Singapore's Transportation Secrets
The Straits Times
More and more people are moving - all the time. Three decades ago, they made 2.7 million daily trips. Now it's more than 11 million - in cars, buses and trains. Yet Singapore has little of the congestion that almost paralyzes so many cities around the world. What's the secret? It's simple. Early planning. Timely action. Massive investment across many modes of transport.
Density without gridlock
Not that Singapore's situation is simple. This sovereign state is just 710 square kilometers -- a bit bigger than New York City. It has 5 million people -- more than double its population 30 years ago. Now, close to 1 million vehicles (of which 40,000 are from across the Malaysian border) zip around in a network of well-paved roads spanning 3,400 kilometers. And in contrast to neighboring cities such as Jakarta, Bangkok, and Kuala Lumpur - and indeed, farther flung examples such as London, Paris and Los Angeles -- gridlock is a rarity in Singapore. This is despite growing car ownership. Back in 1981, there were 163,355 passenger cars here. Today, there are 570,000. Yet Singapore's average car speed on arterial (main) roads during peak hours is 27 kmh (17 miles per hour), compared to as low as 16 kmh in London, 11 kmh in Tokyo and 5 kmh in Jakarta.
Clues to the formula
So, how has Singapore managed this seemingly text book success story on urban mobility? Mr. Lew Yii Der, group director for policy and planning of the country's Land Transport Authority (LTA), says the the recipe "boils down to two important ingredients: a convenient and well-connected public transport network, and an effective set of demand management measures to regulate traffic flow and keep road congestion in check." As a relatively young nation (gaining independence in 1965), Singapore's bureaucracy of scholars and technocrats had the advantage of learning from older, more established cities. Urban planning soon became the government's forte, and transport infrastructure a cornerstone of development.
Expanding on a blueprint drawn by the country's British colonial masters, policy makers began to build new roads -- lots of them. Starting in the early 1970s, Singapore opened the first of what today is a network of nine expressways crisscrossing the island, including such technological marvels as a 12-km long, largely underground expressway opened two years ago, and an upcoming (in 2013) link that not only goes underground but undersea. But like all other modern cities, roads are rarely sufficient to move the masses. Singapore opened its first rail transit line -- 6 kilometers, five stations - in 1987. Today, the rail network spans over 150 km (94 miles), with 106 stations serving four mass rapid transit lines (one partially opened) and three light rail transit lines. Major added investment -- $40 billion in Singapore dollars (U.S. $28.4 billion) -- is committed to expanding rail lines to 280 km by 2020. With this ambitious expansion, the current balance in Singapore's average daily trips of 11 million (6 million by private transport, 3 million by bus and 2 million by rail) is likely to shift significantly toward public transit (even with some additional roads).
LTA Rail Group Director Mr. Chua Chong Kheng recalls: "Since the first steps were taken... on Oct 22, 1983, the government has invested heavily to ensure that the rail network form the backbone of an efficient public transport system."
Key ingredient: congestion pricing
Policymakers recognized early, in fact, that that a country as small and dense as Singapore cannot rely solely on road expansion. Demand for road space must be held in check. And the best way to do that, they discovered, are user charges. Literally decades ahead of European cities, Singapore in 1977 instituted an "Area Licensing System" featuring stiff fees for any car entering downtown Singapore during business hours. In 1998, this congestion pricing system went high-tech with an electronic road-pricing system that requires any vehicle in Singapore (as well as those coming in from Malaysia) be fitted with a stored-value card reader. As a car passes any of the city's 69 gantries (electronic checkpoints), the card reader charges a fee, which varies significantly depending on time of day. For someone driving into the city during the morning rush hour, tolls across multiple gantries often add up to S$10 a day. Following Singapore's lead, congestion pricing for traffic-clogged cities has since been adopted by London, Oslo, Stockholm, and Milan. Mayor Michael Bloomberg also proposed the idea in New York City, but was overruled by the New York State Legislature.
Also key: paying for the right to use a vehicle
Singapore in 1990 inaugurated a second method for keeping auto use in check. Anyone who wants to buy a vehicle must first secure a "Certificate of Entitlement," valid for 10 years. Certificates are auctioned off twice a month. The price today hovers around S$20,000 in Singapore dollars, but it has been as high as S$110,000. On top of that, Singapore motorists pay 44 cents in duty for every liter of fuel they use (roughly $1.75 a gallon in the U.S.).
Pulling it off
But how has Singapore managed to implement controversial policies such as congestion pricing and the expensive auto "certificates of entitlement" when several other cities have tried launching similar systems but failed? A unified local government with strong leadership has surely been a major factor. But there have also been persuasive politics. The LTA, for example, softened the blow of the auto certificates of entitlement by lowering car registration taxes which had previously been a stunning 200 percent of the value of new vehicle. And trains and buses have relieved the crush on the roads -- "an effective public transport system that is a viable alternative" to driving, in the words of LTA Director of Road Operations Dr. Chin Kian Keong (who was also one of the authors of the road pricing system). Observers do not disagree that the public transport system is on the whole effective. But they point out that commuter complaints about packed trains and long bus arrivals have grown louder in recent years, largely because of Singapore's population growth. Not only that, road traffic has grown noticeably heavier in the past five years.
The city has initiated a slew of responses, including higher driving charges, more frequent train service, more bus lanes -- plus the S$50 billion worth of rail and road projects scheduled for completion by 2020. Transport Minister Raymond Lim has an ambitious goal: to increase the percentage of public transit trips during morning rush hours from 59 percent in 2008 to 70 percent in the next 10 years. To do this, he acknowledges that public transport has to be as convenient and nearly as speedy as driving. Analysts applaud the efforts, but some say more needs to be done immediately. Transport researcher Dr. Lee Der Horng, an associate at the National University of Singapore, says: "I am concerned by the peak-hour capacity on our public transport system, and the increased congestion levels on our roads." Member of Parliament Lim Wee Kiak, who also heads a policy-monitoring committee, believes Singapore may face a serious transport crunch if not more is done between now and 2020. "We have an acute problem now that needs fast solutions in the short and medium term," he notes. Despite the complaints, a Gallup world poll of 20 cities in 2008 found that Singaporeans were the most satisfied with their public transport system. Whether they will still be so in the next few years remains to be seen.