Mind the Gap

What can public transport tell us about a city’s character? Danu makes an unlikely comparison of the public transport experiences in Melbourne and Singapore and thinks through how to make sense of the differences.

Melbourne-Singapore Transport

I have what many would consider to be a peculiar fondness for public transport. Sometimes I will catch trains and buses just to see where they go. The logic and layout of a city’s public transport network, it seems to me, reveals a lot about the character of a place. Thus, whenever I find myself in a new city, I make a point of getting to grips with its public transport system.

In the course of my travels I asked myself an innocent question. Why is it that in Singapore (one of my favourite cities) I can get from the airport to anywhere in the entire city in a clean and comfortable train that leaves every 6 minutes, for less than $2, while in Melbourne (also one of my favourite cities, and where I live) I have to get a $17 bus that connects to an unreliable, expensive and often filthy train network where I have to spend another $3.70 using a different ticket that may or may not work? Melbourne is, after all, the second most populous city in one of the richest countries in the world. Singapore is now a rich and developed country also, but this is a comparatively recent development. To put the comparison another way, Melbourne’s last new suburban train line (Glen Waverley) opened in 1930. The last major work was the city loop, completed in 1985, whereas Singapore’s entire 150km island-wide rail network was constructed since then.

Without quite doing so consciously, I now realise I have spent a considerable amount of time and effort trying to find good ways to make sense of this. Among other things, this has included taking a course in contemporary planning issues as part of my postgraduate policy studies, as well as relocating to Singapore and working for a time as a researcher inside the country’s Land Transport Authority to get an inside perspective. Not to mention a lot of time riding road and rail in both places.

A large part of this search for answers has consisted in deciding what terms of understanding are appropriate to the situation. Many people would reject a comparison between Melbourne and Singapore out of hand, given that one is a city and one is a nation in its own right, or on the basis that one is a liberal democracy while the other is perceived as an authoritarian state. Would it not make more sense to compare Melbourne to somewhere like Berlin?

Rather than rejecting the comparison on such a basis, this to me seems an excellent reason to pursue the question. What if the different political arrangements are not merely incidental factors, but part of the explanation? What would be the implications of this? In any event, the comparison I want to make is based on experience and conceptual rationality rather than demographics, so I have deliberately chosen Singapore as an extreme, or limiting, case. That is to say, I am mostly interested in what it is like to experience public transport in Melbourne and Singapore as someone who uses it, and how the city’s respective attitudes towards public transport result in that kind of experience.

I want to propose that the salient aspect of a public transport network is the experience of it as a commuter. Not a customer — the language here is important. A customer is the purchaser of a product or service. Products and services are designed by other people, customers merely select and buy them. In their passivity, customers need not be concerned with where or how the product or service is made, they select simply on whichever offers the best value, as signalled by its price. This experience, as anyone who has had the opportunity to go shopping for pencils with Milton Friedman can tell you, is what we now call freedom.

Conversely, the word ‘commute’ comes from the Latin mutare, ‘to change’. With the intensifier added, commutare means to change ‘often’ or ‘altogether’. We associate the word with transport because of the ‘commutation ticket’ which came about with the rise of the American railways in the 1800s. The commutation ticket allowed for the changing of one kind of payment (e.g. railroad, streetcar) into another, combining several modes of transportation into one. This understanding of transport as a interchangeable network reminds us that the system is best thought of from the perspective of the person who uses it to get from one place to another with maximum convenience and the minimum of fuss. This is (or should be) the point of the thing itself. It is indeed in this sense that a transport network is public — transport is a ‘good’, in both senses of the word, provided for the benefit of citizens. The historian Tony Judt notes the social importance of public transport as a shared experience:

The coming of the railways facilitated the emergence of what we have come to know as public life: public transport, public places, public access, public buildings and so on. The idea that people who were not obliged to travel in the company of others might choose to do so—if provision was made for status sensibility and physical comfort—was in itself revolutionary. The implications for the emergence of social class (and class distinctions), as well as for our sense of community across distance and time, were huge. It seemed to me that an account of the rise and fall (and, in Europe, the resurrection) of the railway might be an instructive way to think what has gone wrong in countries like America and Great Britain.1

