that the PMD issue runs along include income and social class, with many PMD users, especially those relying on PMDs for a living, being relatively disadvantaged in Singapore,” noted the SUSS associate professor.
Siti, a 20-year-old single mother who has worked part-time as a GrabFood delivery rider since 2017, told Asia Times she took up the job for the flexibility it offered while helping her to make ends meet. “In a day, I can earn between S$50 to S$60. I work 5 days a week, I can earn S$200 minimum. Sometimes I work less, sometimes I work more.”
Worried about how the ban would affect her livelihood and that of others in her situation, she penned a letter to local broadsheet The Straits Times airing her grievances, but it went unpublished.
“They don’t think of the consequences,” said Siti, who was unsure if she could earn the same amount using a bicycle instead.
Bryan, a 25-year-old GrabFood delivery rider, recently switched from an e-scooter to a bicycle he borrowed from a friend. He says his earnings “would definitely be affected” by making deliveries as a cyclist.
“I took more than 30 minutes to deliver a single bubble tea, [whereas] in the past I would be able to do it in 15 minutes,” said Bryan, who argued that the footpath ban would cause longer waiting times for food-delivery customers.
Four days after the ban, authorities announced a S$7 million (US$5.2 million) grant to help food delivery riders switch to other vehicles.
Funded both by the government and three major food-delivery firms, LTA says around 3,000 of the city-state’s estimated 7,000 food-delivery riders have applied for the scheme, with over 2,800 approved so far.
Theseira believes that while the Singapore government was aware that the ban would affect thousands of food delivery riders, authorities “did not anticipate that many of these riders were relying heavily on food-delivery work to make ends meet, and could not easily find other work.”
“I think where we have ended up is a reasonable position – food-delivery riders are being given targeted help to transition to e-bikes or to find other jobs,” the nominated parliamentarian said.
“But it is a shame that this wasn’t done the day of the ban itself, and with other financial support to ease the transition.”
If a large number of food-delivery riders flout the ban by continuing to ride on footpaths, Theseira says “credible fines” will have to be issued or other stricter action, such as confiscating devices.
“The problem will be if these fines or confiscations disproportionately impact disadvantaged Singaporeans, as is likely to be the case given that the profile of food-delivery riders and those relying on PMDs for transport tend to be lower-income Singaporeans,” he said.
Meanwhile, PMD retailers in Singapore are in the process of trying to sell-off their inventory in foreign markets, said Koh.
“It’s going to be tough because most of their inventory are UL2272 [compliant devices], which are not popular in other countries that do not have stringent regulations like Singapore,” he noted.
Koh, who is a member of the city-state’s Active Mobility Advisory Panel (AMAP), doesn’t foresee any assistance being provided to retailers impacted by the footpath ban.
“So far, the retailers have spoken to the authorities. We have not heard any updates from them at this time,” he said. “I am pessimistic that there will be any help from the government.”
Additional reporting by Tan Kelu