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Returning the pavements to pedestrians

In modern Singapore history, pedestrians have gradually seen their allotted spaces on the roads shrink. They used to be able to walk on the roads, sharing them with other 19th-century vehicles such as bullock carts, horses carriages, and rickshaws. Then from the 1970s, pavements were constructed all over the island for them. Pedestrians had to keep to them, largely for the benefit of motor vehicles such as cars and trucks. Then in the second decade of the 21st century, came the Personal Mobility Device (PMD) scourge, which saw an invasion of fast-moving vehicles on the pavements, endangering the safety of pedestrians. Common sense finally prevailed last year when the PMDs were banned from pavements, but pedestrians still have to share them with bicycles. My book Jalan Singapura details this history.

South Bridge Road around 1900. Pedestrians walked on the roads then. Credit: National Archives of Singapore.
Another view of South Bridge Road around 1900. Look at the pedestrian standing in the middle like he owned the road! Credit: National Archives of Singapore.

At the beginning of August, a code of conduct was unveiled for pedestrians, to complement existing codes of conduct for cyclists and PMD users. It was part of measures proposed last year by the Active Mobility Advisory Panel.


Among other things, pedestrians are urged to stay away, if possible, from paths they have to share with cyclists. But if they must use shared paths, then they are advised to keep left. Also, they should refrain from using mobile phones while on these paths.


It would have been good for the release of this code of conduct to be matched with a reaffirmation of existing codes of conduct for bicycles and PMDs, to remind everyone that the onus for looking out for others should always be on those riding vehicles moving at faster speeds. The concept of defensive driving - that it is the traveller’s duty to look out for others even if others are not doing the same - should be applied to them like how it applies to drivers of motor vehicles on the roads.


Ultimately, the underlying issue remains the lack of travelling spaces for bicycles and PMDs, which results in them having to jostle for valuable space with pedestrians. Hence, it’s great that plans to expand Singapore’s cycling path network are being hastened - it will double to 800km by 2023, two years ahead of schedule.


In the long term, I will still like to see bicycles and PMDs move to special lanes carved out of roads, similar to how Bencoolen Street has had one lane handed over to bicycles. This has to be executed in tandem with a whittling down of the motor vehicular population in Singapore, which will be a true fulfilment of the “car-lite” vision for the city-state. Only after this, can pavements be returned to pedestrians.

In 2017, one road lane in Bencoolen Street was converted into a bicycle lane.