Bumps in the road? Rise of the e-scooters poses legal challenge in Singapore
The sight of office workers in smart suits zipping around on electric-powered scooters has become increasingly common in Singapore in the past year as more people turn to them to beat traffic jams, overcrowded trains and the high cost of cars.
One of those who caught on to the trend is a 39-year-old French investment banker, who wanted to be identified only as Richard.
Wearing business attire and donning a safety helmet, he rides an e-scooter along the Singapore River on his way home from his office in the nearby financial district.
“I discovered the e-scooter this year. I think this is a new phenomenon,” said Richard, who has been working in Singapore for the last two and a half years.
He said he began using the e-scooter, which he had bought for S$1100 (US$816), earlier this year to commute the 3km between his home and his office.
“It takes only seven minutes, it is very convenient. I do not have to wait for the bus any more. Overall it takes me at least double the time to use the bus.
“For me this is just perfect ... Even if I had a Ferrari I would still be faster with this,” he said, talking of the slow traffic on the highways in the financial district during peak hours. “Cars are very expensive in Singapore, four times more than in France.”
Choo Tze Wei, 42, whose company, Last Mile Solutions, markets e-scooters, believes Singapore is one of the cities with the biggest proliferation of the vehicles.
Official data is not yet available on the number of electric scooter owners in Singapore, as they currently do not need to be registered like cars or motorcycles.
However, Choo estimates that there are probably between 15,000 and 20,000 users of e-scooters in the small city of about 5.5 million people. He believes about 80 per cent of users are Singaporeans.
The number is expected to swell with the government showing a greater acceptance toward the vehicles in recent months. A Facebook group called “Big Wheel Scooters Singapore” now has more than 9,000 members.
Choo said that although Singapore has the most advanced public transport system in Southeast Asia, the network of commuter train stations is not as dense as in other developed countries. Commuters often have to walk the first or last mile, or transfer to a connecting bus – or use a scooter.
Choo said that, as e-scooters are foldable, they are easy for office workers to tuck away under their desks at the office.
He said that more retailers have emerged in recent years to cater to the rising demand for e-scooters. “When we first started the shop there were only about three or four other retailers in the whole of Singapore, right now there are over 35 ... There is a price war going on, they are all trying to sell as cheap as they can.”
“I don’t see this as a fad, because it comes as a form of transport, a part of their daily life,” he said.
Choo, who also drives a car, saw his monthly transport expenses shrink after he started using an e-scooter to run his errands.
Despite Singapore’s efficient road and walkway systems, the path for e-scooter users in Singapore has been riddled with uncertainties, as the legality of their usage in public spaces had been hazy.
They have not been allowed to use public roads, where the use of unauthorised vehicles can land a first time offender a fine or a jail term of up to three months. However, they are also not welcomed on pavements due to concerns that they could collide with pedestrians and cause injuries. They have also been banned in parks and on park connectors.
“The challenge I face is the fear of being fined, as we are in the grey area...we are not supposed to ride on the park lane connectors, and riding on the road is not allowed,” said Edwin Ang, a 29-year-old consultant in the IT industry who started using an e-scooter two years ago.
Choo recalled that when his company first started to import and sell e-scooters, they were subject to “extra duty, as they were regarded as automobiles. After that we had to apply for a waiver of duty because it is a green product.”
Despite earlier anxieties that they might be banned, the government has hinted that it might make it legal for people to ride a bicycle or electric scooter on footpaths at the end of this year.
It will also be launching a huge bicycle sharing pilot scheme in one district next year. In addition, it will start a six-month trial to test the feasibility of allowing users to bring their foldable bikes and e-scooters onto trains and buses even during peak hours.
In planning for a society with fewer cars, Singapore sees Japan as a model, and has realised that just laying down the infrastructure and implementing policies alone is not enough, and Singaporeans need to also follow the polite behaviour of Japanese road users.
“Where we would like to see ourselves in, say, 15 years? Tokyo, a familiar city for many Singaporeans, offers a good preview,” Senior Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo told Parliament in April this year.
She observed that “37 per cent of all trips in Tokyo are made on foot or on bicycles, compared to just 17 per cent in Singapore today.”
Singapore’s Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said that on his trips to Japan, he is “always struck by how considerate they [cyclists] are to one another: motorists look out for cyclists, cyclists look out for pedestrians; pedestrians walk to the side of the path. No tension. No one gets upset with anyone.”
Singapore’s government is planning to introduce laws and a code of conduct for users of bicycles, e-scooters and other such mobility devices. It is expected to require e-scooters to be registered in the near future.