News Analysis

Sharing footpaths safely a shared civic responsibility

The active mobility advisory panel's recommendation to allow bicycles and most mobility devices on footpaths is a bold move.

It is also timely, given the growing popularity of cycling here and the proliferation of personal mobility devices.

Although riding on footpaths is illegal everywhere apart from Tampines town, many cyclists do so anyway because they do not want to risk their lives by going on the roads. Similarly, there are currently no guidelines governing the use of electric scooters and other two-wheeled devices.

Allowing personal mobility devices to share the space with pedestrians and making them accountable through clear rules and guidelines is a step in the right direction.

The panel said its recommendations reflect three key principles: prioritising the safety of more vulnerable users, ensuring that the rules are simple and easy to understand, and balancing the needs of different users in the best possible way.

The 30-page proposal may raise concerns among some pedestrians, who fear being run down by bicycles or other devices.

However, the panel has sought to make the sharing of public spaces safer by stating that pedestrians should always have the right of way, setting criteria for personal mobility devices as well as suggesting speed limits.

In land-scarce Singapore, it is not possible to have a dedicated space for different users, said MP Cedric Foo, who believes that setting basic guidelines will allow the sharing of space between cyclists and pedestrians to evolve in an orderly manner.

"You are going to see the need for a lot more give and take," he said. "It will require a lot more education, and it will be a slow process."

The panel has also recommended stepping up public education and beefing up enforcement against reckless behaviour.

Errant cyclists and users should be taken to task, so as to deter would-be offenders.

Yet counting on enforcement alone is insufficient, as it would be near impossible to catch every rule-breaker.

Ultimately, pedestrians, cyclists and other users will have to exercise basic civility to share public space peacefully.

"If we can build up a culture of graciousness and safety, we will be able to better take care of everyone's needs," said panel chair, Associate Professor Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim, Parliamentary Secretary for Education and Family and Social Development.

The panel's proposal is also a decisive step in moving towards the long-term goal of a car-lite Singapore.

Panel member Francis Chu, who founded cycling group LoveCyclingSg, believes the changes will encourage more people to use their bicycles.

Still, cycling on footpaths cannot be a replacement for proper cycling paths, said transport researcher Alexander Erath from the Singapore-ETH Centre.

Riding on the sidewalks may be a better option than going on the road, but it also means cyclists will have to cycle more slowly with plenty of braking, he said.

While the National Cycling Plan already calls for 700km of cycling paths to be built by 2030 - about 350km has been built to date - he said the network should be further expanded in future.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 18, 2016, with the headline 'Sharing footpaths safely a shared civic responsibility'. Print Edition | Subscribe