The 7,000 delivery workers affected by the ban on e-scooters on all footpaths and roads are collateral damage caused by the inefficiency of the Land Transport Authority. The LTA’s poor handling also shows up a certain mindset when it comes to acting swiftly on problems involving people who do not have as much clout as, say, those staying in districts 9, 10 and 11.
The transport agency has been behind the curve in dealing with the proliferation of mobility devices, or, earlier, innovations which saw, for example, rental bicycles flooding the market. Then, it was unsure whether the spike was a good or bad thing. It tried to palm off its inaction as an intentional hands-off approach. The fact of the matter was that it could not cope, as it was probably caught by surprise.
Same thing with the e-scooters. I am shocked to discover there are already 100,000 registered e-scooters here. And, even more disturbing, at least 80,000 are not UL2272-certified (meaning not compliant with safety standards). Has the LTA been keeping tabs and how did it allow so many problematic PMDs (personal mobility devices) to be on the road, in the first place?
And did it have to wait for serious or fatal accidents to happen before acting? In July, a 19-year-old e-scooterist, with his girlfriend as pillion rider, crashed into an elderly woman and left her in a coma with brain injuries. This was in Pasir Ris.
In another case this year, a woman was knocked down by a man riding an e-scooter along Bedok Reservoir Road. She suffered head injuries.
And this month, an e-scooter rider, who collided into a six-year-old boy near Punggol Park and caused the child to suffer fractures and temporary loss of hearing, was sentenced to five days’ jail.
Allowing e-scooters unchecked use of footpaths and roads was always going to have bad endings. Unprotected pedestrians, especially children and the elderly, will be helpless victims of careless, reckless and selfish riders. Also, some of the e-scooter riders have started developing a sub-culture of open defiance. An online picture showed a young male e-scooterist with a black mask and a helmet practically pointing his middle finger presumably at the authorities. And before the ban, it was not uncommon to encounter similarly dressed or geared hard-to-identify e-scooterists flitting around in HDB estates like Bedok and Kaki Bukit. And the show of open defiance meant they are saying the LTA or other relevant agencies are toothless or slow to catch up. We may have a potential law and order problem on our hands.
Why has the LTA been taking so long to deal with the mushrooming of errant e-scooterists and its consequences in Singapore’s heartlands? Would it have acted faster if they have appeared in our more affluent residential areas? I cannot imagine such reckless riders being given any chance to cause any trouble the way they have been in our hoi polloi estates. Perhaps HDB is low priority, to put it mildly whereas one serious injury or one death would have been one too many for those who have the clout to ensure firmer and speedier action.
Now we come to the 7,000 delivery workers.
Sure, they are part of a gig economy which usually springs up in any society where time is considered important. And the delivery of food is a major component of that eco-system. It is a major business.
I quote the Business Times: “Revenue in Singapore’s online food delivery sector is expected to swell to US$164 million (S$223.15 million) this year (2018), up 27.9 per cent from 2017, with around 1.1 million users, according to Hamburg-based market research firm Statista. By 2022, this number will likely grow at an annual rate of 17.9 per cent to hit US$316 million (S$429.96 million).
“Evidently, delivery operators feel there are spoils there for the taking, despite the brutal environment. A spokesman for Grab points to a S$250 million to S$300 million total addressable market in Singapore for food delivery, and an estimated 4,000 restaurants and 12,000 hawker stalls that are not yet served by food delivery apps.”
So, what did the LTA expect?
Any fool could see that there would be a scramble for a share of the pie. These food industry players were not going to wait for the LTA to wake up and do its slow dance of group-think , based on sycophantic feedback, followed by some Jurassic-paced moves. As an example of how out of date the LTA is, just take a look at its largely unattractive and wordy if not uninformative, often unintelligible, website. Road users will find nothing useful or helpful there. Such a waste of space.
Suddenly, the LTA finds itself having to deal with 7,000 people who have been depending on food delivery for their livelihoods. It is, as Workers’ Party secretary-general Pritam Singh put it, an honest job.
“The food delivery business has provided Singaporeans, especially the low-income and those who seek to supplement their income, with on-demand work,” he said.
Instead of being on top of the situation from the word Go, the LTA has probably not grasped the potential of food delivery and worked out a strategy to help its growth rather than let it become an area of concern demanding draconian action.
With the ban, riders of e-scooters will be restricted to cycling paths and the park connector network. There are currently more than 5,500km of footpaths compared with 440km of cycling paths. These are the LTA’s own statistics. What a tight squeeze.
Still, the food delivery business will grow. And it will owe absolutely nothing to Singapore’s transport planners. Indeed, it will do so despite its incompetency and lack of imagination.
Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.