Tag Archives | public transport

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. Continue Reading →

Unscheduled departure

I’m sad to hear of the passing of Paul Mees, who was one of the rare bright spots on the Australian academic landscape:

While working as a lawyer, Mees became involved in public transport advocacy through the Public Transport Users Association. As the association’s president from 1992 to 2001, he became one of Victoria’s most recognised spokespeople on public transport planning and management issues. In the 1990s, Mees launched a legal challenge against aspects of the Victorian government’s CityLink infrastructure project, which eventually went to the High Court. In the early 2000s, he helped to establish the Public Transport First Party, which sought to put transport issues on the agenda in key electorates. He was also a member of the community reference group for the Melbourne Metropolitan Strategy.

He was only 52. Sadly, there are not nearly enough academics who take their job seriously in the way Mees did.

While undoubtedly a notable academic, it was Mees’ capacity to engage in public debate that set him apart from many of his scholarly peers. For nearly three decades he shared platforms with politicians, activists, journalists and commentators, developers, planners and designers, bureaucrats, researchers and concerned citizens. He was arguably Australia’s highest-profile authority on public transport planning and development, demonstrating an extraordinary commitment to canvassing issues in the public arena.

As a respected commentator, a provocateur and a campaigner, Mees will be remembered for his candour, integrity and tenacity. In recent months, despite being seriously ill, he continued to participate in public debates. Questioning the Victorian government’s plans for an east-west tunnel system across Melbourne’s inner northern suburbs, he argued there was little substantial research behind the project.

If you have deep specialist expertise on a matter of public import, the best thing you can do is act as a translator and facilitator who helps others harness that expertise to the public good.

Going Nowhere

Public transportation is a complicated business. Liam examines Melbourne’s much-maligned network, stepping past the anger and obfuscation to think clearly about the shape of the problem.

Going Nowhere

A lot of things have been said about Melbourne’s public transport. Whether you think it’s good or atrocious depends on what you compare it to and what sort of criteria of quality you want to apply. It is, in a lot of ways, good. A lot of people have also gone to great pains to diagnose and describe problems with the network. The main newspapers in Melbourne, The Age and The Herald Sun, have run a lot of articles highlighting the notable service failures, the mistreatment of commuters by ticket inspectors and the minimal government response.

The tone of the discussion reminds me of a cheap perfume bought on sale — sharp, shallow and repugnant whilst ostensibly respectable. This is a fact that is in many ways more interesting than the object of the outrage. It’s the shape of the problem that I’m interested in discussing here, rather than the ‘substance’ of horserace-like commentary. I’ll do that by setting out a few aspects of the state of affairs and then attempting to formulate some questions with which to ask what can be done about it.

Continue Reading →

Stricken from the record

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

A few weeks ago, around 100 Chinese bus drivers employed by one of the two public transport operators did not show up for work. The incident has quickly become a heated national story, one that reveals many of Singapore’s social and political idiosyncracies.

Bus strike

Being a bus driver is a low-paid profession. Like many jobs the locals don’t particularly want to do, the majority of the workforce is comprised of foreign labour. The group of Chinese drivers were protesting what they felt were unfair wages and conditions in comparison to their Malaysian and Singaporean colleagues, who had just received a payrise while the Chinese workers had not. 102 drivers based in a depot in the country’s north did not show up for work on November 26 – as a result, services were disrupted. The transport operator (SMRT) organized temporary workers to be brought in the following day in case the protest continued, which it did.

The police took in several dozen of the drivers for questioning and after a couple of days announced that 29 of the drivers would be ‘repatriated’ (ie deported) back to China after the ‘illegal strike’. The rest would be warned but allowed to return to work, except for one ringleader who was given a six-week jail term. The government also publicly criticized SMRT for not better attending to its HR practices and for allowing such a situation to develop. Following these developments, Singapore’s consulate in Hong Kong was picketed and the Chinese government dispatched officials to Singapore to investigate the situation to make sure it was being handled ‘appropriately’.

So, what’s going on here? Continue Reading →

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. ◾