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Expert panel's bold plan powers cyclists into the future

Proposed guidelines on personal mobility devices could benefit S'pore, but biggest change must take place in people's mindsets

Is a recent call to allow cyclists on pedestrian footpaths a bold suggestion, or a reckless one?

The idea, proposed by an expert panel last week after eight months of consultation on how personal mobility devices (PMD) should be governed, has received praise and scorn in equal measure. And it does not take much guesswork to figure out where the divide lies.

Cyclists hailed the move to legitimise their use of two-wheelers on footpaths, where they can travel without risking life and limb on roads. The panel, however, did propose speed limits - 15kmh on footpaths and 25kmh on cycling and shared paths - and having users turn on their front and rear lights when riding in the dark.

Pedestrians were shocked, warning that this would put bicycles in the midst of children and the elderly.

A Straits Times reader, Ms Agnes Sng, wrote in to describe how a "Punchlines" cartoon last week "captured perfectly the peculiar situation" that pedestrians could soon find themselves facing.

It depicted two pedestrians walking in drains as cyclists zoomed by on pavements.

BOLD OR RECKLESS?

The panel's series of recommendations, which also include registering power-assisted bicycles, have been submitted to the Transport Ministry and are currently being deliberated.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

The widely anticipated rules and guidelines are meant to address the burgeoning popularity of bicycles and PMDs - such as motorised scooters and unicycles - and give clarity on where they can and cannot be used.

But would it be all chaos and bedlam if bicycles are allowed on the footpaths?

Likely not.

Six years ago this month, it became legal to cycle on the footpaths of Tampines, Singapore's first cycling town. It remains the only place exempt from the road traffic rules banning cyclists from the sidewalks.

As a Tampines resident, I am happy to report that anarchy has not broken out.

Former Tampines MP Irene Ng, who was an MP from 2001 until last year, said that education and enforcement were key reasons for the project's success.

Her team came up with a code of conduct for cyclists and recruited volunteer cycling wardens to spread the message.

Said Ms Ng: "I told the wardens that their role is really to help build a safe cycling culture. They started in 2005. So it has taken 10 years to build a safe cycling culture."

Driving the point home, she said: "It takes time to shape people's perceptions and behaviour. The work never ends, with each generation of new cyclists."

In a 2014 speech to Parliament, Ms Ng also spoke of how government agencies dithered over who should take the lead in enforcement.

"As timely enforcement is necessary for safe sharing, our town council decided to just hire auxiliary police officers to do the job, although strictly speaking, the paths and the laws concerned do not fall under the town council remit," she said then.

The panel last week also proposed a Code of Conduct for cyclists and users of PMDs: give way to pedestrians; slow down and be prepared to stop when approaching bus stops or where there are many people; and keep left unless overtaking.

LESSONS FROM TAMPINES

The emphasis on timely enforcement is sensible. Other cycling nations understand this keenly. In Japan, cycling is allowed on specifically marked footways and those over 3m wide. The police issue tickets to cyclists above the age of 14 who commit offences such as speeding on sidewalks, running red lights or riding recklessly.

Those who receive two or more tickets within three years are required to attend a three-hour safety education programme. They risk being fined if they do not do so.

So enforcement - on errant users - must be visible and comprehensive, at least at the start, to assure pedestrians that their space and well-being are not being compromised.

A nasty accident would be a major setback to the initiative.

All effort should also be taken to reduce the risk of conflicts. This means ramping up efforts to build infrastructure such as wider shared paths, and segregated lanes for pedestrians and cyclists - the gold standard in safe infrastructure.

Under the National Cycling Plan, the off-road network will span 700km by 2030. About half has been built. If Singapore wants to become car-light and promote cycling and the use of PMDs, can this be speeded up?

In towns with developed cycling networks such as Tampines and Pasir Ris, many more people cycle as their mode of transport, compared with the national average of between 1 per cent and 2 per cent, according to officials.

But given space constraints in a land-starved country, the reality is that everyone still has to learn to share the use of roads and pavements.

This can be done, if there is proper enforcement, education and infrastructure in place.

As it is, most cyclists and PMD users already ride on pavements rather than roads - without great incident. Making this legal simply recognises the facts on the ground. Introducing rules that can be enforced, a code of conduct to abide by and an education programme for cyclists, means the Government can help facilitate space sharing between road and pavement users.

STRICT LIABILITY LAWS

But more can be done to better protect pedestrians.

In the Netherlands and many other countries in Europe, there are strict liability laws that protect vulnerable road users (such as cyclists and pedestrians) from large motorised vehicles (like cars or trucks). In an accident, the law assumes the motorist is at fault unless it can be proven otherwise.

Proponents say the law improves safety by encouraging safer driving behaviour. Singapore may not be ready to go the whole hog on presumed liability, but we could adapt this system to cater to pedestrians.

Cyclists and PMD users could be held liable for civil claims in the event of an accident with pedestrians.

There are arguments that say this might foster reckless behaviour, but Mr Francis Chu, co-founder of Love Cycling SG, feels otherwise.

"Nobody in their right minds would put themselves at personal risk... At the end of the day, every driver or cyclist is also a pedestrian," he said.

REGISTERING BICYCLES

Some have suggested that bicycles be registered, so errant riders can be tracked down.

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) has said this won't work, as such a database would be too onerous to implement and police - given the varied profile of riders and the rate at which bicycles can change hands.

The Government stopped registering bicycles in 1981, and we should not look back.

It is easy to see the LTA's logic that resources spent on such a system would be better placed in education and infrastructure.

The panel's bold proposals will be debated in Parliament soon. If accepted, they will put Singapore firmly on the path of the bicycle. In future, the two-wheeler will no longer be the domain of the lycra-clad speedster. It could potentially become the workhorse of the everyman.

The benefits are obvious - less traffic congestion and better public health - and in our dense urban environment, it makes good sense.

To make sure such a transition is safe, new laws and infrastructure will help Singapore get there.

But the biggest change that needs to take place is in people's mindsets and behaviour. As they learnt to do in school, in the playground and in their shared living space, Singaporeans will have to do the same thing on the roads and pavements.

To share.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 24, 2016, with the headline 'Panel's bold plan powers cyclists into the future'. Print Edition | Subscribe