If we understand transport in terms of public good, we can already begin to make sense of the different experiences on offer for commuters in Melbourne and Singapore. In the latter, public transport is understood as a key enabler of economic prosperity and quality of life. The goal, according to the Transport Minister, is ‘to build and develop a more people-centred transport system that is technologically intelligent, yet engagingly human.’2 Victoria, on the other hand, currently does not have a document which discusses its transport policy aims or direction. Public transport in Melbourne tends to be thought of as a mode of last resort and is treated accordingly. This observation only begs the question, however. How are we to account for these different understandings?

One answer lies in differing attitudes towards growth and constraint. In Melbourne, improvement and expansion of the public transport network stalled around the 1950s. Long-planned new train lines, including those designed to service areas in the city’s east (Doncaster and Rowville) as well as a rail link to Tullamarine Airport in the northern suburbs fizzled out and never saw the light of day. This broadly coincided with a shift in thinking about life generally and urban form in particular. In the early post-war years, the economy surged and there was a widespread belief that social and material progress would be rapid, assured and essentially boundless. This newfound optimism saw the outward surge of suburbia and its associated idyll of private, quiet affluence, fuelled by the motor car. This decentralisation is often thought of as reflecting an egalitarian idea of home ownership — the Australian Dream of a detached single-storey home on a quarter acre suburban block, with a nice garden. And perhaps, as later recalled nostalgically during the Howard years, even gently shielded from the world by a reassuring white picket fence.

Singapore, by contrast, has always filtered its decisions through a lens of land scarcity. Singapore in the 1950s was still a ‘third world’ British colony, though moving inexorably towards independence. This initially took the form of a merger in 1962 with neighbouring Malaya, though this turned out to be an ill-fated endeavour and Singapore exited the new federation three years later. In 1965, Singapore suddenly found itself isolated and having to make its way as an independent nation. With no natural resources of its own, it was dependent on its neighbours for raw materials and basic amenities, including water supply. As a multi-ethnic, multiracial society, it felt threatened by the looming presence of its two large Muslim neighbours, Malaysia and Indonesia. As a capitalist society based almost entirely on trade and politically non-aligned during the Cold War, it existed uncomfortably near communist China. The extent to which these threats and pressures are real or imagined is largely unimportant for our purposes — it is the island city-state’s understanding of itself as existentially vulnerable that is crucial to making sense of the policies and actions it pursued.

Singapore’s efforts in planning have been about maximising the use of available space, while consciously fostering nationalism through social policies. While in Australia individualist lifestyles flourished, Singapore’s society became, and largely remains, profoundly corporatist. This included a policy of building planned communities of high-density, high-quality public housing (in which nearly all Singaporeans live), integrated with mixed-use activity centres containing food, retail, entertainment and community services.

An example of a planned public housing community in Singapore

An example of a planned public housing community in Singapore

In terms of experience, this means a typical Singaporean family is usually within walking distance of shops, school, eateries, playgrounds, with social services such as childcare often located on the ground level of the housing block. Conversely, with the exception of some inner locales, Melbourne’s decentralised suburbs and low-density housing encourage car dependence. This missed design opportunity extends to Melbourne’s mixed-use activity centres, which according to official policy rather disingenuously include stand-alone shopping malls like Chadstone, that commentators have pointed out are not at all well-connected to public transport nor integrated into the surrounding urban form.3

The decentralised urban model has been attacked frequently for its impact on public good, notably by social critics like James Howard Kunstler, who worries provocatively that we have created ‘places that aren’t worth caring about’. In a similar vein, Duany and Plater-Zyberk, American architectural academics and town planners, wonder what happens when we do everything to make cars happy, but not people:

The structure of the suburb tends to confine people to their houses and cars; it discourages strolling, walking, mingling with neighbours. The suburb is the last word in privatization, perhaps even its lethal consummation, and it spells the end of authentic civic life.4

