Wednesday 17 Apr 2024
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This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on September 26, 2022 - October 2, 2022

Sharifah Najihah Syed Zainol Abidin was thrilled when she was awarded a teaching fellowship earlier this year that would take her to the sedate town of Sungai Siput in Kuala Kangsar, Perak, for two years. Before embarking on her journey, however, she had to undergo a month-long training course in downtown Kuala Lumpur.

It came as a relief to Sharifah, 25, that most areas in the city centre, although a distance on foot, were quite accessible if she jumped on an e-scooter provided by shared micromobility operators such as Beam Mobility, OoGyaa Mobility and TRYKE Malaysia. This meant she did not need to endure traffic jams or depend on exorbitantly priced e-hailing services or poorly connected public transport.

Touted as the key piece to establishing an efficient transit system and to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, micromobility covers a host of alternative vehicles, from traditional bicycles, e-bicycles, mopeds and e-scooters to motorised wheelchairs and wheeled self-balancing transporters such as unicycles, hoverboards and skateboards.

Most micromobility modes are convenient too. Users only need to unlock and pay for the duration of the ride using the app of the respective operator. In the case of e-scooters, service providers have built Internet of Things (IoT) sensors into the devices that help the app detect the e-scooter’s battery life and nearby parking zones.

The use of shared e-scooters specifically has significantly encouraged users to take public transport too. A poll by Beam Mobility in May found that almost 50% of, or 1,800, Beam riders agreed that access to e-scooters for the first or last mile of a journey made them more likely to consider using public transport for long journeys.

These findings are aligned with the 12th Malaysia Plan to encourage a behavioural shift from private vehicles to public transport.

According to market research and business consulting services firm P&S Intelligence, the Malaysian micromobility market was valued at US$2.4 million in 2020 and is expected to grow to US$4.55 billion by 2030.

The Malaysia Electric Micromobility Industry Association (Memi) estimates that there are 200 certified micromobility vehicle sellers in the country, with 14,000 to 15,000 devices sold annually as at 2021.

Despite the promise of its ability to solve longstanding first- and last-mile woes in traffic-choked cities, however, the wider rollout of micromobility vehicles — especially electric-powered ones — is still far from becoming a mainstay in the local urban transport network.

A wider uptake has been hampered mainly by the concern of safety ensuing from conflicts with vehicular and pedestrian traffic; the lack of infrastructure such as dedicated lanes, charging and parking facilities; and regulatory vagueness.

“It can be dangerous and unsafe for anyone who is not accustomed to travelling on two-wheelers. Other road users will zoom past at breakneck speed and micromobility users have no choice but to ride on the road, as there are no dedicated lanes for micromobility vehicles on most roads in Kuala Lumpur,” says Sharifah.

Without proper demarcation for micromobility vehicles, vulnerable groups, especially people with disabilities and pedestrians, are too at risk. 

Already walkaways, which sometimes double as cycling paths, are often obstructed by parked motorcycles or errant hawkers who extend their area of business with tables and chairs for their customers. 

The haphazardness of the situation was emphasised by Transport Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wee Ka Siong when he reiterated on April 26 that mopeds, personal mobility devices (PMDs) such as e-scooters, devices with internal combustion engines or propelled by human power — with the exception of personal mobility aids — were banned on public roads, but allowed in areas where there is no mixture of traffic involving various vehicles.

Wee said the ban had been gazetted under the Road Traffic (Prohibition of Use of Certain Micro Mobility Rules Vehicles) Rules 2021 on Dec 17 last year, and had been in effect since. Even then, there is a caveat in the ban that permits micromobility vehicles on public roads, provided that local authorities make available the required infrastructure and facilities, such as dedicated bicycle lanes and smooth pavements, to ensure safe usage.

Bicycles are by definition micromobility vehicles but are still permitted on the road, so long as cyclists abide by the existing Road Transport Act and road traffic rules. E-bicycles too are allowed, provided that users comply with the standards applied to motorcycles.

The ministry’s alarm was triggered by errant e-scooter owners who had modified their machines and were caught racing on public roads.

Despite the subsequent clarifications from the Ministry of Transport, the sales of micromobility vehicles plunged 70% after news of the ban spread in April, says Memi vice-president Harry Wong.

