Fixing the Singapore transport system will take some guts

Jul 19, 2015 11.00AM |

by Ian Tan

I refer to the story “The Big Read: Despite push for public transport, a love for cars endures” (17 July, Today).

The article presented most sides of the transport problem in Singapore – a growing desire by commuters to wean themselves off cars, yet they face perennial issues of inconvenience or sometimes, the sheer impracticality with the state of public transport in Singapore.

However, like most conversations around transport in Singapore, the article did not address what it really takes to solve a long-standing problem of getting around in this tiny city state.

Let me tell you what I think it takes – immense courage and conviction at all levels of society to actually make things happen.

As Singapore turns 50, I see less and less of the mindblowing bravery that our early leaders demonstrated to bring us from third world to first. These days, I observe too much hemming and hawing in the public sphere. Policy decisions seem to be made to desperately preserve the status quo, not to truly transform Singapore for the next stage of its existence.

By now it is clear that transport is both a personal and political matter for everyone.

I take all forms of transport every week – my car for weekend family outings and errands, my motorcycle for daily work commutes, buses and trains whenever the need arises, and once in a while, I will cycle to work via a mixture of park connectors and public roads.

While I am thankful I have so many transport options at hand, I also have had the chance to experience all the possible scenarios depending on which mode of transport I’ve taken. I don’t know if I can say the same for the Transport Minister or his policymakers.

When looking for realistic solutions to our transport problem, there are some things that need to be made clear first:

Stop saying car ownership is a status symbol or lifestyle aspiration.

As long as this mentality is perpetuated in the media (see the Today story) and government, it makes it quite impossible for a real solution to appear.

Who does not have lifestyle aspirations? Who wants to appear of low status? Come on!

But we need to decouple this popular statement from car ownership. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy if enough people believe it.

I often see high-powered executives take the train and squeeze in with the crowds, because it’s really more convenient than getting stuck in jams or paying high parking fees in the business district. Some people driving supercars are young greenhorns whose parents earned the car, and it’s part of their lifestyles by default.

Cars are so expensive today in Singapore, even the entry-level family car costs at least $100,000 SGD.

Obviously, a family sedan is no “status symbol” and people still buy them because they truly find a need for it, not because they want to appear important or wealthy.

The mindset of the transport policymakers might be hampered by this very crutch – as long as they believe that people cannot give up their cars due to their ego or lifestyles, then the policies will always be half-baked and spineless in their resolve to solve the problem.

The roads are now jammed because of poor COE management in the 2000s and even today.

Don’t hate me for saying this, but my 2009 Corolla Altis has a $4,460 COE, ridiculously cheap by 2015 standards when the same COE now costs $58,700.

The car population jumped from 417K in 2004 to 595K in 2010 because the LTA failed to tweak its decades-old COE policy in that period, and COE prices plunged from $25K (Jan 2004) to $5K (Jan 2009).

Cars became more affordable to many more people. In 2010, the LTA finally decided to press the brakes with policy amendments on how COEs were released and COE prices started climbing again.

But in my opinion, the truly effective measure came in 2013 when the Ministry of Finance (note, not the LTA) mandated the 50% to 40% downpayment and reduction of car loan periods to 5 years. Many asset-rich but cash-poor Singaporeans immediately stopped car-shopping.

The huge jump in the car population also coincided with the period in the 2000s when the government allowed many more foreign workers into Singapore, causing a steep increase in the load on the public transport system.

Even with all the policy tweaks, it’s still ludicrous that the LTA allows for an annual vehicle population growth rate of 0.25% today.

If you are trying to get people to switch from cars to public transport, you should be mandating a NEGATIVE growth in the overall vehicle population. Stop saying positive vehicle growth should happen because you are widening roads or building new ones – those should be done in any case to make traffic smoother, not allow more cars on the roads!

Finally, COEs will bring an estimated $5 billion revenue to the government this fiscal year. There have been many calls to solve car ownership problems without a financial sledgehammer solution, but they have been ignored by the government since the early 1990s when the COE was developed.

As long as there is such huge financial risk to the government coffers involved, which policymaker will truly be able to think out of the box without worrying about his job prospects?

Public transport has its limits of improvements.

Yes, we’ve heard this to death – more people will switch to public transport when it is deemed better than private transport.

It’s true, but let’s also get real, there are limits to how much public transport can be improved on this island.

