Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Big Idea No. 10: Downsize the PIE

Nov 08, 2014


Need a car in 2065? Don't buy a private car. Use a smartphone app to find a shared one. Preferably driverless.

By Kishore Mahbubani, For The Straits Times

MY BIG Idea No. 10 in this series of essays on Singapore's future is easy to remember but hard to implement: "Downsize the PIE."

This idea came to my mind when I saw a huge sign along the Pan-Island Expressway (PIE) saying "Upsize the PIE".

It was a clever play on words.

It is always good to increase the size of the pie, literally speaking. However, in land-scarce Singapore, how could we possibly celebrate the fact that we are expanding road space?

Every square metre we give up for road usage means a square metre less for a more environmentally friendly use. Already, Singapore uses up to 12 per cent of its land for road usage, probably one of the highest in the world.

Can we reduce road space in Singapore? Yes, we can!

With the arrival of new technology and new systems of transportation, we can have an alternative dream for Singapore.

To put it simply, my dream for Singapore is to reduce the number of vehicles from one million to 300,000.

Indeed, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study has concluded the following: "Results suggest that an Automated Mobility-on-Demand (AMoD) solution could meet the personal mobility needs of the entire population of Singapore with a fleet whose size is approximately 1/3 of the total number of passenger vehicles currently in operation.

"Moreover, a financial analysis indicates AMoD systems are a financially viable alternative to more traditional means of accessing personal mobility."

To achieve this dream, we have to make three big changes.

All these big changes are possible. However, they will only be possible if we slip out of our comfort zones and think outside the box. In short, we have to think and dream big like the founding fathers of Singapore. If they had not done this, Singapore would not have succeeded.

Let us go back to this tradition and dream big and dream bold.

Remove cars as status symbol

THE first big change we can and should make is to the attitude of Singaporeans towards car ownership. In theory, people buy cars for transportation purposes.

In practice, people buy cars also for status reasons. Many Singaporean middle-class families believe that they have not "arrived" until they own a car.

Right now, it is also true that people buy cars because they are the most convenient form of transport in Singapore. This is why I own a car now.

However, if I could rely on a smartphone app that will get me a car immediately whenever I need it, it would make no rational sense to own a car in Singapore.

Is this possible? Of course, this is possible! Indeed, this is what Uber is promising to do if it eventually builds up a sufficiently big fleet of cars.

Since we can replace private car ownership with smartphone apps, we need to get a strong signal from the people of Singapore that they are prepared to abandon the purchase of cars if an alternative system is created.

Indeed, in a separate article I am writing for a volume on Singapore in the next 50 years, I say that we can switch the entire car population of Singapore to the Google-type driverless cars.

And guess what? There will be fewer traffic jams with driverless cars, because computer-driven cars behave more "rationally" than people-driven cars.

Let me also add here that people's lives will become more convenient if they make the switch to driverless cars.

All the time spent on looking for parking will be saved. All the space spent on parking will be saved. Doesn't this sound like heaven?

Rewarding driving

TO ACHIEVE this heaven, the second big change we need to make is in our public policies on cars.

In theory, our public policies are designed to curb car ownership and reduce road usage.

In practice, there has been a perverse result. We have ended up creating an ecosystem of transportation that rewards, rather than penalises, car owners.

It is such a pleasure to drive in Singapore because there are no Bangkok-style traffic jams.

We have also spent billions of dollars on tunnels (like the Marina Coastal Expressway and the Central Expressway) and flyovers to make it even easier to drive here.

In retrospect, was it wise to use so much public money to build a road infrastructure that eats up scarce land and rewards car ownership? Was it wise to "upsize" the PIE?

These are hard questions we need to answer as we try to create an alternative heaven in Singapore. Can our public policies change? Yes, they can.

The Singapore Government has long prided itself on the fact that it has tried to find efficient "market" solutions to public policy problems. Since road space is scarce, we have created "road pricing". This is a good policy.

Since we cannot have too many cars on the roads, we auction certificates of entitlement which are needed to register private vehicles. This is also a good public policy. These public policies should continue.

