Making car-lite Singapore right

There is an article in Today’s commentary section that was spot on in its analysis about the need for making Singapore a car-lite society. It called for policies to take limited supply of car parking space as a given and manage demand. It also emphasized the importance of providing a safer and more conducive ecosystem for sustainable modes of transport such as walking and cycling. Lastly, it highlighted the need to change culture, behaviour and perception, particularly bring up how Singaporeans view owning a car as an aspiration and status symbol.

The article leaves a few questions unanswered. What can we actually do to make Singapore car-lite? What are the obstacles in our path that is preventing Singapore from being car-lite? I can think of three points.

More efficient and effective public transport

One of the reasons why people own and drive cars is to get to places. That sounds obvious. But this obviously fundamental fact forms the basis of how we can make Singapore more car-lite. In addition to making it painful for people to own and drive cars, through policies such COE, ERP and increasing the costs of parking cars by not increasing supply of car parks, we really need to have a better public transport system. The connectivity, reliability, ease and comfort of public transport need to be improved to such an extent that the marginal benefit of driving compared to taking public transport is far less than the increased costs.

Many steps have been taken in that direction.

The bus-contracting model will kick off in 2016. This will increase the government’s ability to respond changing travel demands and to ensure that even routes which are not profitable will be served.

The government is also trying out innovative ways to improve public transport. The Infocomm Development Agency (IDA) and Land Transport Authority have worked together to launch a mobile app, Beeline, for commuters to pre-book rides on express bus routes. The routes were established from crowdsourced suggestions.

The government is also taking steps to improve our rail transport. More new lines are opening. Greater emphasis and focus is being put on the maintenance of the older lines. All these are great moves that will go some way to improve the connectivity and reliability of our rail transport. However, the real root of the problem of our rail transport remains in its corporate structure. Given that our rail transport is one of the key planks of our public transport, we really need to consider slaying the sacred cow of having our rail companies being public listed companies.

Last stretch connectivity

The one shortcoming of public transport is that it cannot bring us as close to where we want to get to as cars can. That is another reason that contributes to people owning cars. That is why the government has put in much effort to make travelling from the public transport nodes (high usage bus stops, bus depots and train stations) to the eventual destination of the commuter more comfortable. LTA has embarked on a massive project to build covered link ways that connect these public transport nodes to schools, hospitals, residential areas, and public amenities.

The government is also actively promoting cycling. It has embarked on a massive plan to construct cycling paths for intra-town cycling. The idea is that people will cycle along these cycling paths to reach key amenities within the neighbourhood rather than drive.

However, even with these efforts, people still feel that it is significantly more convenient and comfortable to drive or take a cab (which also contributes to the number of cars on the road) compared to using the public transport because car-based transport gets you far closer to where you need to get to.

It is therefore important for the government to consider how it can improve the last stretch connectivity in Singapore. Any improvement in last stretch connectivity will have to take into account Singapore’s hot and humid weather. Cycling, even with dedicated cycling paths, will not, in my opinion, contribute significantly to last stretch connectivity in Singapore. I believe that the government will really have to consider allowing more widespread use of personal electric vehicles (PEVs).

I am not talking about those bicycles with electric motors. Those are dangerous and not practical to be used together with our public transport. I am referring to the electric kick-scooters and unicycles that are increasingly becoming more popular. And there are newer, more innovative forms of PEVs that are hitting the market that can be used fairly easily in conjunction with public transport. These include the WalkCar and the “Hoverboard” (no… not what you expect from the Back to the Future movies…), which have electric motors thus do not need people to walk (and thus lesser sweating) to get from public transport nodes to where they want to get to. Between the two, I am more impressed with WalkCar because it looks more portable.

The solutions are already available. People are already adopting these solutions. Sales of PEVs have risen dramatically. However, government policies are in the way. Apparently PEVs are not allowed on footpaths, cycling paths, park connectors and roads. In other words, technically, you are not allowed to use your PEVs anywhere in Singapore (except maybe to zoom around your own house, from room to room). The government has realized that that is actually quite stupid.

The LTA has set up an advisory panel to look into norms and guidelines for using pavements. Rather than a complete ban, I hope that the LTA can stipulate that only PEVs below a certain power output (which limit the maximum spped the PEV can go) can be used on pavements, park connectors and cycling paths. This will greatly enhance the last stretch connectivity.

Cars as aspirations and status symbols

The final battle that Singapore has to fight in order to become a car-lite society is the perception that cars are status symbols and owning a car is a worthwhile aspiration to have. It does not help that we have events like the one organized by ISCOS recently that appear to convey the message to children and youths that owning cars is something they should aspire to.

Consequently, because of this perception that cars are status symbols and owning cars are therefore something we should aspire to, we used to have young people who rush to buy cars they moment they graduate from universities, paying their monthly installments through their noses. Not only is this terrible financial planning for those young people, it also contributes to the car population on the roads.

What can the government do about this? Unfortunately, nothing much. The government has tried to make it more difficult for people to own cars through schemes like COE and limiting the amount of money you can borrow to buy cars. The latter had some effect. The COE prices have come down significantly, reflecting the lower demand for cars now. But it does not change the fact that many people still hope to own cars.

This perception probably started when we anchored the “Singapore Dream” in the five C’s – Cars, Condos, Cash, (Country) Club, Careers. These came to define our aspirations. We became a society that is materialistic and acquisitive. We measure our success by what we can buy, consume and own.

We need to change that.

At every level of society, through subtle government nudging, in schools, in our communities, in our media, in the way we interact with one another, I hope that we can gradually shape our society into one that measures success differently – by what we can create, what we can contribute, and what we can give. Perhaps our politicians can take the lead in this – give more of their salary away to charity, drive smaller cars (or better yet, do not drive at all), etc etc.

Perhaps if we can truly do this, and together with the other efforts by the government, Singapore can truly be a car-lite society.

[Featured image from Straits Times]


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