Here is one more record that Singapore should be proud of: Its private car population has shrunk for the third year running and is now at an eight-year low. This newspaper reported last week that, as at end 2016, the number stood at 552,427, down 4 four per cent from a year ago. There are not many cities around the world, and especially in Asia, that have seen a decline in private car ownership. In fact, the problem typically is uncontrollable growth, driven by an insatiable demand for private cars among urban dwellers, leading to severe congestion in many cities. Singapore, too, has had its share of this problem but, if the past three years are any indication, it might have begun to turn the tide in this battle.
A large part of this success is the result of active Government policy to limit the supply of certificates of entitlement, which are required for car ownership. The current target is to control growth to 0.25 per cent a year, a drastic reduction from the 3 per cent of earlier years. All this is in aid of making Singapore a car-lite city, freeing it from having to build ever more roads, so that more land can be set aside for other amenities such as pedestrian malls, bicycle paths and green spaces. The result should be a more liveable city.
One other development has helped push the car-lite agenda: More people now prefer to rent rather than own cars. The number of rental cars rose dramatically last year by 75 per cent to 51,336. It could be that the sharing economy is making inroads into transport here, and rightly so. Worldwide, businesses like Airbnb and Uber are flourishing because more people see the benefits of sharing their homes and cars. It makes good commercial sense. Indeed, owning a car is a most inefficient use of an expensive asset. Most people park their cars either at their workplace or at home most of the time and use them on the road for only a fraction of the time. How much more efficient it would be if people did not own them but used them only when needed. Using computer technology to match cars to motorists, it is possible for one vehicle to serve many commuters. In the city of the future, especially with self-driving cars, this is a distinct possibility.
None of these developments detracts from the need for Singapore to press ahead with expanding and improving its public transport. In fact, the declining number of private cars means more pressure on bus and rail operators to improve services. The Government is right to focus on public transport as the commuting mode of choice for the majority of Singaporeans. But transport planers also need to keep abreast of the latest technological and business developments that can alter commuting behaviour significantly. The sharing economy and self-driving cars can upend the best urban plans. It is necessary to watch out for their revolutionary, if disruptive, potential.