[It should continue, but they should be tweaked.]

However, we can change one public policy. All over Singapore, we have roadside spaces set aside for future road expansion.

These pocket-sized pieces of land should be progressively handed back to the National Parks Board to create new pocket-sized parks. This will make Singapore even more beautiful.

Bring free market to taxi services

CAN we also try market solutions for our taxi system? In the early years of Singapore, it was wise to set up taxi cooperatives (like NTUC Comfort) to create safe and reliable taxi services.

And if they can compete, we should allow them to carry on. However, as of now, they can only compete if we regulate and artificially control the number of taxi companies and taxis on the road.

Our taxi policies are more akin to Soviet-style central planning rather than a free market solution.

We even regulate what the taxi drivers can charge.

As a result, we have one of the most absurd taxi pricing systems in the world.

It is so complicated that the average consumer cannot understand how it works. This is a natural result of Soviet-style central planning.

Let us therefore be bold like our founding fathers and allow free market "creative destruction" to work in the taxi market.

Instead of trying to protect existing companies, we should allow market forces to have free rein.

By free rein, I mean free rein. Let us try out the Uber concept in full: Let us allow each car owner to lease his or her car for trips.

Let us allow a willing buyer and a willing seller to determine the price of each trip. Competition will drive prices down.

If modern algorithms can allow Uber to create a system of "dynamic pricing", we should allow all taxi companies to create "dynamic pricing".

It would, of course, be unwise to allow one taxi company to dominate the market.

We should encourage all the global market players in the taxi industry - such as Uber, Hailo, Easy Taxi and GrabTaxi - to set up shop in Singapore and allow free competition to reign. What will happen?

At first, there may well be chaos. Prices will plummet.

Over time, the market for "taxis" will find an equilibrium and Singapore consumers will find that if they have a smartphone app, they can get a car any time and anywhere in Singapore under any weather condition (including heavy rainstorms) within five minutes, at a price they can decide to say "yes" or "no" to.

We will create an alternative ecosystem of transport which will no longer make it rational to own a private car in Singapore.

Pure free market economies will create this result. Each day I own a car in Singapore, I am creating a hole in my pocket.

This is because there is a daily drip of dollars from my pocket to pay for depreciation costs, interest costs, road taxes and parking fees. This daily drip will happen even if I do not use my car at all.

However, if we switch from car ownership to smartphone apps, this daily drip will stop. What would a rational person do if he or she is presented with this choice?

In the above paragraph, I am making a selfish and self-interested argument for not owning a car.

[Singapore does not have even one taxi company.

The future of taxis in Singapore will be an uber-driverless-taxi economy. You buy a car. You pay lots for it, but then you uber it out. If you are not so lucky, all that does it defray some of the costs of buying a car. If you are a bit luckier, ubering your car makes the car practically free for you. And if you are really lucky (or good), the uber can give you a small income. 

But in a free-wheeling economy, the best you can hope for is to break even. Maybe.]

Altruistic reasons

THE third big change we have to make in Singapore is to appeal to the higher-order altruistic and idealistic side of Singaporeans. All human populations are the same.

Singaporeans have the same proportion of idealism as other citizens. If each one of us can find a relatively painless way of saving our small and imperilled planet, we would do so.

We all have in us a desire to save the world.

How can we save the world? One of the biggest trends in our world is urbanisation.

Indeed, massive urbanisation is taking place, much of it in Asia.

In 1990, there were 10 megacities, of which five were in Asia.

By 2010, there were 21 megacities, of which 10 were in Asia.

The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs has predicted that in 2030, there will be 41 megacities, of which 23 will be in Asia.

It is truly shocking that all the new cities in Asia believe that the only way to progress is to allow uninhibited car ownership.

In the past, Bangkok was the only South-east Asian city with massive traffic jams. Now, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Manila have joined Bangkok.

Even Beijing and Shanghai have followed suit.

We need one city in Asia to demonstrate that we can build a great city without encouraging private car ownership.

