Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Becoming a ‘car-lite’ society

Much effort has already gone into enhancing the attractiveness of public transport. Commuters, especially car owners, need to be convinced that public transport can be a fast, reliable and comfortable alternative to private vehicles. 

October 6, 2015

Singapore has focused on liveability and sustainability way before these words became fashionable in urban planning. A key part of this is urban mobility.

The city-state’s overall urban development strategy has been guided by an integrated approach to transport and land-use planning. The 1971 Concept Plan provided a fundamental framework for physical development to cater to the needs of a population that was projected to reach 4 million by 1992.

To attract investors and residents, Singapore had to reduce congestion and provide roads that moved goods and labour efficiently. Singapore took strong early steps to slow motorisation rates by implementing high vehicular taxes and road pricing to manage demand.

At the same time, Singapore invested heavily in public transport. Truth be told, the Government was divided initially, and there was intense debate about whether a cheaper all-bus system was preferable to a mass rapid transit (MRT) system, which took massive capital investment.

The turning point came with the renewal of our vision for Marina South as an extension of the existing Central Business District (CBD) area, where MRT access would raise land values and enable land sales there to subsidise MRT costs.

The pro-rail argument prevailed and in 1983, we started construction of the first MRT system in Singapore. Today, life in Singapore without the MRT would be unimaginable.

Over time, the public transport network has evolved to provide citizens with a sustainable low-pollution environment and a high quality of life. However, gaps remain in Singapore’s provision and design of our urban transport systems.

To ensure sustainability, liveability and equitability for their citizens, and to attract and retain talent from around the world, cities such as Seoul, New York and London are planning and designing urban spaces to focus on the needs of ordinary people.

For space-and-resource-crunched Singapore, re-thinking the way we plan and design our urban spaces is just as imperative — if not more.

For one, emphasising the smooth movement of vehicles around the city has served Singapore well in the past, but has contributed to an urban environment that is less friendly to pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users.

Until recent years, non-motorised forms of transport such as walking and cycling had not been given adequate attention. There is little dedicated cycling infrastructure. Many parts of the urban landscape are still dominated by pedestrian-unfriendly overhead bridges and narrow pavements.

Even at major pedestrian thoroughfares, such as the junction of Orchard Road and Scotts Road, cars are given absolute priority, while people are forced to make use of underground road crossings.

The focus on road expansion to tackle anticipated traffic congestion also does not necessarily optimise land and resource use. Already, 12 per cent of our valuable land has been set aside for transport-related use, of which a significant amount is for building roads.

Furthermore, it has been well proven that no city can build its way out of congestion. Roads are built based on the projected number of vehicles, but when there are more roads, people tend to drive more.

Meanwhile, Singapore’s parking policies appear to have over-provided cheap parking, a perverse incentive that encourages drivers and seems in direct conflict with the goal of increasing the share of trips taken on public transport. A monthly season parking in the CBD area averages out to be a low S$10 to S$15 per day, cheaper than a one-way taxi trip from most housing towns during peak hours.

In theory, our public policies are meant to promote more sustainable travel behaviours. But in practice, we are at risk of creating an urban ecosystem in which cars, instead of people, take centre stage. Inevitably, to re-work this ecosystem will involve de-prioritising some of the privileges enjoyed by car users today.


Much effort has already gone into enhancing the attractiveness of public transport. Commuters, especially those who own cars, also need to be convinced that public transport can be a fast, reliable and comfortable alternative to private vehicles.

Reducing car dependency, however, is not a task for the transport authority alone. A multi-pronged approach will be needed to prepare ourselves for a “car-lite” future in an increasingly complex and inter-dependent urban environment.

At the strategic level, urban planners have a major challenge in bringing jobs closer to where people live. While many more recent housing projects have been built in the north, north-east and east of our island, key employment activities continue to concentrate in the west and the city centre, resulting in long commutes.

To address these issues, urban planners are creating new commercial centres outside the city centres; for example, in Jurong Lake District, Paya Lebar Central, and the North Coast Innovation Corridor around Woodlands and Seletar.

More must also be done to discourage people from driving. Even with excellent access to public transport, workplaces that provide ample parking spaces at affordable rates will tend to prompt both staff and visitors to drive. Similarly, the generous supply of residential car-parking facilities could encourage car ownership and reinforce the notion of parking as an entitlement.

Rather than seeking to accommodate car-parking demand, future policies should take limited supply as a given and focus anew on effective demand management.

It is also important to provide a safer and more conducive ecosystem for sustainable modes of transport such as walking and cycling. It would not be necessary to set aside space for designated cycling lanes on every street; similarly, the movement of cars need not be prioritised across the entire road system. Instead, key corridors could be identified within “community links” to key local destinations such as public transport nodes, shops, schools and other amenities.

Finally, culture, behaviour and perception matter a lot in promoting active mobility. In Singapore, cars remain an aspiration or status symbol, in part because of their high price-tag engendered by the very measures introduced to slow the growth in car population. Meanwhile, motorists view pedestrians and cyclists as annoying encumbrances, and concern about safety and the weather still stigmatises cycling.

Meaningful change on sustainable urban mobility will be driven by two key factors: Whether our city’s leaders walk the talk on ‘car-lite’ travel behaviour; and whether the vision is followed up by concerted efforts to drive and support this change. It is our choice whether to, henceforth, build a city for cars or for people.


Khoo Teng Chye is executive director at the Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC), Ministry of National Development. Remy Guo and Mina Zhan are senior assistant directors at CLC. This commentary is adapted from a longer piece in Beyond 50: Re-imagining Singapore, a book of essays by different authors on the country’s future challenges and opportunities. The publication, which is available both in print and online, is supported by the SG50 Celebration Fund. This is part of a series of pieces from the book that TODAY is publishing.

No comments: