Janil Puthucheary, Transport

Budget 2013 - Easing peak-hour crush: Why not offer free travel?

MP says this may work better than current discount for early users

TO SPARK a change in travel patterns, let commuters travel for free on public transport before the peak-hour crush, Mr Janil Puthucheary (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) suggested yesterday.

This carrot may be a better incentive than the current discount offered to MRT users to coax them to travel earlier, he told the House on the first day of the Budget debate.

"If that's too great a leap, then maybe, for example, every weekday morning, for 30 minutes or an hour, ending at 7.45am, commuters travel for free," he said.

His comments come a week after Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam touched on measures to reduce crowding on trains, during his Budget speech.

Mr Tharman said this will include "significantly enhanced" incentives for commuters who travel during the "shoulder" periods before and after the morning peak hour.

He did not give more details, but said Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew will talk about the measures during the debate on the ministry's budget, expected to take place next week.

Yesterday, Dr Puthucheary said money being channelled to complex research studies, creating and maintaining smartphone apps or programmes with rewards and free gifts could be used for his free travel idea.

"Everyone benefits. Those who can travel earlier will enjoy free travel. Those who can't will be more comfortable," he added.

While some may see the move as a political shift to the left, he termed it as a pragmatic approach to achieve a concrete outcome - to change passengers' behaviour to ease congestion.

"We can free ourselves from the belief that nothing good can be free. This benefits Singaporeans, it can be done," he said.

Deputy Speaker Seah Kian Peng quipped later that never had he heard a speech with so many four-letter words, but "it's one four-letter word that we all love". Yes, it's "free".

Some cities have tried it. In 2008, Melbourne let passengers who arrived at their destination by 7am, from Mondays to Fridays, travel free.

Transport experts here said yesterday that dangling free travel would help ease congestion, but may not have a huge impact.

Figures support their view. Last June, Mr Lui disclosed that 3 per cent to 4 per cent of commuters who usually travel during the morning peak had shifted their journeys since train operator SMRT increased its discount from 10 cents to 30 cents in October 2011.

This translates to about 2,000 commuter trips daily.

For a greater impact, experts like Dr Park Byung Joon said offers of free travel would have to be coupled with mindset changes and a move towards flexi-work schedules.

Said Dr Park, head of SIM University's master of science programme in urban transport management: "The early travellers may get to the office by say 7.30am, but then they should be expected to leave by about 3pm or 4pm. We have to start accepting that those who arrive earlier can also leave earlier."

Church worker Joel Seah, who takes a 45-minute bus journey to work at 8.30am daily, said a free ride would not entice him to wake up earlier.

"I have a long day at work usually, so unless I can start work earlier which is unlikely, it doesn't attract me," said the 25-year-old.

limze@sph.com.sg

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