Even at a whopping $120,000 for a humble Toyota Corolla Altis, drivers in Singapore may not be paying the full cost of motoring
Are Motorists Subsidised? PHOTO: TORQUE

Juxtapose a recent proposal to keep public transport fares affordable for lower-income groups with the perennial complaint about high car prices (higher for some now), and you have a veritable class divide.

Our bus and train fares are among the lowest in the developed world, based purely on distance covered. But when it comes to service quality standards such as network comprehensiveness, waiting time and reliability, the comparison becomes murkier. Alright, let's not mince words:
The standards available to public transport commuters here are not up to mark.

On the other hand, motorists journey in “Business Class” here. There are roads to every nook and corner of the island, the tarmac is well maintained (except for the occasional sinkhole) and well-lit, traffic
is relatively free-flowing, there is ample parking, and drivers are often able to drive faster than stipulated by regulation.

You may say motorists travel “Business Class” because they pay “Business Class” fares – mainly in the form of high car prices. Well, let me be provocative here, and assert that Singapore car owners aren’t paying full fare. That is, their travel is being subsidised.

Firstly, let’s look at infrastructure, and compare the two costliest and most current new projects – the Marina Coastal Expressway (MCE) and the MRT Downtown Line (DTL). The 5km, 10-lane MCE costs $4.72 billion, or $944 million per kilometre, to build. When it opens later this year, it will take up to 10,000 vehicles per hour each direction. Assuming there are two people in each car (it’s often one), and assuming bi-directional volumes are the same (they often aren’t), you will get 40,000 “rides” per hour.

On its part, the 42km DTL costs $20.7 billion, or $493 million per kilometre to build. When fully operational by 2017, it will cater to 500,000 passenger rides per day – or close to 42,000 rides per hour (based on 12-hour train operations).

So you see, the MCE not only costs almost twice as much as the DTL per kilometre, it also carries fewer people. And as part of an underground, undersea link between the Kallang-Paya Lebar and Ayer Rajah expressways, it is unlikely to be used by public buses – which means it is almost exclusively the territory of private transport users.

A 2005 study funded by the European Commission, titled “Hidden Subsidies for Urban Car Transporation - Public Funds for Private Transport”, found that government expenditure for private transport almost always outstrips car-related revenue. It found that said
expenditure is mostly associated with road building and maintenance – not only of the roads themselves, but the green spaces alongside them, too.

In Singapore, the annual cost of road maintenance is about $100 million, or about $100 per vehicle. This is relatively low – until you factor in the cost of real estate (something Singaporeans can all relate to pretty well). Roads take up 12 per cent of our land, which works out to about 86 sq km, or 926 million sq ft. Based on, say, $3,600 psf (recent freehold
commercial plot transactions), the road space will cost $3.33 trillion, or $3.3 million per road user here.

Of course, this illustration is a tad facetious, because we cannot do without roads altogether. But if you were to imagine a rail network in place of a road network, the cost equation would be completely different.

Rail lines can be largely underground, and high-density developments can
be built above them. There will be no pollution and no accidents, either.

Which brings me to the next cost element that motorists do not bear
fully: environmental cost and the cost of accidents. In 2006, the United Nations estimated that road fatalities and injuries cost countries US$518 billion (S$641 billion) a year, accounting for one to two per cent of the gross national product.
Singapore’s GNP is about $342 billion. One per cent of that works out to $3.42 billion, or $3,420 per road user per year.

Environmental cost is harder to quantify in dollar terms, but the impact
is just as tangible. A recent study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that traffic emissions led to 5,000 premature deaths a year in the UK. Based on the average carbon emission of cars
here and the average annual mileage clocked, each driver in Singapore produces about 3.7 tonnes of CO2 a year. So each year, the average car emits twice its own weight in carbon.

Let’s get back to monetary cost comparisons. A family of two adults and
two schoolgoing children relying solely on public transport is estimated to spend $250 a month on it. But since a journey by car is about twice as speedy as that by public transport, we have to factor in the value of money. The value of money varies widely from one person to the next, so let’s make it simple and apply a conservative multiplier of two to the monthly expenditure. That makes $500.

Now, $500 is close to the monthly running cost of a COE Category A car,
excluding the cost of purchase. The sunk cost of purchase will translate to around $1,000 a month, which the non-car owner gets to save for holidays or retirement. But this $1,000 more per month allows the same family to enjoy “Business Class” travel – access to a far higher level of
mobility (e.g. Changi Point for breakfast, a walk by the beach afterwards, lunch and shopping in Orchard Road, and a quiet dinner at a friend’s place), and a measure of status. Not to mention the joy of driving.

And going by gut feel, $1,000 a month does not cover all the externalities
mentioned earlier, nor the pleasure of driving on roads that cost nearly $1 billion per kilometre in Singapore.