Airwheels, E-scooters and Mini-farthings: Your ride in the future?

[Magazine Exclusive] Fancy riding an electric unicycle to the train station? Or an electric version of the kick-scooters from your childhood? These personal electric vehicles could be the missing piece in Asia's hopes for a car-free, public-transit oriented transport system.

A decade ago, talk of ‘Airwheels’ and ‘Mini-farthings’ would have been met with blank stares from anyone who heard the terms.

But today, these words - names for an emerging breed of personal electric mobility devices (PMEDs) - are likely to receive an enthusiastic response from commuters and proponents of sustainable urban transport alike.

Airwheels, which are self-balancing unicycles; mini-farthings, a smaller, souped-up version of the ancient penny-farthing bicycle; electric kickscooters (e-scooters) and battery-powered bicycles, are just a few examples of a new generation of PMEDs that is changing the face of urban mobility all over the world. 

These solo rides, which travel at speeds of around 25 kilometres an hour and can cover between five and 35 kilometres on a single charge, could be an important piece of the sustainable urban transport puzzle, say observers.

This is because they can help bridge the ‘first and last mile’ gap that inhibits public transport use - that is, the distance between a person’s home or workplace and the nearest public transport node.

Raymond Ong, assistant professor at the National University of Singapore’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, tells Eco-Business that for commuters who are not within walking distance of important public transport nodes such as train stations, inadequate or unreliable services to ferry them to and from the station “can lead to negative perceptions of public transport as unreliable”.

This can influence people’s choice to stick to privately owned cars, he notes, adding that “the first and last mile gap has traditionally been a very important problem for travel in Asia”. 

Kim Ki-Joon, senior transport analyst at the Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) East Asia department, explains that “last kilometre connectivity is particularly a challenge in Asia and the Pacific” due to the region’s hot, humid and often unpredictable weather, and the poor condition of pavements in some areas.

The difficulty of getting users from their homes to public transport could spell trouble for Asia, where rapid urbanisation and increasing incomes are driving up car ownership so fast that the continent’s vehicle fleet doubles every five to seven years. By 2030, Asia will account for almost half of all the vehicles in the world. 

The adverse impacts of this unchecked growth are already evident in the region’s infamous traffic jams, and its dubious honour of being home to some of the most polluted cities in the world.

To mitigate this, the region is investing heavily in public transport, with the Asian Development Bank alone giving out US$3 billion in loans every year to support sustainable transport initiatives such as public transit systems and even electric tricycles in Manila, Philippines. 

PMEDs are a “suitable fit” for efforts to achieve a sustainable urban city, says Ong. “This is because they are a low-carbon, affordable, and convenient way to bridge the first and last mile gap”.

PMEDs in their various forms have been around since the early 2000s, and have steadily grown in popularity since then.

For example, global annual sales of electric bicycles are expected to grow from 30 million units in 2012 to over 47 million vehicles a year in 2018, according to market analysis firm Pike Research. China is expected to account for most of these sales – in 2018, it is expected to be home to 42 million e-bikes, or about 89 per cent of the total global market.

In Singapore, there are about 11,600 authorised electric bicycles, according to government figures.

Statistics about the newer generation of PMEDs such as electric kick-scooters, unicycles, and similar inventions are not readily available, but Singapore-based electric unicycle group The Wheelies reports about 300 members, all of whom own an electric unicycle.

Executives and young professionals zipping around on these vehicles is also an increasingly common sight on the roads, pavements, and park connectors in Singapore and the region.

Islandwide e-scooter network

One company that not only makes e-scooters but also aims to set up a city-wide sharing network of these devices is Floatility, a German-founded firm that set up in Singapore last June.

Oliver Risse, founder of Floatility, tells Eco-Business that “e-scooters support intermodality,” which is the notion of easily incorporating different modes of transport into a commute. “It is easier to bring into a train or bus than a bicycle,” he adds. 

Floatility recently announced a partnership with German chemical firm BASF to develop the ultra-lightweight and solar-powered electric scooter that will be available to users in the e-scooter network.  

Each three-wheeled scooter weighs less than 12 kilogrammes, and consists of more than 80 per cent composite and plastic materials provided by BASF. The vehicle has a range of about 15 kilometres, says Risse, and its speed can be adjusted up to 20km/hour, depending on the limits regulation of the country it is being used in. 

Floatility will soon launch these e-scooters at a trade fair in Guangzhou, China at the end of May. Soon after, it will run a test-bed project at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, which will see students, staff, and researchers using the scooters. This project has received financial support from Singapore’s Economic Development Board, shares Risse.

