Deadly E-Scooter Crash Sparks Urban Mobility Debate in Singapore

By Reuters 27 September 2019

BANGKOK—The death of an elderly Singaporean cyclist after a collision with an electric scooter has renewed the debate around the safety of such devices, which transport analysts say are key to improving urban mobility in Asia’s booming cities.

The death of the woman on Wednesday followed a series of similar accidents in Singapore, which last year unveiled a number of measures to regulate so-called personal mobility devices (PMD) such as electric bikes and e-scooters.

While such electric devices have become increasingly widespread in many Asian cities, there are few dedicated lanes or regulations, even as authorities try to rein in emissions and congestion-causing cars.

“The fact that their usage has grown so rapidly signals that there is a gap in the existing urban transportation network, and PMDs seem to be addressing that,” said Julienne Chen, a researcher at Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD).

“Safety is a critical issue. But with the right set of conditions and infrastructure, it’s likely their usage will grow,” she said, pointing to supportive policies that boosted bicycle use in cities such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen.

Globally, electric bicycles and standing scooters have become popular with city residents and tourists alike for short commutes, and to connect to public transport networks.

Shared bike and e-scooter schemes have been introduced in cities from New York to Sydney, with mixed results.

As accidents increased, countries including Germany, France and Spain have clamped down, with speed limits and pavement bans for e-scooters.

In Singapore—which has one of the best public transport networks in the world—e-scooters must be registered, and the devices must weigh under 20 kg, with a top speed of 25 km per hour on public paths.

There are no rules in Thailand, where Singapore-based Neuron Mobility has launched several hundred of its bright orange e-scooters in the northern city of Chiang Mai and in Bangkok, where they jostle for space on narrow pavements.

“People in cities are looking for autonomous, affordable and sustainable options. The more options they have, the more reasons they will have to give up their cars,” said Nate Chanchareon, head of Neuron’s business development.

“Technology can be used to solve mobility issues, with app-based shared vehicles, and with in-built speed limits, and safeguards to ensure riders wear helmets,” he said.

In recent years, bicycle lanes have appeared in cities including Seoul, Beijing, Taipei and Kuala Lumpur.

Yet authorities have been slow to act on PMDs, said Neil Sipe, a professor at the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences in the University of Queensland in Australia.

“Authorities have to realize that sole dependence on cars will only lead to more congestion and won’t solve urban mobility problems,” he said.

“These new forms of mobility will help ease the transport disadvantage in cities in both advanced and emerging economies.”

As cities grapple with mobility and safety issues, the trick is to “balance a regulatory approach with an enabling approach”, as laws alone cannot compensate for inadequate infrastructure, said SUTD’s Chen.

“In the past, we let innovations like personal automobiles fundamentally—and often times detrimentally—shape and influence urban development,” she said.

“Many cities are now trying to break free of that model, and will need to become more flexible and adaptable.”