Changing fortunes in transport
One challenge I faced when I was working on my book Jalan Singapura was covering Singapore’s recent transport history - the period from 2011 to the time of writing, which was 2019 (final edits to the manuscript were made in April). The local transport scene was evolving at lightning speed. Facts and statistics had to be updated every few weeks.
Good examples were electric scooters (e-scooters) and electric bicycles (e-bikes). As I was finalising my manuscript, the former had taken over the island’s pavements and walkways. Its low prices, ease of riding, and lack of regulatory framework to oversee its use, saw population numbers surging to at least 40,000. I made sure to draw parallels between its careless introduction and that of other modes of transport throughout Singapore’s modern history.
Within a few months after publication, the e-scooter population had further grown to 100,000. Then, on 5 November that year, after a spate of accidents, mostly between e-scooters and pedestrians, the Transport Ministry abruptly banned e-scooters and other personal mobility devices (PMDs) from footpaths.
In a flash, the Era of E-scooters had ended as soon as it had begun.
Fast forward 19 months, and the Republic’s registered e-scooter population had plunged to just 6,671 as of end-May 2021 - a precipitous decline of 93 per cent.
PMDs are still allowed on cycling paths and park connector networks, but the infrastructure is still too inadequate to encourage widespread use.
Instead, many have switched to bicycles - or e-bikes. Boosting their numbers is increased demand from food delivery riders, as food delivery services have grown in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic.
E-bikes had to be registered from 2018. At the time, there were around 13,000 of them; last May, there were 15,800; this had doubled to 31,660 by the end of this May.
Just as growth in the e-scooter fleet in previous years had led to a rise in e-scooter accidents, the same is happening to the e-bike fleet.
In 2019, there were 24 accidents and no fatalities involving the two-wheelers; the following year, there were 75 accidents and three deaths. Still nothing compared to motor vehicular casualties, but worth keeping an eye on.
From 30 June, it became mandatory for e-scooter and e-bike riders to pass an online theory test on rules and safe riding practices.
This requirement is too lax though. At least a practical test is needed. Even then, just as many motorists throw out what they’ve learned in driving school the moment they get their licence, the same will happen to e-scooter and e-bike riders too.
Ultimately, like motorists, e-scooters and e-bikes need more infrastructure in the form of Channels of Movement - preferably dedicated paths - coupled with a stricter regulatory framework with strong enforcement to ensure law-breakers suffer deterrent punishments. This was an argument I had put forth in Jalan Singapura, and two years on, it hasn’t changed.
When a new mode of transport is introduced, the infrastructure to give it the space it needs, and the regulatory framework to keep its users on the straight and narrow, must be in place first. Otherwise - to use a transport analogy - it’s putting the cart before the horse.
In the transport scene, fortunes can rise and fall in a flash, but some principles are timeless.