Time to embrace scooters, segways and hoverboards?

Singapore is soon set to approve the use of Personal Mobility Devices such as electric scooters and hoverboards on foot and cycle paths. Could other cities follow suit or are such devices a passing fad?

Transport planners in cities around the world – after decades of neglect – are now acknowledging the functionality of walking and cycling, in particular for short local trips and as ‘first and last mile’ connections to public transport. But another mode of urban mobility is emerging which could add to the mix of options and prove a game changer.

The new mode is known by some as Personal Mobility Devices, or PMDs. These are generally lightweight motorised vehicles powered by small electric motors to increase travel speed and distance of individual users without major exertion. PMDs come at a time when infrastructure investment and targeted marketing campaigns have helped grow take up of active travel modes which are increasingly recognised in terms of value and benefits to public realm and health. The term embraces a plethora of new consumer products such as e-scooters, hoverboards, electric monowheels and mini segways. New devices continue to be developed and are falling in price to levels well within the reach of those on middle incomes.

In most cities to date PMDs have mostly been used for leisure purposes. Some of us have given them to our children as playthings and we are increasingly seeing young people riding them in parks and on footpaths for recreation. Because they have a largely niche application and due to the lack of a clear legal definition they have largely escaped the serious scrutiny of transport planning professionals and not received much consideration as part of the accepted hierarchy of transport modes.

Where policy makers have stepped in the approach has often been to ban or restrict PMDs from footways or public spaces on the basis of health and safety, risk to other users and regulatory ambiguity around technical standards.And PMDs are often not allowed to be carried on aeroplanes or trains on the grounds of limited space for storage or the fire risk posed by their battery packs. 

It is easy to dismiss PMDs as a passing gimmick, or let decisions be made on the narrow basis of health and safety or poorly designed and maintained infrastructure, rather than see their wider potential for use on short distance trips. While safety concerns will – and should – always have priority these devices may yet, in my opinion, have a positive role to play in urban mobility policy and extending the accessibility of public transport.

It is therefore time we defined our terms properly, gathered the evidence and had in open debate about the role of PMDs alongside walking and cycling as viable alternatives to the car. The profession must also seek to create proactive and safe deployment through clear standards and guidelines.

Singapore is one city where PMDs are gaining traction as a key component of a ‘car- lite’ society, as a strong alternative mode for first and last mile links to public transport and as an important element of creating a sustainable and ‘liveable’ city. Such devices feature prominently in the Government’s ‘Walk-Cycle-Ride Singapore’ campaign, are allowed to share certain walking and cycling infrastructure and are a focus within events such as Car Free Sundays.

Proponents argue that PMDs serve much the same role as walking and cycling in reducing car dependency and extend the catchment of public transport without the need for major infrastructure investment or feeder bus or taxi services.

They also do so in a manner which is appropriate to Singapore’s tropical climate where heat and humidity deter many people from intense physical exertion for much of the year. Against these arguments critics have expressed serious concerns over the dangers posed to pedestrians by reckless riding and point out that PMDs have only a fraction of the health benefits of non-motorised transport.

Now after much debate the Singapore Government is legislating to set clear rules and regulations as to what riders of PMDs can and cannot do and where they can do it. The Singapore Government introduced an Active Mobility Bill in November 2016, which is currently completing Parliamentary approval and enactment is due early this year. The Bill includes the use of PMDs and limits their speed to between 15 and 25km/h depending on type, route and location.

A series of rules and a code of conduct are being set out to encourage responsible use. Rules include the need for lights to be fitted and turned on at night, use of hand signals, observing of all relevant traffic regulations and exchanging personal details in the event of an accident. Penalties of up to S$5000 (about £2800) will be handed down for reckless riding behaviour, with custodial sentences of up to 12 months for the most serious offences.

Over the last year ownership of PMDs has grown in Singapore, especially e-scooters which are increasingly being seen on the streets. There is an active and competitive supplier market developing and a proposal has been made for a public e-scooter hire scheme, operating much like the public cycle hire schemes of London and Paris.

The question in my mind is whether Singapore’s acceptance of PMDs offers an example for other cities across the world seeking to safely adopt the latest wave of innovation. And are PMDs a passing fad, an unsafe nuisance or potentially a disruptive form of technology here to stay? If such devices are recognised as a proper transport mode how do we weigh their costs, benefits and wider impacts and adapt the design and maintenance of infrastructure and public realm to allow their safe (and as appropriate shared) use? Would the policy adopted in Singapore play well in other cities with a hot or tropical climate, such as Kuala Lumpur or Dubai, or even in those with temperate conditions such as London, New York or Munich? Will cities leading on public transport or cycling such as Zurich, Amsterdam and Copenhagen see PMDs as irrelevant, a threat or an opportunity?

Like the long running debate over shared design and use of infrastructure and public space between pedestrians and cyclists there will likely be a wide range of views, enthusiasms and concerns over the wider take up of PMDs, some of them passionately held on both sides. In deciding future policy for any given city, we should assess evidence from around the world to help shape what could be an exciting new aspect of urban mobility.

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This article first appeared in Transportation Professional, the magazine of the Chartered Institution of Highways &Transportation.

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