Thursday, June 11, 2015

Weaning Singaporeans off their cars

Joy Fang
June 11

The German city of Leipzig has a youthful and carefree vibe with beautiful archaic architecture. With an area of only about 297 sq km and housing 550,000 inhabitants, it is also surprisingly nimble and diverse in its public transport offerings.

Trams are the city’s main transport arteries, supplemented by the S-bahn train system, buses and ride-sharing services that connect key spots along the tram lines. Many people cycle too, as the city has dedicated cycling lanes and bicycle-sharing services.

Tram usage in Leipzig takes up 30 per cent of the total transport mode pie, while cars and bicycles take up 40 per cent and 20 per cent, respectively. S-bahn accounts for the remaining 10 per cent. The city aims to lower personal car usage to 30 per cent and increase tram use to 35 per cent in the next 10 years, Mayor Burkhard Jung told me in a recent interview in this city about 150km south of Berlin.

How does this compact and vibrant city plan to wean its people off cars? And what lessons in transport planning can Leipzig offer Singapore?


Mr Jung says the key to people relying less on their four-wheelers is to make public transport attractive, reliable and almost as fast as a car, while at the same time reducing public space for cars.

Take the city’s tram network, for example. It is the second biggest in Germany, after Berlin, boasting a route length of 150km, 13 lines and 516 tram stops with an average distance of 530m between stops.

Mr Jung said it’s a “very comfortable and direct system”, with trams typically arriving every 10 minutes. “Everybody knows you don’t have to wait too long for the next one,” he said.

University student Sarah Peraz, 23, told TODAY that trams are her mode of choice because they are most accessible. “In 10 minutes, you can take five or six trams because there are different numbers going to the same point.”

Ms Juliane Wilz, 20, said it is comfortable and safe, especially during winter, when it is too cold to ride her bike.

Mr Jung’s office is also planning a “fast highway” for cyclists that run from the south of the city to the inner city. “You have to make it such that (the message is) it’s fun and sexy to go by bicycle or it’s comfortable to go by tram during winter or heavy rains,” he said.

Agreeing, Mr Marc Backhaus, a spokesman from Leipziger Verkehrsbetriebe (LVB) GmbH — which operates Leipzig’s tramway and bus transport services and is owned by the City of Leipzig — says LVB tries to market trams as modern vehicles and a fast mode of transport with barrier-free stops. The firm also run services more frequently on Saturdays “to win more passengers in times of high demand”.

The efforts have paid off. Trams are the number one means of public transport in Leipzig, ferrying about 110 million passengers a year. In contrast, buses carry about 25 million passengers annually, while light railway is used by some 10 million passengers a year.

So the question one must ask is: If Leipzig can do it, why not Singapore?

While Singapore has limited space, Mr Jung said a tram system here is possible, and less complicated because of its size. “If you can combine the streets, and I think you have big streets in Singapore, then I think it’s possible to do it in the middle of the street, and share it with cars.”

Mr Backhaus says tram lines require a width of approximately 7m of the road if they run on a separate road bed, but there are other space-saving solutions. This includes street-level tracks where trams and cars use the same lane.

Terminal loops require a lot of space so one option in Singapore is bi-directional trams with dead-end tracks, he noted. This means instead of having trams circle around, they stop at a terminal and head back the other way.

Singapore can use trams to complement its railway system, because it is easier and a smaller investment to plan for tram stops since they are aboveground, said Mr Jung. To ensure this push for trams is successful, it’s all “about education, having your own dedicated lanes and enforcement,” he added.

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) and Urban Redevelopment Authority were previously reported to be considering bringing trams to the One-North and Marina Bay area. But no decision appears to have been made.


Beyond simply offering transport alternatives, perhaps the whole overarching masterplan for land use needs to be re-examined. The LTA aims to have 75 per cent of trips during both the morning and evening peak hours made by public transport by 2030.

In February, it was reported that public transport ridership grew last year by 4.6 per cent to hit a record 6.65 million trips per day, while the car population had shrunk to a four-year low.

The Republic has been trying to steer people towards public transport and while signs show it is moving in the right direction, progress has been slow.

Many Singaporeans aspire to own a car for social status, and lack a more diverse range of travel alternatives to impel them to give up cars. Perceived unreliability and overcrowding also put some Singaporeans off public transport while cycling is deemed to be dangerous, due to a lack of dedicated lanes and a general sense of aggressive behaviour by drivers.

The National Cycling Plan envisions a cycling network of more than 700km by 2030, and some HDB towns have already been equipped with intra-town cycling path networks. But these are not dedicated cycling lanes, and cyclists who are riding longer distances often have to jostle for a tiny space on the left hand side of the left lane, or ride on the pavement — and risk a fine.

Some experts have suggested that policy makers should use a tougher carrot-and-stick approach to push people towards taking public transport.

Mr Jose Viegas, secretary-general of the International Transport Forum at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, who has visited Singapore many times, said what the Republic may need is “stronger doses” of the medicine.

Too many cars? Increase the tolls. Too little space for dedicated cycling lanes? Take away the land meant for cars, he said.

Priority in land use should first go to pedestrians, then cyclists. “And then whatever is left is for the cars … It’s what (we call) priority in allocation,” he said.
[The problem with cycling as a option is the heat and humidity in Singapore. That is a major disincentive. And no, providing showers at your destination is not a solution. Yes some people will do exactly that. Most others will find it inconvenient and troublesome.]

“People will adjust. If it’s a public interest, governments will have to be smart enough, bold enough to convey this to the population and say we have to follow it.”

With Singapore’s small size and high technological adoption, the odds are in the Republic’s favour in its drive towards achieving a public-transport-centred city. And as Mr Viegas pointed out, small tentative adjustments may not work. Perhaps it is time for bolder measures to bring about changes in Singaporeans’ mindsets and behaviour.


Joy Fang is a senior reporter at TODAY who covers the transport beat.
 Online Comment:
Trams? Old tech. And like the MRT, if a tram breaks down, the next one cannot move because they are on the same track. I've seen this in Melbourne.

Trams need either powerlines or tracks or both. It means fixed infrastructures and that means inflexible application. Trams are old tech. Quaint, but may not be relevant or appropriate to Singapore..

The "Trams" of the future will be driverless/ autonomous "trams" that do not need to run on tracks. This gives them greater flexibility in application and deployment.

The second question about weaning SGeans off their cars is a uninformed, unrealistic joke.

First of all, SGeans do not want to be weaned off their cars.

Secondly, the government doesn't want, secretly doesn't want SGeans to lose interest in cars.

Why do I say that?

Vehicle Quota Premiums or COE revenue is now the 4th largest revenue stream for the SG govt.

Maybe the COE revenue was never intended to be a significant source of revenue, but it is now. It is projected to contribute $6.1billion to SG's revenue. It is the 4th largest revenue stream after Corporate Tax, GST, and Personal Income Tax.

Conversely, the projected budget deficit for 2015 is $6.9b.

The SG govt CANNOT afford to lose a $6.1b revenue stream when it is running a $6.9b deficit. So how serious and committed is the SG govt to weaning SGeans off their private cars?

Not very serious I think.

But say they are, and they managed to wean SGeans off cars. COE premiums fall. Revenue fall. the Budget deficit increases.

What then?

Well, the govt can raise corporate tax, personal income tax, or GST. Guess which they will raise?

As a non-car owner, with no ambition to own a car, who is happy to use public transport, I would like to say "thank you" to the car-owning Singaporeans for keeping GST low for the rest of us. Ok, for keeping GST at the same level for the last few years.

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