Since the 1970s, the Singapore government has conceptualised urban development and land transport as holistic issues, central to economic prosperity and quality of life, and has consolidated policy into a series of master plans updated at five-year intervals. While Melbourne’s suburbs are designed around the convenience of the car, Singapore’s policymakers operate on an assumption that it is simply not feasible for everyone to own a car, for reasons of space, but also for reasons of efficiency and environment. This striking decision gave rise to two interesting and controversial policies regarding cars. Firstly, in the 1970s the government established congestion-pricing in the CBD area, as is now common in many European cities. Secondly, in the early 1990s the government began using a quota system to regulate the number of vehicles physically allowed on the road. Citizens could purchase a ten-year certificate of entitlement (CoE) allowing them to own and operate a vehicle — these were released in tranches each month and obtained by bidding in an open market. This latter development coincided with a major investment in revamping the public transport system, the backbone of which would be a new rail network. An abundance of taxis with regulated fares would serve as a bridge between public and private transport.5

The difference in political culture and governance arrangements are of course important in this story. As a city-state, Singapore’s structures of governance are highly consolidated. It operates one level of government in a unicameral parliamentary system, as opposed to Australia’s three-tier federal structure with its attendant complications. Singapore’s long-term government is also certainly a factor — the ruling party has been in power since 1959. This ideological stability has permitted an incremental, decades-long planning process. The two large and well-funded statutory bodies, the Land Transport Authority and the Urban Redevelopment Authority, are closely linked and chiefly responsible for bringing about the government’s broad policy agenda in this area.

While it is no doubt tempting to make a comparison between rough-and-tumble warts-and-all democratic process and squalid authoritarian dictatorships, however benign, this way of thinking about the situation is misleading. It’s true that the ideologies of different governments inform their policies and these can at times have radically different consequences — when Paul Keating said ‘change the government, change the country’ he was not lying. But this masks the wide range of positions in which the different parties are in fact in tacit agreement — in Australia this includes the status of private property, the five-day work week, home ownership as a goal, alliance with America, and countless others. A policy regulating vehicle ownership in Australia in the manner of Singapore’s quota system would be laughed out of the room quicker than you could say whole-of-government-approach. This is precisely because of an undergirding political consensus of the kind I’ve just described, in this case reflecting the favourable status of car ownership.

It is thus possible for a sustained, decades-long policy agenda to emerge, even allowing for several changes in government, provided there is sufficient bipartisan consensus. Conversely, long-term government is in itself no guarantee of sustained, coherent policy progress in any particular area.

What does matter is how a society thinks about public good. This is where the broad shift towards neoliberalism since the 1970s becomes relevant (Post-Fordism, in planning vocabulary), especially in the Anglo-American countries. In this paradigm, the meaning of ‘public’ good has thinned considerably, so that economics in itself is good, and the only good that really matters. Economics here means the neoclassical economics of Hayek and the Austrian school, with its article of faith that tells us once you have free markets, the rest will take care of itself. Free markets, free people, as the saying goes. In that order.

It is difficult, on these terms, to make a ‘business’ case for public transport, or indeed any kind of shared resource that is worth having in its own right (e.g. public education, water, health). Instead, you get a series of piecemeal projects that each need to be justified in their own cost-benefit terms according to the private interests of key stakeholders — ‘the public’ is rarely thought of as a key stakeholder. This applies to roads too, of course, though the idea that a road should make a financial profit is quite odd when you think about it from a perspective of public good.

An illustrative case in point of all these phenomena working together is the current debate over whether to first build a new east-west freeway extension or a new rail tunnel underneath Melbourne’s CBD. Victorian Premier Dennis Napthine has signalled the freeway will be built because it is ready to proceed whereas the rail tunnel isn’t8, but this contradicts Infrastructure Australia’s report which shows the rail tunnel as ready to proceed, with the freeway link as under development.6 The Premier’s commitment seems to be in anticipation of the fulfillment of a promise by Federal Opposition leader Tony Abbott, widely expected to win the election later this year, to provide $1.5b of funding for the freeway. Abbott has made clear his general preference for federal funding of roads over rail:

We have no history of funding urban rail and I think it’s important that we stick to our knitting. And the Commonwealth’s knitting when it comes to funding infrastructure is roads.