The only city in Asia that can provide this moral and idealistic leadership in this field is Singapore. We have the will and means to create an alternative transport ecosystem. When that happens, we will become a "city on the hill", to borrow from a well-known American expression.

I would therefore like to conclude with one simple suggestion.

When we celebrate our 50th anniversary next year and when we announce our goals for the next 50 years, let us announce a simple idealistic goal: Singapore will become a society with zero private car ownership by 2065.

We may not achieve it in full, but we will have a lot of fun being bold and experimental in our car transport systems along the way.

We will also demonstrate that, like our founding fathers in 1965, we can dream big.

And in 2065 (or probably earlier), there will be a sign saying "Downsize the PIE".

The writer is dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, NUS, and author of The Great Convergence: Asia, The West, And The Logic Of One World.


Nov 27, 2014


A car-lite Singapore: How to get there?

The new Sustainable Singapore Blueprint has made it a priority for Singapore to have fewer cars on the road for a more liveable environment. Better transport alternatives and increased car-sharing are proposed. But will they work?

By Feng Zengkun, Environment Correspondent

A NEW sustainable blueprint to guide Singapore's development over the next 15 years was launched earlier this month, to create a better home, a better environment and a better future. That better future, however, includes curtailing the dream of many Singaporeans - owning a car.

One priority of the ambitious $1.5 billion Sustainable Singapore Blueprint 2015 is reducing the number of private cars on the roads. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong explained: "We have to rely less on cars on the road, because we can't keep building roads; more roads for more cars."

Roads already make up 12 per cent of land use, compared to housing at 14 per cent.

Fewer vehicles would also reduce land needed for carparks, and improve the quality of life. Air quality, for example, would be better, with fewer polluting emissions from the tailpipes of private cars.

PM Lee said the Government would aim for a "car-lite" Singapore by providing more transport options, such as an expanded MRT network, buses and bicycle paths.

But experts said infrastructure gaps need to be plugged, and, in a country where the car is king, laws and attitudes towards them changed. More is also needed to help people move seamlessly from one form of transport to another more easily.

Beefing up alternatives

LAST year, about 63 per cent of trips during peak hours were by public transport such as buses and trains.

Minister for National Development Khaw Boon Wan recently said that cycling makes up 1 to 2 per cent of transport.

The Government wants public transport to make up 75 per cent of peak-hour trips by 2030, and has outlined plans to achieve this.

From the year 2012 to 2016, it will have added 800 buses to the fleet - a 20 per cent increase - and from last year to 2030 it will have expanded the rail network from 178km to 360km.

It will build an island-wide cycling path network of more than 700km by 2030, including both park connectors and cycling paths in Housing Board towns.

It is also conducting a year-long study to shed light on why and how Singaporeans walk, and what would encourage them to do so more often.

The Economic Development Board and Land Transport Authority (LTA) plan to co-lead a project involving the pooled sharing of electric cars.

While the agencies would say only that the project is in the planning stages, The Straits Times understands the Government had considered rolling out up to 1,000 electric cars under such a scheme as recently as two years ago.

The LTA has said "car sharing can help those who need to use a car for a few hours or over a weekend, and allow convenient access to it without people having to own or maintain one".

The authority will pilot a bicycle-sharing scheme next year, possibly in the city centre and Jurong Lake District.

But transport experts said the devil is in the details.

When three Straits Times reporters rode 180km over three days last October to test cycling paths for commuting, they found snags that could dissuade users.

An 11km stretch that people who live in Ang Mo Kio and Bishan can use to go to work at the Upper Paya Lebar Road factories, for example, had six overhead bridges, three of which did not have ramps. People have to haul their bikes up and down the stairs.

Some park connectors were actually existing pavements, which meant cyclists and pedestrians had to jostle for space.

Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy transport researcher Paul Barter said the cycling network needs to be not just comprehensive but also enjoyable and seamless so people can ride almost anywhere efficiently.

"You want people to be able to travel at speeds that let them cover 7km to 8km in half an hour. But it also has to be safe enough for your 10-year-old child," said the adjunct associate professor.

More car-sharing spaces needed

INDUSTRY players added that major infrastructure gaps need to be plugged.

