Koreans embrace personal mobility devices

Urban travel: Many South Koreans view electric scooters as an effective way to commute. — AFP

SEONGNAM: Whizzing to work on electric scooters seems to be the popular thing in Pangyo, a tech-savvy neighbourhood south of Seoul known for its quickness to adopt new technologies and trends.

Five months into scootering to work, Kim is beyond satisfied with his purchase and is convinced that e-scooters are the way to go for short-distance travel.

“Unless it’s raining, I take my scooter (a Segway Ninebot ES2) to work every day, travelling on the bicycle paths in the parks stretching through Bundang,” Kim told The Korea Herald.

“Riding an e-scooter saves daily transportation costs. All I need to do is charge the device at home with electricity. Now it only takes around 15 minutes to get to work, compared to 30 minutes stuck on a bus during rush hour.”

Kim is just one of many South Koreans who view electric scooters as an effective way to commute to and from work or school. Together with recreational riders, e-mobility users like Kim are fuelling the popularity of personal mobility devices (PMDs) here.

PMDs refer to motorised, one-person vehicles powered by electricity, including standing electric scooters, two-wheeled Segways, hands-free hoverboards and electric bikes.

They can travel at a maximum speed of 20-40kph. A standard e-scooter costs around 500,000 won (RM1,826) at local retail prices.

And demand for PMDs is growing. According to the Korea Trans­port Institute (KTI), approximately 75,000 PMDs were sold here in 2017, up 20% from 60,000 units the previous year. By 2022, this number is expected to surpass 200,000 units, according to the institute.

Though PMDs first garnered interest as recreational devices in South Korea, they are now perceived more as practical vehicles for commuting.

In a 2017 KTI survey of 150 personal mobility device users, 55.3% said they used PMDs to commute to work or school, exceeding those who used them for recreational purposes (46.7%).

Despite the growth, the regulations surrounding PMDs have been ambiguous, if not absent, leading to safety risks and widespread confusion among scooter riders, cars and pedestrians.

In South Korea, most people ride their e-scooters on sidewalks or in a bike lane when available. Many ride them at public parks. Most do not wear helmets and few are seen riding in the streets.

But this is all illegal, according to Korea’s transport regulations.

The Road Traffic Act categorises PMDs as motorbikes, treating them like a standard motorcycle. This means the legal way to ride a PMD here is to stay in regular car lanes and wear a helmet. The rider must also be over the age of 16 and hold a two-wheeled motor vehicle driving licence.

Most e-mobility riders don’t follow these rules, largely because they are unaware. Enforcement has been weak, with surveillance mostly limited to sporadic inspections at Seoul parks.

This legal stipulation itself is self-contradictory. While PMDs are required to travel within car lanes, there is no law mandating e-mobility devices to obtain the governmental safety certification required of all vehicles on the roads.

Legal issues aside, experts warn that it is realistically dangerous to send e-scooter riders to the roads to travel next to regular cars that are going at much higher speeds.

Personal mobility devices are here and growing in scope, but the regulations are not keeping pace, hurting both the industry and PMD riding culture, said Kim Pil-su, an automotive engineering professor at Daelim University and chairman of the Korea Electric Vehicle Association.

The government needs to legislate clear rules on travel speed, permitted locations and driving qualifications for PMD vehicles by benchmarking successful models from overseas. — The Korea Herald / Asia News Network

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