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Social compact needed on PMD reporting app

25 Jul 2019

Straits Times, 9 Jul 2019, Social compact needed on PMD reporting app
Lim Sun Sun For The Straits Times 
 
The Land Transport Authority (LTA) has announced the launch of a new addition to its MyTransport.SG app to mobilise members of the public to report errant users of personal mobility devices (PMDs).
 
Users are encouraged to take photographs of inconsiderate riders on e-scooters or other PMDs, who endanger pedestrians through speeding and other forms of recklessness. This new “Report PMD/PAB (Power-assisted bicycle) Incident feature” will be available to all 700,000 users of the app.
 
Involving the public in this effort is beneficial in several ways. Besides educating everyone as to what does or does not constitute safe PMD riding behaviour, driving up public participation also means access to a significantly broader body of data which the LTA may draw from.
Footage from the prevailing network of CCTV cameras along public pathways and park connectors will be greatly augmented by photographs and videos submitted by the public. The data gathered from these incident reports can also be collated and analysed to facilitate urban planning, to more effectively integrate our human and vehicular traffic networks.
 
Such human-mediated content is richer because users can provide more contextual information about incidents that unidimensional CCTV footage lacks, for example, the rider’s failure to signal his intentions early, or the presence of crowds or obstacles beyond the visual scope of the CCTV.

Involving the public in reporting such incidents circumvents resource constraints that limit active enforcement. Through such increased oversight, PMD riders will arguably be deterred from riding irresponsibly and our pedestrian pathways can be safer.
 
Indeed, in her notable book The Death and Life of Great American Cities published in 1961, urban activist Jane Jacobs made some astute and enduring observations of city streets.
 
“Streets and their sidewalks, the main public places of a city, are its most vital organs...When people say that a city, or a part of it, is dangerous or is a jungle what they mean primarily is that they do not feel safe on the sidewalks.”
 
Singapore’s pedestrian pathways are those very sidewalks— arteries that link MRT stations to HDB blocks, malls to offices and schools to parks—connecting people to places. They have long enjoyed a hallowed reputation for being convenient, well-shaded and safe, ensuring that “the last mile” of every journey is pleasant and uneventful.
 
Yet our pavements have recently acquired the unfortunate image of being sites for hazards, with the brutish encroachment of PMDs, or recklessly-ridden ones to be precise.

Unwitting pedestrians have been knocked down by speeding PMD riders and vicious altercations have broken out between pedestrians and riders in near-miss accidents. Suddenly, our streets no longer feel as safe as they used to.
 
However, with the introduction of the incident reporting app, we can theoretically enjoy greater safety to an unprecedented degree if all pedestrians join in this effort to help monitor the behaviour of PMD riders. The pedestrians reporting such incidents would be somewhat akin to the “eyes on the street” that Jane Jacobs prescribed, neighbours who help keep a lookout on streets and enhance everyone’s sense of security.
 
However, with technology and incident reporting entering the picture, what will the impact of such surveillance be on the nature of shared public space? Will a PMD rider who is travelling within the stipulated speed limits feel a jolt of anger when spying a trigger-happy pedestrian snapping a picture of her on her vehicle? Will increasing use of the app also ignite heated confrontations between riders and pedestrians, and perhaps encourage the rise of vigilantism? Will the introduction of such peer-to-peer surveillance introduce and even heighten tensions among our denizens?
 
Whereas the surveillant glare of CCTV cameras is potentially disturbing, we have gradually become inured to their silent presence, accepting them as part and parcel of our urban landscape. But the surveillant gaze of a fellow human being wielding a phone and recording your image de-anonymises that process, brings raw emotions to the fore, and disrupts what is otherwise a tacit co-existence with other people within a shared public space.

When peer to peer monitoring adds another layer to the ever-growing cloud of surveillance over our urban landscape, the point of connection between individuals within our communal space then becomes one of mutual suspicion and distrust.
 
At the same time, it is difficult to guarantee that the images or videos submitted by the public will be good enough to assist in taking the errant riders to task. The speed with which some riders travel, or the vantage from which the image is taken, may mean that neither the rider nor the vehicle can be identified from a resulting photograph of uneven quality. The aggrieved party may then feel frustrated that justice has not been served and that this reporting system is but a feeble salve for a gaping wound. The pedestrian’s fleeting sense of empowerment may then translate into feelings of frustration and futility.
 
Public education efforts should be mounted to help ensure that this new app feature meets its goals and users’ expectations, without adversely affecting the interpersonal dynamics on our pedestrian pathways.
 
First, the app should impress upon users the specific kinds of errant PMD riding practices that should be reported as well as the limitations of such reports.
Second, users should be reminded not to taunt or antagonise the riders whose behaviour they are reporting.
 
Third, members of the public must be urged to exercise social responsibility when using this reporting feature and not yield to feelings of entitlement, self-righteousness or even vengefulness towards riders.
 
Without a clearer enunciation of the social compact around the use of such reporting apps, we may have to contend not only with road hazards, but moral hazards too.

Fundamentally, public spaces are sites of socialisation where people learn to co-exist and share space through abiding by rules and norms.
 
Just as the rules for safe riding have been legally sanctioned, the norms for such monitoring and surveillance must also be collectively honoured.
 

Sun Sun Lim is a Nominated MP and Professor of Communication and Technology, and Head of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, at the Singapore University of Technology and Design.