Parliamentary Speech, Road Traffic Amendment Bill, 8 July 2019
Anthea Ong on Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill
NMP Anthea says more should be done to build an inclusive accessible Singapore while navigating the tension between…
Introduction: Road Rights and Limited Shared Spaces for the Vulnerable
Mr Deputy Speaker, I stand in support of the proposed amendments as they are in line with protecting the rights and safety of road users.
Yet, protecting the rights of all road users while continuing to enhance accessibility have increasingly come into tension. This is not unique to Singapore but certainly more challenging for us given our high density urban environment of 7,804 people per square kilometre. These challenges will only exacerbate, with one in four Singaporeans to be aged 65 and above by 2030, and including persons with disabilities, this figure reaches a third of the residential population.
As the amendments proposed in this Bill seek to adjust penalties and improve regulatory regimes to manage this tension, I take this opportunity to speak up for the elderly and disability populations to engage in the conversation of road rights, and how Singapore can best enjoy limited shared spaces in a way that protects all, especially vulnerable members of our population with greater accessibility needs. Penalties and regulations are important in ensuring the safety of all road users, but they must also be complemented by understanding and acceptance by the public, which will only be possible if we have these conversations that cultivate cultural acceptance.
I acknowledge that our various public agencies recognise these needs, as reflected in the latest Land Transport Master Plan (LTMP) 2040 and URA Draft Master Plan 2019.
Yet we can, and must do more to build an inclusive, accessible Singapore while navigating the tension between safety and accessibility.
Road Rights of Personal Mobility Devices (PMDs) and their Role in Improving Accessibility
We cannot have a conversation on the tension of accessibility and safety without bringing up the Personal Mobility Devices or PMDs, At the risk of going off-road here — pun intended, I seek your indulgence Mr Speaker as I offer another but important consideration on behalf of our elderly and persons with disabilities regarding PMDs The growing emphasis on achieving safety and accessibility in First-and-Last-Mile Connectivity (FLMC) will be crucial to enhancing accessibility or achieving a car-lite Singapore. Personal Mobility Devices or PMDs have grown in usage and already play an important role in the lives of people who depend on them for various forms of participation in society, especially by the elderly and differently abled. As 76 year old retiree, Madam Angie Ng shared, the most life-changing decision was getting a motorised scooter which allows her to go out marketing, visit friends and have a meal — tasks previously virtually impossible because of her osteoporosis which made it extremely painful for her to walk. Other examples include Ms Juni Syafiqa Binte Jumat who landed a job with GrabFood with her electric wheelchair.
It is clear the rapid proliferation of specific PMDs amplifies the need to develop a culture of safely sharing limited spaces between users going at different speeds. Previously, unregulated PMDs led to persistently high accident rates with 2,500 active mobility offences recorded between May and December 2018 alone.
On 28 May, a news article noted that HDB void deck areas were exempted from the Active Mobility Act, and town councils can impose their own rules. 15 town councils then said that they would not rule out banning PMDs from void decks. This is despite recent regulatory reductions of speed limit of PMDs on footpaths from 15 to 10 km/h.
While the Government works towards having every household within 300m of an MRT station, the elderly and differently-abled still rely on their PMDs to enjoy the same privilege of access to public spaces and transport. The physical and psychological benefits which PMDs bring cannot be underestimated. An outright ban of PMDs on footpaths or void decks may be a convenient but also a blunt solution. A more effective and calibrated approach would be to institute different extents of regulation for different PMD user-groups; as well as, perhaps more importantly, cultivating a path-sharing and safe riding culture.
Ensuring Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) Are Inclusive
Mr Deputy Speaker, we also cannot have a conversation on road rights and sharing limited spaces without talking about Autonomous Vehicles or AVs. AVs have opened new possibilities to meet mobility needs. And to the vulnerable segments of our population, especially the elderly, AV deployment can both be a cause for celebration, and a concern.
With one in four of our population being 65 and above by 2030, many who have always enjoyed the freedom of mobility are now and will be less able to. AVs can cover the short distances to visit grandchildren who live close-by without having to navigate stairs, walkways without handrails, or traffic junctions. AVs feature in our near-term future mobility plans as dynamically routed services to be piloted in Punggol, Tengah and the Jurong Innovation District by 2022, a mere three years away. LTA’s vision for a car-lite Singapore includes low-speed self-driving pods for neighbourhoods. Both these initiatives can really benefit our seniors with more point-to-point, short-route services.
Nevertheless, AVs, are moving vehicles which pose a risk to road users and pedestrians. We must therefore ensure that we balance the design and deployment of AVs with safety and mobility.