As it turns out, Infrastructure Australia (which was set up in 2008 to fund projects without a political preference for particular modes) has quite a history of funding urban rail — over half its initial round of funding went to rail projects. This factual dropped stitch only makes clearer the underlying ideological preference.

Part of the preference for building roads may well be that public transport usually requires ongoing subsidy, whereas toll roads make their money back eventually. Singapore is thus a particularly interesting comparison in this respect, as it operates a profitable public transport network with farebox recovery ratios of around 125%.7

While Singapore has embraced the logic of markets and free trade (these policies account in large part for its rapid material development), it also retains a commitment to quality of life. Its unique model of governance is sometimes described as dirigism, or a kind of state capitalism, though the value system is perhaps more properly understood as part of the Confucian tradition. In pragmatic terms, we can think of this as meaning that both ‘the public’ and ‘the environment’ having a seat at the stakeholder table.

One interesting question is what all of this means for the planning profession. As a discipline, planning has its origins in the rise of the social sciences in the 1920s and as part of the scientific revolution of knowledge of the mid-to-late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was a widely shared hope at the time that the knowledge and expertise gained as part of the new social professions could help us engineer a new and better world. The ‘science’ part of the equation is important here. It was thought that the new disciplines would help uncover new laws that explain and predict social phenomena, which could then be used to specify and implement technical solutions accordingly. One of the fondest hopes of the time, for instance, was for the science of good breeding — eugenics — that would allow us to successfully ‘plan’ the ideal population.

The story of the 20th century is in many respects a story of the disastrous collapse of these hopes. Attempts to establish planned socialist and communist societies, such as in Soviet Russia, ended badly to say the least, as did Germany’s attempt to establish a thousand-year Reich based around the supposed ‘master’ race. Critics like Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer wrote of the murderous but logical consequences of ‘totally administered societies’8, and we should remember that Hayek’s argument against government intervention in the economy was in fact not so much about the inherently superior qualities of markets themselves, but that government intervention leads inevitably to totalitarianism.9

In addition, the postmodern turn in the social sciences from the 1970s began to quickly undermine the authority of planning expertise, as it was argued that this knowledge did not represent objective truth about the world, but merely represented one of many competing truth claims based on assumptions that reflected certain understandings of the world. The idea of a single obtainable truth gave way to the idea that there are many, competing truths, or in post-modernism’s most nihilistic form, that there is no truth at all. The question then became about power — whose knowledge counts, and which discourse becomes adopted? This left the urban planning profession in a bit of a bind. No longer the midwives of a bright and certain future, planners were now seen as authoritarian elite figures whose assumptions and power needed to be questioned.

It should be noted that there is something actually quite anti-democratic about the idea of planning in its earlier sense, and this was indeed a concern raised at the time by people like John Dewey, who felt that the new technocratic authorities of expertise would end up undermining the ability of citizens to participate in public decisionmaking.10 It is perhaps no surprise that ‘master’ planning of this authoritarian kind still flourishes in corporatist societies like Singapore.

In the context of Melbourne, the failure of both imagination and implementation when it comes to public transport reflects nothing so much as the crisis of confidence and legitimacy of public institutions that is fast becoming the key characteristic of Western democracies in the early 21st century. There is widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo, as reflected by the sustained background anger particularly towards train operator Metro and the Myki ticketing system. In the absence of likely solutions on the horizon or indeed workable frameworks in which such solutions could be devised, the public response is increasingly to simply throw up hands in despair and disengage further from the political process.

Commuters queue to get through the ticketing 'Frankenbarrier' at Melbourne's Southern Cross Station

Commuters queue to get through the ticketing ‘Frankenbarrier’ at Melbourne’s Southern Cross Station

This experience is no doubt particularly frustrating for planners themselves, who are in a unique position to understand the technical complexity of the problem and also to see in detail the possible ways forward, but largely unable to bring about any change in their new passive professional capacity. Perhaps we should not be surprised then that some have opted instead to throw stones from the ivory towers of academia.

