The decision to scrap plans for an underground road network bids farewell to a phase of land transport development. Earlier, the need to keep people moving led to the provision of an ever-expanding infrastructure for motorised vehicles. The Singapore Underground Road System made sense in that context, when it was announced more than 20 years ago. The idea was to build an underground ring road system around the city's fringe, to cater to potential traffic growth into and out of the city centre. To that end, land along the system's alignment came to be subject to stringent development rules.
The scrapping of plans for the network will free up parcels of land for redevelopment. But that is not its chief benefit to the course of Singapore's evolution. The larger gain lies in its effecting a psychological break with a national mindset in which cars - and the roads they require - are treated as an essential index of individual achievement buoyed by general prosperity. That attitude would undermine the goal of a car-lite Singapore which is critical to an ecological future in which sources of physical congestion and environmental pollution need to be reduced drastically.
That is the path on which Singapore has embarked already. By 2030, the rail network will be 360km long, and more than 90 per cent of developments in the Central Business District (CBD) will be within a five-minute walk to an MRT station. The convenience of proximity should make public transport the default means of travel in the area. Indeed, the CBD itself will lose some of its iconic geographical status when a companion district comes up in Jurong. The second CBD has been visualised with a car-lite purpose in mind, which complements its attractions as a place in which to live, work and play, with nature but a stone's throw away. By drawing some of the human traffic away from the existing CBD, the Jurong Lake District should add to the spatial decentralisation of the Singapore economy and contribute to a consequent widening of its social life, beyond the undue concentration on areas whose importance is largely historical.
It is reassuring that the move towards a car-lite Singapore does not need to contend with controversies such as those which greeted the introduction of measures to treat traffic congestion in the past. The Electronic Road Pricing system, based on a pay-as-you-use principle that charges motorists when they use priced roads during peak hours, became habitual only after a while. Today, Singaporeans are far more open to treating the root of the problem - an almost fetishistic dependence on cars as symbols of physical and social mobility. From venturing into car-sharing to rediscovering the uninhibited joys of cycling, alternative forms of transport will redraw the transport landscape along with trains, buses and taxis.