Take the car-sharing scheme. There are three private car-sharing providers, which offer a fleet of vehicles that can be rented for just an hour or longer. Together, they have more than 10,000 members, but only around 300 cars and 100 locations - mostly at HDB carparks - for pick-ups and drop-offs.

Senior Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo said in March that every car added to a well-organised car-sharing scheme could take the place of 15 private vehicles.

But Car-sharing Association of Singapore president Lai Meng said a critical mass of cars and car-sharing parking spaces is needed to make it viable.

[Car Sharing became popular when COE prices rose beyond the means of many drivers. However, after the COE premiums came down, Car Sharing became less popular.]

Industry players said 3,000 parking spaces would be a good start, since that would mean about 30 to 40 spaces per constituency.

Currently, the Housing Board has set aside only a tenth of that - about 300 car-sharing parking spaces - in 105 HDB carparks island-wide.

It is working with LTA and car-sharing firms to identify more locations and has promised that every town will have some spaces.

Infrastructure, such as power sockets at the parking spaces and charging stations across the island, will also be needed if electric cars are to be used.

Mr Lai noted another problem: The existing spaces are typically on the HDB multi-storey carparks' higher levels, where people may not know they exist.

He said there should be signs alerting residents to shared cars at the street level and also designated parking spaces at lower levels.

LKY School's Dr Barter said parking spaces should also be set aside on streets, so that people in areas such as River Valley, the Bukit Timah corridor and Marina South - which are not near HDB estates - can car-share.

He added that the authorities could encourage more peer-to-peer car-sharing - where individuals rent out cars to each other - by relaxing renting rules. Currently, private cars can be rented out only on weekends and public holidays.

But most people need their cars on weekends for, say, family outings, whereas many vehicles are idling in carparks during the week when the owners are at work, he said.

Currently, there is one company that offers such peer-to-peer sharing. It has more than 11,000 registered users and nearly 1,600 car-owners prepared to share their vehicles.

Some experts, however, questioned whether any car-sharing scheme would take cars off roads here, as only people without cars would use such a scheme.

They said car-sharing would at most forestall some people from buying cars, and it could even backfire if it gives people a taste of driving and the desire to own a car.

National University of Singapore transport researcher Lee Der Horng said that to actually take cars off the roads, the Government could curtail the number of certificates of entitlement given out, but it would have to be certain that alternative transport modes are convenient and reliable.

Carpooling, where people going to the same destination share a car, is another option.

Towards a more seamless journey

EVEN as infrastructure issues are worked out, more can also be done to help commuters mix and match transport options to achieve the ideal journey.

Dr Barter advocates a "supermobility" mobile app that would allow commuters to set parameters such as location and destination, and how much time they have to travel.

The app would give options using different transport modes, including taxis, bike and car-sharing, public transport and even walking. People could pay for the various options using just the app.

"If commuters can see how easy it is to get around with all of the options, and they are confident there are good options, then fewer will feel the need to buy a car," he said.

Germany, for example, has an app called Mo that allows subscribers to rent bicycles, cargo-bicycles, electric bicycles and cars, and use public transport.

The system even rewards those who choose more eco-friendly transport modes: Using mostly bicycles and renting a car become cheaper.

But one challenge is to change Singaporeans' view of cars as status symbols.

In an article for The Straits Times in February, on how to make Singapore more "car-less", dean of the LKY School Kishore Mahbubani noted that in Tokyo and New York, company managing directors, senior bankers and lawyers take public transport.

In Singapore, however, even middle-level executives working in Raffles Place drive to work.

Mrs Teo also noted in March that 38 per cent of households owned a car a decade ago, but this is now 45 per cent. If it hits 60 per cent, the Government will have to find parking space for another 150,000 cars.

"There is a limit to how many more cars we can have," she said.

For Singapore to truly become a car-lite nation, a high quality, reliable public transport system has to be supplemented by access to taxis, car-sharing and bicycles. But Singaporeans themselves will also have to take the first step - sometimes literally - to achieving that vision.

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