Where there's space for two wheels, there's a way forward

Promoting use of personal mobility devices is great but infrastructure needs improvement

When Segway tried to penetrate the Singapore market back in 2003, it made very little headway.

The authorities did not allow the two-wheeled, self-balancing, battery-powered electric vehicle for road use or on public walkways.

How things have changed since - the Government is now promoting the use of all forms of personal mobility devices. And it is about time. Technology has made such devices simpler, lighter and far less costly than the over-engineered and bulky Segway.

And as Singapore extols the "car-lite" imperative (while remaining one of the world's best places to drive), these mobility options must be part of the equation. A set of rules and regulations has been introduced to ensure the safety of users and others around them. Also, the Government assures that there will be tougher enforcement.

But something is missing: infrastructure. Singapore is not known for expansive walkways. While roads are always sufficiently wide, paths for walking - and now, riding - are often narrow.

Not only that, they are not always well paved, with many stretches pitted, broken and blocked - by trees, lamp posts, bollards or electrical boxes. Cycling paths are also not always well-lit.

Regular cyclists will agree that areas such as East Coast Park, Marina Bay, Changi and the newly completed bike paths in Ang Mo Kio are a joy. The park connector network is also pretty impressive, even if not entirely seamless.

But many other spots need fixing. A path can narrow suddenly, making even dismounting hazardous (because there is nowhere to put your foot). There is a path leading to the Punggol park connector with a 10cm drop.

Cycling from, say, Bishan Park to Serangoon via Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1 will have to involve going onto the road because the footpaths are extremely narrow and not barrier-free. Passage on a wheelchair is out of the question.

In promoting active mobility - or, for that matter, any mobility - proper infrastructure must be the start point. Without it, we will be asking people to make a disproportionately big compromise on safety.

It is comforting to hear that walkways will be widened and improved, and the cycling path network expanded. Until then, the potential for accidents and conflict between pedestrians and the wheeled brigade will have to be managed quite vigorously.

MPs have suggested marking or segregating paths. Unless hard dividers are erected (neither feasible nor visually desirable for the entire island), this is not going to help much. Even in disciplined Japan, walkers stray into marked cycling lanes.

It is interesting to note that besides devices for the handicapped, personal mobility devices are rare in Japanese cities. However, bicycles - predominantly manual - are widely used. And on smaller roads, it is not uncommon to see cars, bicycles and pedestrians co-existing peacefully.

Senior Minister of State Josephine Teo acknowledged in Parliament on Tuesday that "it may take several years before... the different users of public paths can happily co-exist with one another" here.

Which is why she spelt out the regulations pertaining to the legality of various devices (including types of bicycles), when and how they should be used, the penalties for infringement, and so on.

A distinction is made between, say, an e-scooter and a power- assisted bicycle. Thing is, the lines separating these two vehicles - as well as others - are blurring fast. E-scooters with seats, including one for a pillion rider, are becoming common, and they can be modified as easily as powered bikes.

Rules pertaining to motorised bikes should rightly apply to these scooters as well. Alternatively, consider tweaking the legal criteria of these vehicles.

Mrs Teo said shops advertising or selling unapproved devices will be severely dealt with, but added that banning their import altogether would impinge on free trade agreements and the freedom of those who might want to use these on their own property. Alas!

We will have to live with enforcing at point of sale, however onerous that may be.

MPs speaking in support of the Active Mobility Bill on Tuesday voiced several concerns about pedestrians, especially the very young, old or infirm. And rightly so - anyone on wheels can do serious harm in a collision.

The crux of the matter lies in the behaviour of individuals. All the arguments apply even if mobility device users are made to share space with motorists instead of pedestrians.

Only difference is, the roads are a well-regulated, well-enforced space with a proper code of conduct, proper lighting and signallised junctions. Even then, we continue to see poor and reckless behaviour now and again.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 12, 2017, with the headline 'Where there's space for two wheels, there's a way forward'. Print Edition | Subscribe