Whether or not AVs bring about higher accessibility for the elderly will clearly depend on whether we have designed the vehicles, network and system to their needs and challenges. Reviewing the current use cases and testing compiled by Smart Nation SG, I have to humbly suggest that we may have to do more for our growing numbers of seniors, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Let me highlight the road rights and accessibility considerations relating to the elderly and AVs in two aspects: the elderly as pedestrians, and the elderly as passengers.
First as pedestrians, the elderly are more likely to be at risk with AVs. Pedestrian safety studies emphasise the driver-pedestrian interaction and provisions of cues for decision-making. In the absence of a driver, the elderly pedestrian can only rely on cues from the vehicles. The elderly have slower reaction times, and could require both enhanced visual and audio cues to be aware of oncoming traffic. Given our rapidly ageing population, AVs should be designed and tested with consideration to these safety needs. This could include braking reaction time, as well as exterior vehicle design and vehicle sound levels.
As passengers, the elderly can benefit from the convenience and safety provided by AVs. However, familiarity with the technology, awareness of benefits, and user-centric design are all critical aspects to acceptance of this new technology. Testing has so far been at one-north, university campuses as well as Gardens By the Bay. These are not areas where the elderly population frequent, limiting their awareness of this new technology and its benefits. As always, it is better to “show them, not tell them”. Providing opportunities for the elderly to experience the technology is important. Entities involved in testing could be required to explore locations and methods to ensure the elderly are part of the testing population in future trials.
While supportive of AV deployment, I cannot help but come back to the complexity around road rights. For example, should a slower-moving AV providing point-to-point service be afforded preferential road rights to other motorised vehicles? Should there be dedicated road space? Do we carve out more space from sidewalks, or from motorised roadways for new pickup points? How should we make these choices? These are difficult but important questions for our society and policymakers to grapple with. Perhaps, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I’m pre-empting the new Point-to-Point Passenger Transport Industry Bill that has just been tabled for First Reading today but I think it’s safe to say that we must learn from what we have experienced with the PMDs by involving the elderly and vulnerable populations early on with AVs.
Conclusion: Fair Allocation, Safety and Wellbeing
Mr. Deputy Speaker, with only 700 square kilometres of land that is our home, truly — our challenge will always be about space: how do we share space amongst competing users — humans or otherwise — in that perennial creative tension of road rights as well as ensuring the safety of pedestrians, cyclists and motorists?
Recognising the diverse needs for accessibility across all user groups, new modes of transportation should be harnessed to enable all Singaporeans to lead healthier, happier lives while protecting vulnerable road users. As much as my heart aches for the lives affected and lost through misuse and accidents from the new devices, we mustn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater either. Diverse mobility options is clearly the future that we need to embrace but this future can only be realised if and when we rigorously test and design for the diversity of user experiences and needs.
We cannot neglect the discussion of fair allocation, safety and wellbeing. The elderly and the differently-abled must be invited and included to participate in and negotiate on their rights as users of our shared spaces, roads and pathways. Active participation at the community level will encourage grassroots and groundup actions, including locale-specific solutions, that help to cultivate the gracious culture of space sharing that we aspire towards.
Because, Mr Deputy Speaker, our biggest challenge is not in adopting the latest mobility technologies for improved accessibility nor crafting and updating laws to protect the safety of road users like this Bill seeks to do. Our biggest challenge will be in achieving true inclusivity in urban and transport planning as well as fostering a healthy culture of sharing our limited spaces in a way that keeps each other safe as new mobility technologies emerge. This must, therefore, be our priority in our quest towards being a sustainable smart nation for all Singaporeans.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I support the Bill.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament. (A Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) is a Member of the Parliament of Singapore who is appointed by the President. They are not affiliated to any political party and do not represent any constituency. There are currently nine NMPs in Parliament.)
The multi-sector perspective that comes from her ground immersion of 12 years in different capacities helps her translate single-sector issues and ideas across boundaries without alienating any particular community/group. As an entrepreneur and with many years in business leadership, it is innate in her to discuss social issues with the intent of finding solutions, or at least of exploring possibilities. She champions mental health, diversity and inclusion — and volunteerism in Parliament.
She is also an impact entrepreneur/investor and a passionate mental health advocate, especially in workplace wellbeing. She started WorkWell Leaders Workgroup in May 2018 to bring together top leaders (CXOs, Heads of HR/CSR/D&I) of top employers in Singapore (both public and private) to share, discuss and co-create inclusive practices to promote workplace wellbeing. Anthea is also the founder of Hush TeaBar, Singapore’s 1st silent teabar and a social movement that aims to bring silence, self care and social inclusion into every workplace, every community — with a cup of tea. The Hush Experience is completely led by lovingly-trained Deaf facilitators, supported by a team of Persons with Mental Health Issues (PMHIs).