“Many of our members asked for help [in terms] of their business direction. They asked whether they should shut down their businesses [after the ban]. The government didn’t really consult us [Memi] or any industrial players [before imposing the ban in December],” he says.

In a panel session on “Making Micromobility Safe in Malaysia” by Futurise Sdn Bhd in Cyberjaya on June 8, Beam Mobility, OoGyaa Mobility and TRYKE Malaysia asserted that they had had a low percentage of accidents from the time they started their business operations.

Beam, which started in 2016, has had an accident rate of 0.007%, or one out of every 10,000 rides; OoGyaa has had five accidents since its official launch in December 2021; and TRYKE Malaysia has recorded 0.05% accidents since its launch in 2019.

As such incidents rarely happen, OoGyaa founder Humayun Razzaq tells Digital Edge that he remembers the chronology of all the accidents vividly. According to him, all of the mishaps were due to rider negligence.

He recalls an incident where his team discovered a dented e-scooter. Upon being confronted, the rider confessed that he had hit a steep speed breaker while riding and fallen.

“What we have found from going through all the accident reports is that it’s always about not handling the vehicle properly, or not being confident enough to handle the vehicle,” says TRYKE Malaysia founder Timothy Wong.

Moreover, none of the reported incidents involved other vehicles. Both Timothy and Humayun agree that safety comes first beyond reparation costs, even if the accident resulted from riders’ negligence.

“As long as the customers are okay [unhurt or do not suffer grievous injuries], that is all we care about. Scooters can be replaced. It is just a piece of metal with wheels,” asserts Humayun, adding that OoGyaa fixes the e-scooters with first-degree damages without demanding compensation from the riders.

In efforts to prevent similar accidents, TRYKE introduced a five-minute grace period for all riders to familiarise themselves with the e-scooter before deciding whether they would be able to manage the nifty mode of transport.

Lack of standardisation

The lack of standardisation of micromobility vehicles is another source of contention, says Zarir Hafiz Zulkipli, head of the vulnerable road user safety and mobility unit at the Malaysian Institute of Road Safety Research (Miros).

“So far, we don’t have any specific standards for micromobility vehicles similar to what we have for electric bicycles, Malaysia Standard MS2514: Electric Bicycles (electric pedal assisted bicycles) specifications (MS2514:2015).”

As there is no concrete data on accidents involving micromobility vehicles in the country, Zarir suggests that Malaysian regulators look to neighbouring Singapore prior to laying the ground rules before micromobility vehicles become commonplace.

Based on a study conducted by the Singapore National Trauma Registry in 2016 on 259 patients who had been injured while using PMDs, the devices mainly associated with the injuries were scooters, skateboards and e-bicycles. The most severe injuries were caused by e-bicycles (42.9%) and e-scooters (28.6%).

In 2019, Hung Kee Boon, 22, who was riding a non-compliant e-scooter, collided with an elderly cyclist in Singapore. The victim, who was flung to the ground, later died from her injuries. Hung, a Malaysian with permanent resident status in Singapore, was sentenced to 12 weeks’ jail for causing Ong’s death after admitting to one count of riding a non-compliant PMD on a public path, an offence under the Active Mobility Act, reported The Straits Times.

Asked whether Malaysia’s road infrastructure is safe enough for micromobility vehicles, Zarir says it depends on the area. “It will be safe if there is a dedicated lane that separates micromobility vehicles from the rest of the traffic.”

Guidelines on the use of micromobility vehicles, also known as GPP Aktif Mobiliti, are being planned by the Town and Country Planning Department (PLANMalaysia). The department is collaborating with the Ministry of Transport, Road Transport Department (JPJ) and industry stakeholders.

Currently in the final stages of planning, the guidelines will include the speed limits for micromobility vehicles, road marking and specific routes for users.

PLANMalaysia and JPJ have agreed to conduct a pilot project at selected local councils to test the effectiveness of the guidelines.

Micromobility is part of the Malaysian Road Safety Plan focus areas being discussed by JPJ and Miros. The main goals are to achieve fewer accidents, injuries and fatalities involving micromobility vehicles, as well as increasing awareness of and infrastructure to support its usage.