Just look at the SMRT system. Time after time, they will tell us it is going to get better. But the breakdowns have only gotten worse – the recent 7th July 2015 breakdown of all North-South and East-West lines was the most devastating ever with an estimated 250,000 commuters left stranded during evening peak hours.

That night, I drove out to help a friend who was stranded at Ang Mo Kio. Even though it was three hours after the SMRT first announced the breakdown at about 7pm, there were still hundreds of people spilling onto the streets outside Bishan MRT trying to get onto a bus or flag down a taxi.

It was a disgraceful incident that does not happen in countries like Hong Kong or Japan with even older and more complex train networks. I have no doubt it can happen again…it is just a matter of when, given the frequency of SMRT train breakdowns here.

I feel sad for the current SMRT management who have the tough job of fixing deep-set problems left behind by the previous management and have to face public wrath so often.

I feel even more sorry for the beleaguered SMRT staff and all the Traffic Police and LTA folks who were deployed that night to manage traffic control. Do policymakers realize how many people were truly affected that night and with every other breakdown? Being “gravely concerned” doesn’t cut it anymore.

It is worth noting that the decline of the SMRT network also came about in the 2000s as the company’s previous CEO and management decided to focus on retail profits instead of track sustainability. Come think of it – Just how many things went wrong with the transport system in that decade?

Aside: What also flabbergasted me was the fact that people trying to compare this SMRT breakdown to the London Tube subway strike which was a planned outage, not a catastrophic, unpredicted system breakdown (which as of this time, nobody in SMRT or LTA even knows the actual root cause).

So yes, 550 more buses are also being added to the network using tax dollars, and given to private transport companies like SBS to manage. It still doesn’t change the fact that the roads are clogged up with private cars, or that having more buses in the same network of bus lanes may actually mean more congestion in the bus lanes.

I don’t disagree that we need to give the SMRT more time and leeway to fix the train system, and I’m not against adding more buses because they are often too crowded at peak hours.

However, will these planned improvements make public transport that much “better” than private transport? I strongly doubt it because it’s just adding more of the same stuff to the equation.

Take for example, I sometimes have to travel from my house in Bishan to Ang Mo Kio Ave 5 Industrial Park 2. By car or bike, it’s not more than 10 minutes. By bus, it’s at least one hour of waiting, sitting in the bus and walking! It’s just the dense road network that limits how fast or far buses can go in each route.

I don’t mind taking a cab, but if I don’t use an app like GrabTaxi to call a cab, it’s impossible to flag one down most hours of the day. Don’t get me started on the taxi situation in Singapore…

So back to my point on public transport, perhaps we need to be clearer what “better than private transport” means.

For example, are people willing to slow down for the slower pace of the public transport system?

If you want to keep telling people that they should aspire to be rich, and that means living a high-life and getting multi-tasking work done quickly in the world’s most expensive city, they’ll never consider taking life in the slower lane, both figuratively and literally.

Or maybe, it’s really getting public transport right once and for all, no more excuses. Spend tax dollars for all you will, but make it a Hail Mary move, not some Handyplast remedy that doesn’t fix deep-set issues.

It could be in the form of true competition for taxi companies with no stupid, complex surcharges or no taxi COEs so cabbies don’t have to pay high rentals. Or shutting down the entire SMRT network once a week so the engineers can rip out every deteriorating part and replace them with truly hardy stuff. Everyone can hop into car-pools in the meantime, or work from home if they don’t need to be in the office.

And Singapore’s size makes it a zero-sum game : The more buses you add to the network, the more cars  you need to remove. And the more new trains you buy, the more you need to ensure the tracks can take the additional load. These are the two things that aren’t happening. With the number of cars on the road today, whenever there are major accidents on one expressway, you’ll find the ripple effect spreading to other roads and expressways – there just aren’t enough “escape routes” for vehicles.

So by this time, some readers will probably say I’m idealistic and that I’m asking for too much.

Guess what? I’m going to go even further, because I have some ideas that are not mired in the usual “it can’t be done”, or “we need to tax the citizens again because solutions cost money” attitude that plagues this country from one level of bureaucracy to another.

This country often cannot think out of the money box and you can read another post about it here. If you think that taxing people further for car ownership or usage is the way to go, then here’s a grim reminder : It’s not working anymore lah.

We still need private transport for businesses, disabled and elderly people, but how can we seriously reduce the car population for good while ensuring people can get around via public or private transport?

So here goes, and my key guidelines are that these ideas should not be expensive to implement, are founded on logic and behavioral triggers, and don’t revisit the same old, failed ideas again.