Floatility will simultaneously run a mirror trial in Hamburg Germany, where the focus will be the viability of scooters in icy and wet winter weather. In Europe, Floatility follows safety regulations for electric bicycles, says Risse.

In the Singapore study, user feedback on ease of use, safety concerns, and convenience will inform the eventual business model, including safety measures taken, product prices, and the locations of the e-scooter stations.

“MRT stations are a natural fit” for possible scooter locations, says Risse. “People mainly travel from the residential areas to train stations, and the Singapore government is also trying to encourage train use.” 

While such large-scale schemes are still a work in progress, vehicles such as Airwheels, e-scooters, and mini-farthings are already gaining a following among urban commuters in Singapore. 

Safe and convenient

Senior Analyst Siddi Chavalit, 28, makes his dailycommute to work in Singapore from Chinatown to the central business district on an Airwheel, a single self-balancing wheel with footrests on each side. He purchased the machine for about S$770 shortly after moving to Singapore last September, and tells Eco-Business that “it’s a very safe and convenient to get around”. 

Chavalit says he is careful to make his 15-minute commute in the early morning or late evenings when the streets are less busy, and that at about 12kg, the machine is fairly portable. 

“In about three or four months, I have saved enough on taxi fares to recover what I paid for the Airwheel,” he says, adding that he also uses it to commute from his home to the train station on weekends. 

However, Chavalit, who has previously lived in Shanghai and Bangkok, says his Airwheel would not be well-suited for use in those cities. This is due to a public transport network that is comparatively less developed than Singapore’s, and access to cheap alternatives like taxis.

Good public transport a prerequisite

Experts agree, saying that developing a public transport network is the first step to sustainable urban transport.

Andreas Rau, a researcher at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, notes that in order drive sustainable urban mobility, the use of PMEDs is certainly a part of the solution, but “must be integrated into a wider sustainable transport policy”, which includes expanding public transport and limiting the use of private vehicles, among other measures. 

However, in many cities in the region, cars are not just a preference, they are a necessity, notes NUS professor Ong, adding that “in these cases, the shift to public transport is not just about the first and last mile, it is about the entire public transport system”.

Whether cities in many Asian countries have succeeded in driving a modal shift to public transport will be seen in about 10 years, says Ong. This is when ongoing public transport projects in cities such as Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh, and others are slated to be completed.

“Only then will the role of PMEDs in increasing access to this expanded transport infrastructure be clearer,” he says, adding that for now, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Tokyo have the public transport systems that are most suitable for supporting the growth of PMEDs.

In China, too, a growing middle class is increasingly shifting to car ownership, but the country is also the world’s biggest market for electric bicycle and scooter sales, notes Ong. “We will have to wait and see” how these different trends develop, he says.

Regulatory roadblocks

But it is not only infrastructure issues that restrict PMED use in Asia. Despite the potential of these vehicles to deliver many sustainability benefits and bridge the last mile gap, the jury is still out on whether it is legal to use them in Asia. 

These vehicles, often seen as too slow for travelling on roads and too fast to share pavements with pedestrians, have sparked safety concerns among urban and transport planners.

In Singapore, for example, electric kickscooters are not allowed on public roads, pavements and park connectors, with those found using the vehicles in the city-state’s green spaces liable to a fine of up to S$5,000. They are, however, allowed in areas such as the Marina Bay financial district and tourist island Sentosa.

But given the country’s ambition to have 75 per cent of all peak hour journeys made on public transport by 2030 and become a ‘car-lite’ nation which favours walking, cycling, and public transport, parliamentary secretary for transport Faishal Ibrahim acknowledges in a recent speech that such bans are “clearly not a sensible policy, since they are a convenient way to get around the neighbourhood and are increasingly common”.

A clear and consistent set of rules governing the use of PMEDs in Singapore is much needed, notes Ibrahim, but acknowledges that “there are wide differences in views on what these rules and norms should be”. 

To resolve these differences, the city-state’s Land Transport Authority in March announced a consultation exercise with all stakeholders to devise safety guidelines.

A general set of rules would apply to the whole island, says Ibrahim, but a “more progressive” set of rules and norms would be offered to some neighbourhoods that are ready for them. Examples of the latter could include the neighbourhood of Tampines in east Singapore, where residents use footpaths for both walking and cycling in a safe way.

“We need not have a one-size-fits-all solution,” says Ibrahim.  

While some countries race ahead with scaling up the use of PMEDs for sustainable urban mobility, ADB’s Kim advises that other options like the bicycle-sharing schemes that are exploding across China and simple, cost-effective measures like improving the environment for pedestrians would also enhance last-mile connectivity.

“This would also have the added benefit of creating a more liveable community,” he says.

This story was first pubilshed in the Eco-Business magazine. Check it out here.

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