Considering that micromobility vehicles are greener mobility modes, local councils have been actively encouraging micromobility in their districts too. In addition to the usual KL Car-Free Morning initiative, Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) has made Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman a car-free lane every Sunday from 6am to midnight.

DBKL is also participating in the pilot project conducted by PLANMalaysia and JPJ to test the GPP Aktif Mobiliti guidelines. They are currently identifying suitable areas to do so.

The Shah Alam City Council (MBSA) resumed its monthly Car-Free Day in November 2021 after halting the initiative due to the Covid-19 lockdowns that began in March 2020.

These initiatives have been somewhat positive for the shared micromobility service providers. In May, Beam expanded its operation to Taman Esplanade and TASEK Commercial Centre in Kuantan. It also collaborated with Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang, in July to offer alternative transport for students to travel around campus. Last month, TRYKE landed its fleet of yellow e-scooters in downtown Melaka.

As Beam operates through partnerships with local councils, its presence in cities serves as another public transport option approved by the city council, says Taty Azman, public affairs manager at Beam. 

Although service providers continue to work closely with local councils, regulations and lack of infrastructure continue to impede wider rollout. 

Says Timothy: “Most areas along the Melaka River Walk cannot be shared with e-scooters with very few cycling lanes. [The collaboration with the Melaka city council] is still in its early days, but we are happy to establish a foothold in the city and prove to them that we are the right operators for the job [and] we care about safety as much as they do and slowly grow along with them.” 

Raising awareness

Even with proper regulations in place, Beam’s Taty says public awareness is the most important factor in improving safety. “We established the Beam Safe Academy because scooter riding etiquette is not something that is commonplace.”

The Beam Safe Academy provides free lessons on proper e-scooter usage, parking methods, safety rules and the importance of adhering to local micromobility laws. Its first event, which attracted 50 attendees, was held at 1 Utama Shopping Centre in June.

The other e-scooter operators have also conducted their own awareness programmes.

Humayun says that apart from raising awareness through e-newsletters and social media platforms, OoGyaa has been conducting safety campaigns by leveraging existing programmes such as the weekly KL Car-Free Morning.

In addition to having videos on the TRYKE app, a team visits e-scooter hotspots weekly to assist the public in using the app and riding the e-scooter, says Timothy. He acknowledges, however, that this approach is not scalable.

“If we were to have 200 stations, we wouldn’t be able to assign a team to be on standby at every single station every week. However, we can utilise the data [obtained from TRYKE’s e-scooter’s IoT device and app] to help us determine the areas that we want to focus on,” he says.

As for individually owned micromobility vehicles, Memi’s Harry says users have to take the initiative to understand the risks associated with using the vehicles. He adds that some of the factors that users should consider before purchasing their first micromobility vehicle are the purpose of the vehicle — whether it is for short or long trips — its battery strength as well as the maintenance and care of the vehicle.

“In Memi’s view, [it is important] to regulate both sellers and vehicles. We will be able to educate more users on the safety measures and guidelines that they should follow,” he says.

Wish list

As industry players and the public anticipate the announcement of the guidelines, TRYKE’s Timothy hopes it will lay the foundation for expanding the reach of micromobility vehicles to enable seamless, point-to-point journeys.

“Micromobility is such a hot topic now. It is a good thing because not many people were aware of it. As long as we can keep the momentum going and maintain the narrative around safety and awareness of how to properly handle micromobility vehicles, society will eventually learn and adapt,” he says.

Beyond e-scooter sharing services, OoGyaa’s Humayun hopes the government will also monitor other micromobility vehicles that are being manufactured or imported into the country for public usage.

Currently, all e-scooter sharing operators have to submit their e-scooter brands and model specifications to the Ministry of International Trade and Industry.

In addition, Memi has recommended to local municipalities that all micromobility vehicle sellers be registered under the association. Memi assists in inspecting all micromobility vehicles to ensure vehicle safety before they are sold to potential users. All inspected vehicles can be tagged to be recognised on the road.

“We cannot stop people from buying micromobility vehicles from unauthorised sellers online, but someone will have to take action [by regulating and inspecting vehicles that are allowed on the road],” says Memi’s Harry.

On the administration level, he suggests that the government form a department dedicated to regulating electric micromobility for better cooperation between the industry and authorities.

