SINGAPORE (Aug 6): Colin Koh, a burly national sports coach and diving instructor, now teaches pavement etiquette to cyclists and personal mobility device riders. Koh’s organisation has trained thousands of cyclists and PMD riders since March. His vocation is an increasingly important one as more people get on two wheels to bridge the so-called last-mile mobility gap. The number of accidents involving PMDs, bicycles and power-assisted bicycles surged to 128 in 2017, from 19 in 2015, raising public furore against the use of wheels on footpaths.

“There is this miscommunication going on between e-scooter riders and everyone else. We try to manage this expectation. For instance, we ask [PMD riders]: ‘Are you able to ride at walking speed?’ Nine out of 10 people will say they can, when in practice, they cannot,” he says. “Pathways are for shared use. If you have one space and everyone wants it exclusive to them, then we have a problem.”

Koh is the managing director of Asian Detours, one of two training providers for the Safe Riding Programme — funded by the Land Transport Authority (LTA) to teach people the new code of conduct under the Active Mobility Act. Passed last year, the Act sets out rules for PMD users and cyclists, and spells out penalties for reckless riding.

Still, the sharing of footpaths is only one of the many challenges Singapore faces in resolving last-mile connectivity. To be sure, LTA has quite a comprehensive plan, involving MRT stations within 10 walking minutes of 80% of households by 2030, covered walkways and 700km of cycling paths, among other things. By 2022, three towns — Punggol, Tengah and the Jurong Innovation District — will have autonomous buses and shuttles on their roads to provide last-mile connectivity to residents and workers. In February, LTA awarded two contracts to Via Transportation and Ministry of Movement to create algorithms for on-demand bus services. Trials with public bus operators may start later this year.

But the implementation of these plans may prove challenging. For example, there are few autonomous buses on the road today, which makes it difficult to form standards, says one local industry insider. There is also concern that the high-tech-related developments would leave vulnerable groups such as the aged behind — an issue especially salient in greying Singapore.

“What we need to think about is whether the lived experiences of the commuter and less-abled match up to the experience that the infrastructure is meant to provide,” says Walter Theseira, transport economist at the Singapore University of Social Sciences. He adds that although most buses are retrofitted for those with restricted mobility, their experiences on board are not being measured, which is important to determine the quality of Singapore’s transport services.

Policymakers should plan for the youngest and the oldest groups of people. In that respect, Singapore has set up Silver Zones, which are areas with modified road designs and lower speed limits. This has resulted in a 70% decrease in the number of accidents involving the elderly in the zones. “If you target your city at both of those groups, you end up with one that is sustainable for all. You [build] your city for what an eight-year-old and an 80-year-old need — like creating separate bicycle lanes and pedestrian walkways,” says Matti Siemiatycki, interim director of the School of Cities at the University of Toronto.

“Some of these things seem very minor, especially in terms of the scale of investment, [but] they have a huge impact on people experience and makes the city vibrant.”

In that context, one of the more urgent challenges remains the use of footpaths by PMDs and cyclists. With accidents on the rise, LTA has equipped enforcement officers with speed guns to nab PMD riders and cyclists who violate speed limits on paths. But the reality is, like most cities, Singapore’s infrastructure is ill-prepared for PMDs. Many paths are less than 1.5m wide.

Theseira recommends setting different speed limits for PMDs riding through different areas. They can go faster in sprawling industrial estates, for example, but must slow down in high-density residential areas.

For Koh, it is a matter of attitude and education. Among his friends and trainees, many use PMDs for last-mile travel. He believes a successful outcome does not only depend on efficient infrastructure. “I think it is about having respect for all,” he says.

This story first appeared in Issue 842 of The Edge Singapore. Subscribe here