Off to work, on a unicycle

Mr Lim Teh Kea on his unicycle in front of his fishball noodle stall. He rides it to work and to the wet market. He says it cuts his 15-minute walk to work to a one-minute ride.
Mr Lim Teh Kea on his unicycle in front of his fishball noodle stall. He rides it to work and to the wet market. He says it cuts his 15-minute walk to work to a one-minute ride.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Sales of Personal Mobility Devices soar, even as community awaits rules on use of paths

Mr Lim Teh Kea can often be seen riding an electric unicycle along the streets of Kembangan, with a portable radio blaring out Hokkien songs.

When people turn around to investigate the sound, the 71-year-old politely asks them to let him through. Some even ask about the unicycle.

"I've been riding the unicycle for two years and I'm a proud owner of three different electric unicycles," Mr Lim, a hawker, said in Mandarin. "It's perfect for an older person like me as it cuts my daily 15-minute walk to work to a one-minute ride."

While most people his age use mobility scooters which have seats, Mr Lim is among the growing ranks of people here who zip around on electric unicycles, scooters or hoverboards.

Retailers say sales of these "cooler" Personal Mobility Devices (PMDs) have soared in the past year, particularly among the young.

AVOIDING THE BIG CRUSH

I really hate the morning peak-hour crowd and squeezing like sardines on the bus so I prefer taking my unicycle, which saves me $80 a month on public transport.

MR MUHAMMAD IDROS, who travels on his electric unicycle from his West Coast home to Resorts World Sentosa, where he works as a roller-coaster operator.

"We saw the sales of hoverboards, electric unicycles and electric scooters double every quarter last year," said Mr Andrea Baronchelli, chief marketing officer of shopping website Lazada Singapore.

  • MANY WAYS TO MOVE

  • SEGWAYS

    PRICE: $10,888 - $11,888

    SPEED: 20kmh

    DISTANCE: 38km

    Introduced to Singapore in 2009. Members of the public can experience riding one at the Segway tour in Sentosa.

  • ELECTRIC UNICYCLES

    PRICE: $588 - $1,299

    SPEED: 18kmh

    DISTANCE: 15 -25km

    Device operates on a single, large wheel and riders move by leaning forward.

  • HOVERBOARDS

    PRICE: $349 - $688

    SPEED: 15kmh

    DISTANCE: 30km

    Gained popularity last year after being used by celebrities. Madam Ho Ching, wife of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, recently made news by injuring herself while riding one.

  • ELECTRIC SCOOTERS

    PRICE: $849 - $1,599

    SPEED: 12 - 40kmh

    DISTANCE: 25 - 80km

    For those seeking more stability, there are the three-wheeled eScooters with seats costing close to $3,000.

    PERSON'S AVERAGE WALKING SPEED: 5kmh

  • • Note: Distance refers to maximum distance on one charge

He did not provide absolute figures, but these items make up 15 per cent of Lazada's monthly sports and outdoors sales.

These devices can cost anything from about $350 to thousands of dollars or even more than $10,000, and come with speeds of 12kmh to 40kmh.

Falcon PEV, a distributor of electric scooters, sold more than 1,000 last year, a 25 per cent increase from 2014.

Mr Thomas Hoon, founder of The Wheelies, an online community of enthusiasts with an online shop selling electric unicycles, said sales have doubled since he started selling them in August 2013.

Segways have also seen a steady increase in demand, even though they cost from $10,000 each.

Gogreen Holdings, the exclusive distributor of Segways here, has seen a 50 per cent increase in sales annually since 2009. Mr Scott William, its sales manager, said currently 200 people here own one.

The newest addition to the range of PMDs is the hoverboard, a kind of self-balancing mobility device.

It has become popular with teens and young adults after being used by celebrities like singer Justin Bieber and sprinter Usain Bolt.

One retailer, Hoverboard Singapore, now sells 70 per cent more hoverboards a month, compared with early last year.

Buyers of these devices cite convenience as a major factor, noting that they are small, handy and can be taken on the bus or MRT.

Engineer Inggrid Tan, 24, bought a hoverboard because it was "fun" and "trendy".

She uses it to get from her home to her workplace, a 15-minute journey that she used to complete by bus.

Mr Muhammad Idros, 29, travels on his electric unicycle from his West Coast home to Resorts World Sentosa, where he works as a rollercoaster operator.

"I really hate the morning peak-hour crowd and squeezing like sardines on the bus so I prefer taking my unicycle, which saves me $80 a month on public transport."

Retailers and distributors told The Straits Times that the bulk of customers who buy unicycles and electric scooters are working adults aged 25 to 35, while Segway owners are generally those older than 30.

PMDs are also becoming increasingly popular for leisure.

Mr Wong Kok Ping, a 46-year-old insurance claims examiner, said his family, including two sons aged nine and 11, ride their electric unicycles together as a bonding activity. They plan to buy more PMDs.

Despite their growing popularity, these devices are actually banned in parks and park connectors under the National Parks Board (NParks) out of safety considerations.

Offenders can be fined up to $5,000.

Mr Gopinath Menon, senior research fellow at Nanyang Technological University, said: "There could be a large differential speed between pedestrians and these PMDs. When they share space with cars, there could also be a large differential speed."

Last July, the Active Mobility Advisory Panel was convened to draft a set of recommended regulations and norms for the safe use of paths. These are expected to be released in the second quarter of this year.

Mr Denis Koh, a member of the panel and chairman of Big Wheel Scooters Singapore, said: "PMDs such as electric scooters are definitely eco-friendly and an important step in creating a 'car-lite' society."

Mr Koh said electric scooters and other PMDs can be viable alternatives to cars, especially for shorter trips. He has been advocating for PMD rules to be relaxed, and predicts that the number of electric scooter users - currently around 9,000 - will keep increasing.

"There are thousands of potential users just waiting for the rules and norms report by the advisory panel before deciding on purchasing their own PMD," he said.

Most Singaporeans are willing to share footpaths and cycling paths with PMD users, according to a nationwide online survey of 5,000 Singaporeans by the Land Transport Authority.

This is good news for Mr Lim, the hawker and unicycle enthusiast.

"I will be buying even more electric unicycles and I really believe that more people should try them out."


Correction: An earlier version of this article  incorrectly reported 71-year-old Mr Lim Teh Kea as Mr Lim Pek Kia, 76. We are sorry for the error. 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 22, 2016, with the headline 'Off to work, on a unicycle'. Print Edition | Subscribe