Idea #1: Get serious about cycling

Convert the full left lane of every road (even highway roads) into bicycle-only lanes with small barriers to ensure cars, lorries or motorcycles don’t drift into them. The natural outcome is that the remaining lanes will get so clogged with vehicles, more people will switch to bicycles out of frustration or joy.

I’m so tired of hearing people asking about making Singapore a cycling nation and someone retorting that there isn’t enough space to widen the roads.

Then don’t widen the roads lah, divide them up and it won’t cost a bomb at all. The park connector (PCN) routes are very limited in which areas they can serve, and many of them require me to haul my bicycle across overhead bridges or cross multiple traffic lights. You’d want a bicycle network that can link people to ANY location and not just some park.

And no e-scooters allowed in these bicycle lanes, please. Those guys are nothing but trouble on the road or pavement.

Really, people should stop paying lip service to the idea of a “cycling nation”. You either make it happen, or you don’t.

Idea #2: Make it really difficult to get a car licence, using motorcycles.

As a motorcyclist, I have to take three tests (Class 2B, Class 2A and Class 2) and wait nearly four years before I am allowed to drive a motorcycle above 400cc. I hate this, and so do all other bikers. But I do agree it’s logical to ensure bikers have enough experience on smaller capacity bikes before they graduate to super bikes and power cruisers.

Yet car drivers are allowed to drive any type of car from the time they pass one single Class 3 test! That’s why you have so many inexperienced twats in powerful cars causing all sorts of deaths.

Now, what if we made it mandatory for everyone to pass Class 2B, 2A and 2 motorcycle practical tests before they can get a Class 3 licence?

Firstly the fear of dying on a motorcycle (which is very real, I assure you) will stop many people from even going for Class 2B lessons.

Secondly, by forcing everyone through the same filtering system, you will actually get very high-quality drivers on the road and less traffic jams due to accidents.

Most Class 2 riders know how to properly handle powerful machines that accelerate faster than a Ferrari and have proven their ability to stay alive on the roads with all the daily hazards – that’s why we tend to be better drivers with greater spatial awareness and reaction times.

A consequence is that you may see more motorcycle-related accidents on the road.

Or you may not, as the fear of dying keep people from even wanting to ride.

The stigma against motorcyclists is so deeply ingrained in Singaporeans, you might as well leverage on it.

I won’t even bother trying to suggest that more people should just ride motorbikes instead of driving cars or take public transport– most people just don’t have the guts to do it and that’s ok.

Bikers all know the joys of overcoming any traffic jam or the low maintenance costs of a two-wheeler. Unfortunately, the LTA is constantly reducing the number of motorcycle COEs and transferring it to the pool of larger vehicles.

Go figure.

Idea #3: Go for car-pooling measures

I don’t understand why car-pooling measures are hardly suggested in Singapore. Just look at most cars on the road – they often contain only the driver.

What if you could incentivize car-pooling? Or penalize cars that have only one person during peak hours? Or ensuring every car owner is registered into a car-pool database and is required to provide minimum hours of car-pooling each month?

Car-pooling in itself may not be effective, but coupled with a slew of other measures like reduction of vehicular growth rates, it could be more useful. There have been some recent car-pooling moves by the LTA but it largely flies under the radar of most people.

We really need to bring this topic up again, because the train network needs to be lightened of passengers, not further burdened. There is also much talk about reducing air pollution, but practical measures like this are not discussed.

In closing

So all three ideas above could be flawed or stupid in your opinion, but at least I’m giving it a shot from my perspective. If you have a better idea, please post in the comments below and be polite about it.

Really, I’m weary when the state tells me that Singaporeans need to be creative and think out of the box, and then they go stick with transport policies that have not really changed in over 20 years.

I don’t think anyone is convinced when it is repeated ad nauseum – that the COE system is not a revenue-generating tool, or that complex and varying ERP rates are effective in regulating traffic flow.

The recent train breakdown was the final straw for many people, and whether the PAP admits it or not, they lost a lot of goodwill overnight despite all the SG50 rah-rah.

It’s time to stop treating the symptoms and be courageous about drastic solutions to public transport. Singapore is nimble because it is small, but we’ve stopped punching above our weight in many things and no longer dare to look at hard choices.

We are a first-world country without a first-world transport system, period.


Blog post by Ian Tan was originally published on

Featured image is by Shawn Danker. 

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