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E-scooter ban: The lazy way out?

By Koh Wanzi - on 09 Nov 2019, 9:20am

Image Source: The Straits Times

On 5 November, it became illegal to ride your electric scooter, or e-scooter as they're better known, on footpaths in Singapore. The ban will eventually be expanded to include other motorised personal mobility devices (PMDs), such as unicycles and hoverboards, by the first quarter of next year. By the way, there are roughly 5,500km of footpaths in Singapore, so that's thousands of kilometres of pavement you won't be able to touch with your e-scooter. And yes, riding on the grass beside the pavement counts as the same thing. 

Where can you continue to potter along? Just the 440km of cycling paths and Park Connector Networks on this tiny island. There's an advisory period running from 5 November to 31 December, during which you'll be able to get away with a warning if you're caught flouting the ban. After that, you could face up to S$2,000 in fines or up to three months of jail time.

This move sees Singapore join a group of other countries that have issued similar blanket bans on e-scooters on sidewalks. These bans were also prompted by a growing spat of accidents involving e-scooters. In Britain, it is illegal to ride e-scooters on public roads, cycling paths, and pavements, while France has banned them from sidewalks. Spain originally banned e-scooters from the streets of Madrid last year, but it's since granted licenses to a handful of businesses to deploy their vehicles throughout the city. However, e-scooters are still banned from sidewalks, bus lanes, and streets with more than one lane in each direction. 

Image Source: The Straits Times

The ban has given rise to varying arguments at opposite ends of the spectrum. On the one hand, there is an outraged public that has grown alarmed at the injuries and deaths arising from e-scooter-related accidents. In fact, a public petition to ban them from walkways has garnered over 75,000 signatures to date. Then there are those who say that a blanket ban unfairly punishes responsible riders for the behaviour of an errant few, and fails to account for people, such as food delivery riders, who rely on these devices for work or travel.

On Thursday, Today reported that a handful of riders were at a meet-the-people session with Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam to voice their grievances. Many are full-time riders who previously relied on e-scooters to make their deliveries, and the ban effectively plucks their livelihood out from under their feet. According to Grab, they'll now have to walk a lot more, which makes many deliveries unfeasible. The Today article also cites a rider who spent as much as S$3,000 to buy and modify his e-scooter to meet LTA specifications, an investment that appears to have been for nothing now.

Image Source: The Straits Times

It's a tough situation to be in, one that raises questions about whether a blanket ban was really the best solution. One thing is clear though – it's simple and effective, an approach that mirrors Singapore's approach to chewing gum, among other things. While the dangers of reckless riding are abundantly clear, and too many have suffered because of it, the ban reeks of a knee-jerk reaction to a relatively new phenomenon. Compared to somewhere like Copenhagen or Portland, Oregon, Singapore still has much to do to be considered bike-friendly, and our lack of robust supporting infrastructure is reflected in our cultural attitudes toward anything that isn't a car.

What's more, there are many plausible alternatives to a blanket ban. The only problem is that they require more effort to implement. Before the ban, the barriers to e-scooter ownership were low, and just about anyone could buy and ride a scooter. By requiring riders to have a license, as South Korea does, and imposing an age limit, we can foster greater awareness of the risks of riding and encourage more responsible behaviour. Making it more difficult to own an e-scooter with things like licensing and mandatory insurance and inspections could help weed out irresponsible owners who buy on impulse and ensure that only those who really need e-scooters are willing to jump through the hoops.

Image Source: The Straits Times

Another solution could be to put e-scooters on roads. Previously, e-scooters were only allowed on pavements, while e-bikes needed to steer clear of pathways and go on the road instead, which didn't make a lot of sense. In many other countries, e-scooters are only allowed on roads, so Singapore is a rare exception. To be sure, this makes it a lot more dangerous for riders. But given that pedestrian safety is what prompted the ban, pushing e-scooters onto roads solves this concern and shifts the burden to riders to make sure they ride safely.

E-scooters and other PMDs can play a role in improving urban mobility and reducing traffic congestion and pollution. It seems like a waste, and a lazy solution at that, to shut them out entirely because of some wayward actors. Tighter regulation and a closer look at more nuanced solutions could help integrate PMDs into our lives more responsibly and effectively, while punishing only those who deserve it.

Koh Wanzi

Koh Wanzi / Former Senior Tech Writer

I care about three things in this world – Game of Thrones, pasta, and corgis. Oh, and I write about tech.