The administration of Singapore issued a ban on the use of Personal Mobility Devices (PMDs) on footpath on 5th November 2019 which triggered outrage from the food delivery community. What led to the ban of PMD and why was it so sudden? This essay argues that the ban on PMD is a demonstration of how the 4G leadership is willing to make unpopular policies for the collective good of Singapore.
The contentious history of PMDs
As early as 4th November 2014, the Pedestrian and Cyclist Safety Committee reviewed the use of personal mobility devices on footpaths and roads. Then Minister of Transport Lui Tuck Yew explained that these devices are not suited for roads as they do not meet the safety standards of road-bound vehicles. Debates on whether PMDs should be used on footpaths was also raised by Member of Parliament, Dr. Lee Bee Wah. The solution proposed then was tighter enforcement against PMD users in the neighbourhood.
Fast-forward to 2015, PMDs was widely promoted as the revolutionary alternative to owning private vehicles and public transport. The adoption of PMD was initially expected to have several advantages; the reduction of carbon emissions and traffic congestion. Moreover, it aims to be solution for last-mile short distance transport between public transport drop-off point to the user’s final destination. Never was it meant for long distance commute. Hence, a series of policies were being launched to encourage the adoption of PMD which includes the permission for PMDs to be used on footpath in April 2015, code of conduct in April 2016, and insurance policies from NTUC in May 2016.
However, the fate of PMDs on footpath took a nasty turn on 22 September 2016 when Madam Ang Liu Kiow met with an accident with a PMD rider leaving her with a permanent brain damage. The rider, Nicholas Ting – a Polytechnic student then, was only sentenced in 2018 to be incarcerated for two weeks. This was the first documented incident which caused tensions between the safety of pedestrians and PMD users; and it would not be the last. Aggressive appeals to ban PMDs on footpaths was launched on May 2019 due to the failure to enforce responsible ridership.
Balancing public safety and the increasing PMD usage
The contestation for public space between pedestrians and PMDs happened against the backdrop of two major trends in Singapore; the adoption of PMDs for food delivery, and the reallocation of governmental budget for the aging population. These trends pose serious policy implications for the enforcement of PMDs on footpaths in Singapore. The massive adoption of PMD as an alternative career and the shrinking government budget to cater for healthcare leaves little government budget to hire enforcement officers. Some form of community-based regulation was implemented but to little effect.
The larger problem for PMD riders is the transferability of their jobs. Food delivery couriers make up part of the Singapore’s Gig Economy. However, the “fast cash” food couriers earn – which could be as high as $4,000 every month – suffers from vocational risks. The short-term income from food delivery has not developed long-term transferable skills for the riders; making them very vulnerable to technological disruption. This is pertinent as the absence of a mandatory CPF policy for gig workers removes any social security for them. Ultimately, the adoption of food delivery as a vocation is a time-bomb waiting to be detonated.
Various discussions about creating alternative pathways for PMD riders were conducted with various stakeholders but adoption is lukewarm. Moreover, with a possible recession ahead, more jobs would be lost and people would be directed into the food delivery sector which would only escalate the foreseeable problem. This industry would be disrupted either by technology in the future, or by government regulation today. Hence, the ban of PMDs on footpath might be done to hasten the transition of food delivery couriers to alternative carriers through various schemes from the Ministry of Transport and NTUC’s Employment and Employability Institute (e2i).
Making tough decisions in light of the bigger picture
Finally, the ban on PMDs sends a message to the society; the PAP government is willing to make tough policies for the betterment of Singapore. Any critics of the current government’s softer approach should now be quelled after the incumbent disrupted an entire industry for non-compliance. Hence, sending a political message to naysayers (particularly Tan Cheng Bok) about the weakness of the government.
Conclusively, the ban on PMDs on footpath has multiple purpose. It reinstated trust and safety for pedestrians on footpaths while facilitated career transitions for food delivery riders into a vocation with a higher value. Through this saga, the 4G leadership has demonstrated foresight and political courage to carry the torch and bring the country forward. Singapore must continue to demonstrate such political will to make unpopular decisions that will advance the interests of our home.