Singapore cannot afford a zero growth rate for its car population, says this columnist

According to data analysis done two years ago by the Singapore-MIT
Alliance for Research and Technology (Smart), public transport accounted for less than 40 per cent of morning commutes. The study used the latest mobile phone tracking-andaggregating technology, and was based on data collected from around 4.5 million users. As such, it must be fairly robust.

If so, it should be of grave concern to the Land Transport Authority (LTA), which is targeting to have 70 per cent of morning-peak commutes done via buses and trains by 2020. The figure had been shrinking steadily over the years – from 67 per cent in 1997 to 63 per cent in 2004 and 59 per cent in 2008.

While the LTA fi gures included taxi rides and the Smart analysis did not, the difference would not have been significant one way or the other. To help reverse the trend, the LTA has been reducing the allowable annual growth rate of the car population. The rate is now 0.5 per cent – down drastically from 3 per cent before 2009. It is quite foreseeable that
zero growth will be mandated next. Faced with the starkness of the Smart analysis, the authorities might do it sooner rather
than later.

But that would be an extremely unwise move. Firstly, it would drive COE prices up further (if supply does not expand significantly), and aggravate the seething frustration ordinary citizens have been bearing for the last two to three years.

If the objective is to encourage higher public transport usage, there are certainly more direct ways to achieving it, say, accelerating the rail expansion programme to keep pace with escalating demand. Even with all the new train lines announced for up to 2030, the eventual network is still smaller than an earlier target set when Yeo Cheow Tong was Transport Minister.

And 2030 is still some way off. In the meantime, the programme to restore the battered North-South and East-West Lines will take up to 2019 to finish, at the earliest. While this is underway, the North-East Line, which is merely 10 years old, and the almost brand-new Circle Line are faced with what seem like fundamental engineering problems.

In short, to put the squeeze on car buyers before they have a viable
alternative to driving is almost like asking a drowning man to swim or sink – without throwing him a life-saver.

The conventional thinking is that Singapore is a small country and that it can only accommodate a certain number of cars. But what is that number? For sure, with proper road design and the latest info-technological tools, we can optimise capacity and thus will be able to afford a higher car population. At the moment, with so many lane diversions, roadworks, poorly coordinated signallised junctions, ill-conceived road closures, and peakish uni-directional traffic load, the capacity of our road network is clearly less than optimal.

Sometimes, weak design is at fault, too. Take the viaduct above Upper Serangoon Road. It goes from the Yio Chu Kang junction to just beyond the Braddell Road junction, but it doesn’t have any ramp onto Braddell Road that will cater to a sizeable volume going to and coming from
the Central Expressway. Which is why the viaduct is often lightly used, even as the surface road below is congested.

Demand for road space in Singapore is also unevenly distributed. Most of the demand is concentrated in the eastern and north-eastern corridors leading to the city centre. Urban planners should do something to spread out the load. For instance, the new Paya Lebar-Kallang regional centre can bring more jobs closer to people living in the two corridors. Our major business and commercial areas need to be decentralised more aggressively, so that people can live closer to where they work, so that the traffic load becomes more evenly distributed and, quite possibly, lighter.

And the sooner the electronic road pricing (ERP) system can go gantry-less and the sooner we adopt distance-based charging, the sooner we can influence motorists’ behaviour and perhaps flatten rush-hour demand for road space.

The final question is whether our road provision is comparable to that of other cities. According to a study, Motorization and Road Provision in Countries and Cities, researchers Gregory Ingram and Zhi Liu found that in 29 urban cities surveyed in 1980, the average length of road per square kilometre of land space was 10.7km, versus Singapore’s current figure of 4.9km. They had 4.1m of roadper capita, compared with Singapore’s 0.67m, and 448 vehicles per 1,000 people, compared with 179 in Singapore today.

While the premium we place on land is probably higher than in many
other cities (because Singapore is an island, with no hinterland), there is
little to stop us from building more underground and elevated roads, except maybe funds. But with all vehicle-related taxes, duties and COEs generating around $3 billion a year in revenue, Singapore probably has more financial resources than many other countries.

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This article first appeared in the October 2013 issue of Torque.

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