Moving Forward

This journal is part of a series on living and working in Singapore.

If you are a senior citizen in Singapore or have a physical disability, you can swipe your ID pass at traffic lights pedestrian crossings and they will stay green longer for on the next change (suitably cheesy video here). It is simple yet thoughtful innovations like this that are typical of the country’s attitude towards transport. Two out of every three trips are made using public transport (compared to around one in every four in most Australian cities), rail systems are tightly integrated with shopping, service and lifestyle facilities and fares are among the most affordable in the world while the transit network operates at a healthy profit despite receiving no government subsidy. Singapore introduced the world’s first vehicle congestion tax in the 1970s of the kind later adopted in many European cities. It built the world’s first totally automated, driverless subway system and operates the world’s longest single fully underground subway line at 35km.

This has all occurred since 1988 when the country’s first urban rail system opened for use. Meanwhile, the last new train line in Melbourne was built in 1985 and Sydney is still waiting for its second airport which was ‘fast-tracked’ in 1989.

Meaningful comparisons however are not easy, even if flippant ones are fun. The policymaking environment that makes such everyday miracles possible is a result of Singapore’s survivalist necessity more than it is the beneficence of surplus and abundance.

All decisions in Singapore are seen through a frame of land scarcity. There is simply not enough space to put roads everywhere, or for everyone to own a car. Besides, as the country’s transport master plan observes:

Simply building more roads will not solve our transport problems in a sustainable way because the demand for road space is insatiable. The more roads we build, the more traffic will be generated. Hence, the projected increase in travel demand must be met largely by public transport rather than by the car.

This perspective has led to a unique take on car-ownership. The number of registered vehicles allowed in Singapore is capped, with a strict quota of new registrations allowed per year (0.5% growth – a few thousand vehicles). Every two weeks a portion of this quota is put up for public auction in the form of a Certificate of Entitlement which allows you to own a car for up to 10 years. These CoEs are in high demand and bidding usually fetches between $60,000–$80,000 (AUS$47–$63k). On top of that there is the aforementioned congestion pricing when driving into the city centre, the registration fees, parking and the cost of the car itself. In other words, it’s not cheap. Needless to say if you proposed anything like that in Australia you’d be laughed out of the room quicker than you could say ‘whole-of-government approach.’

As soon as you step outside, it’s hard to avoid the remit of the Land Transport Authority — the statutory agency that looks after everything to do with roads, public transport, taxis and land use. The LTA is where I am working as an intern for the next few months. Specifically, I am part of a small policy and planning group that conducts market research, produces internal publications and houses the new LTA Academy, built to start sharing (and showing off) all that Singapore has learned achieved in transportation over the years. The Academy hosts international visitors, publishes a bi-annual academic journal and operates an interactive exhibit called LTA gallery which showcases Singapore’s transport history to schools and the general public (it’s more exciting than it sounds, which admittedly is a fairly low bar).

It promises to be an interesting experience. One of the LTA’s latest innovations is a smartphone app with all the usual journey planner and real-time arrival stuff, but which also features a snap-and-send function. This can be used for letting the LTA know about facilities in need of repair, or to dob in people who graffiti vehicles or cars that park in bus bays and so on. It’s a brave new world. ◾

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