To further stimulate the micromobility retail industry, Harry hopes the government will grant cash incentives to encourage buyers to purchase their own micromobility vehicles.

Miros’ Zarir hopes clearer guidelines will improve micromobility data collection. Last year, 87 deaths related to bicycles were recorded, according to the Royal Malaysia Police’s Traffic Investigation and Enforcement Department.

“As micromobility is relatively new, the police crash records didn’t capture the specific type of micromobility vehicles involved in the crashes. The crash data could have included electric bicycles, mopeds and other similar micromobility vehicles,” says Zarir.

 

The rise and fall of dockless bike-sharing

In mid-April 2017, a fleet of orange bicycles from oBike arrived in Klang Valley’s popular locations, becoming Malaysia’s first dockless bicycle-sharing, or bike-sharing, service.

oBike originated in Singapore, where there were half a million users. By July that year, more than 1,000 oBikes were stationed in Malaysia, indicating a great start for the service.

Than bought more than 10,000 oBikes for children in his hometown in Myanmar to help them get to school (Photo by Gempak.com / rojakdaily)

Soon after, oBike was joined by other bike-sharing players such as China’s Ofo Bike in July 2017 and Mobike in September that year.

The concept of dockless bike-sharing is similar to that of e-scooters. Users need to download an app and scan the QR code on each bicycle to unlock and activate the ride.

Unlike modern e-scooters that have designated parking spots, however, bike-sharing users could park their bicycles anywhere, as long as it did not disrupt traffic.

All bike-sharing operators imposed a refundable deposit on users before allowing them to take their first ride. For example, oBike charged a deposit of RM129 for adults and RM79 for children respectively. Meanwhile, it charged RM1 for each 15-minute ride. All oBike riders were insured throughout their cycling journey.

Some operators chose a targeted approach for their services. Ofo picked Melaka as the first location for its bicycles, and Mobike collaborated with property developer S P Setia to deploy its first batch of bicycles in Setia Alam and Setia Eco Park.

Regardless of the hype, bike-sharing in Malaysia was short-lived. In September 2017, the Petaling Jaya City Council (MBPJ) issued oBike a fine of RM17,000 for being an obstruction in public places. Two hundred and sixty-one bicycles that were parked around the SS2 area were also seized.

A mountain of oBikes at DBKL’s depot in Cheras waiting to be scrapped (Photo by The Star)

The Selangor Transportation Committee then announced that the company’s licence to operate in Selangor was valid only in Subang Jaya. Following the clampdown, other city councils in the state began coming down hard on dockless bike-sharing.

Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) continued to keep the bike-sharing options open, however, allowing oBike to be used on its roads, following oBike’s role as a Green Partner for SEA Games 2017. The Subang Jaya City Council (MPSJ) had also planned a bike-sharing pilot programme in October 2017.

Apart from the tussle with the authorities, the shared bicycles were also constantly vandalised. Bicycles were either left damaged by the roadside or stolen to be sold as scrap metal.

Despite the hurdles, oBike grew to become the largest bike-sharing company in the country. By March 2018, oBike had expanded its services to Kuala Lumpur, Selangor, Melaka, Kedah, Terengganu, Johor, Perak and Pahang. Other bike-sharing operators continued their businesses as usual, partnering companies and city councils.

In 2018, the bike-sharing services ended abruptly. In the light of the regulations set by the Land Transport Authority of Singapore (LTA), oBike ceased all operations in its homeland on June 25, 2018.

The bike-sharing company also decided to leave Melbourne and worked with the City of Melbourne to remove all bicycles from the streets. oBike has since filed for insolvency in Singapore. Ofo also ceased its operations in August 2018.

Mobike, on the other hand, officially halted operations in China in 2020, but its status in Malaysia remains a mystery.

Abandoned bicycles have since littered the cities in which the bike-sharing services operated. In March 2019, it was reported that thousands of oBikes were crowding DBKL’s depots, taking up space in the city pounds.

Some of the companies took the initiative to repurpose the bicycles. According to a report by Astro Awani, under his self-funded charity programme, Lesswalk, Myanmar-based tech investor Mike Than Tun Win bought more than 10,000 oBikes that were in good condition to be handed to children in his hometown, in an effort to provide them with easier access to schools.

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