It seems clear that hope of renewal is unlikely to come from within established interests. If we are not to embrace Singapore’s approach, and I am not suggesting that we should, we can neither afford to accept matters as they stand — the experience of public transport (and other public institutions) currently on offer is neither a good advertisement for Melbourne nor in fact for liberal democracy.

A worthwhile start, it seems to me, would be to recover an idea of public good in thinking about the problem. If we are going to be serious about the proposition that we live in a democracy, this ought properly be part of a broader recasting of the role of citizen in public participation.

What is the role of planning expertise in this scenario? One option, as Frank Fischer suggests, is to cast such professional knowledge in a facilitating role. He notes that very few projects of citizen action succeed without the involvement of a key individual expert, but also that ordinary citizen groups are much better at grasping the complexities of a technical subject than is commonly supposed.11 Thus, Fischer argues that such facilitation by planning experts would consist largely in assisting citizen groups in achieving understanding of their situation and working through the detail and implication of possible scenarios for action, upon which citizens themselves ultimately deliberate.

There isn’t time here to outline such a direction in detail — I include the discussion as a way of pointing to conceptual ways of solving the problem. Similarly, project planner and policy theorist Bent Flyvbjerg suggests that for social science to matter in any meaningful sense, we ought reorient professional practices around questions of value and practical judgment.12 This is actually a more radical idea than perhaps it sounds at first, as it involves turning much of our established practice on its head. Nevertheless, Flyvbjerg makes a persuasive case that this may in fact be just what is needed.

In practice, this would mean that instead of making a business case for a project on the basis of cost-benefit analysis, planning professionals would orient their practice by asking questions like: Where are we going with this? Is this good? What should be done? Who wins and who loses by doing so?13 Proceeding in this manner places public good at the centre of the inquiry and necessarily sparks a more engaged and democratic public debate, informed by a richer sense of the implications and consequences of taking a particular action.

Having understood the comparison between the different experiences of public transport in Melbourne and Singapore as resting on the consideration of public good, there is nothing then that makes the problem especially insurmountable either, as the solution in one sense only requires imagination and some political will. But then, with Herbert Marcuse we might note wryly that the greatest obstacle to change is the way things already are. If better outcomes aren’t enough to prompt us into action, perhaps we ought focus instead on the consequences of not doing something about the problem, which appear very dire indeed. At the very least, we should be open to uncomfortable comparison and critique rather than engaging, as the late Paul Mees characterised Melbourne’s rail system, in the ‘self-defence of incompetence.’14


1 T Judt, Thinking the Twentieth Century, Penguin Press, USA, p. 332.

2 Singapore Government, ‘LT Masterplan: A people-centred land transport system’ in Land Transport Authority, p. i, <>

3 R Goodman & S Moloney, ‘Activity Centre Planning in Melbourne Revisited’, Australian Planner, 2004, Vol 41, No 2, p 52.

4 A Duany & E Plater-Zyberk, ‘The Second Coming of the American Small Town’, The Wilson Quarterly, 1992, Vol 16, No 1, p. 21.

5 Singapore Government, ‘LT Masterplan: A people-centred land transport system’ in Land Transport Authority, <>

6 Australian Government, ‘Australian Infrastructure Progress and Action: A report to the Council of Australian Governments’ in Infrastructure Australia, June 2012, pp. 105, 117, <>

7 Singapore Government, p. 93

8 T Adorno & M Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1997, Verso, London.

9 F Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, 1944, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

10 F Fischer, Democracy & Expertise: Reorienting Policy Inquiry, 2009, Oxford University Press, Oxford, p. 28–29

11 Fischer, op. cit, pp. 137–167

12 B Flyvbjerg, Making Social Science Matter, 2001, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

13 Flyvbjerg, op. cit., p. 141–165

14 P Mees, ‘Does Melbourne need another central city rail tunnel?’, RMIT University, 2008, viewed 14 June 2013, <>

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