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Primer

Can Singapore go car-lite?

This is the fifth of 12 primers on various current affairs issues, published as part of the outreach programme for The Straits Times-Ministry of Education National Current Affairs Quiz

When Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong unveiled the Sustainable Singapore Blueprint two years ago, he declared the Government's intention for Singapore to go "car-lite".

The $1.5 billion 15-year plan aims to have the country reduce its reliance on the car and move towards more sustainable modes of transportation.

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan echoed the call in Parliament last week, prophesying that the car would "go the way of the horse carriage" in the next 15 to 25 years.

Mr Khaw's pronouncement seems ambitious, given that there are nearly a million vehicles on the roads now and that private vehicles account for more than a third of transport modes - 37 per cent.

Despite Singapore's land constraints, roads make up 12 per cent of its land area, almost rivalling housing at 14 per cent. But as Mr Lee said, "we have to rely less on cars on the road, because we can't keep building roads".

The Ministry of Transport (MOT) has thus adopted a three-pronged strategy for Singapore to go car-lite.

Traffic congestion is almost inevitable with nearly a million vehicles on the roads. By embracing more sustainable transport options, Singapore can still meet its mobility needs even after reducing car numbers. Already, it is beefing up the public tr
Traffic congestion is almost inevitable with nearly a million vehicles on the roads. By embracing more sustainable transport options, Singapore can still meet its mobility needs even after reducing car numbers. Already, it is beefing up the public transport network in its efforts to go car-lite, and steadily creating bicycle-friendly zones across the island for commuters. ST FILE PHOTO

First, it is beefing up public transport options. The bus industry will be gradually restructured to increase competition and boost standards, while the existing fleet is being increased by about a third.

Meanwhile, the rail network will be doubled to 360km by 2030.

The aim is to have 75 per cent of trips made by public transport by 2030, and 85 per cent by 2050.

Second, MOT is also starting to provide alternative modes of transport - for instance, under the National Cycling Plan, 700km of cycling paths will be built by 2030, up from about 350km now. Bicycles and mobility devices such as e-scooters will soon be allowed on footpaths and shared paths as well, in a move to boost their usage.

Finally, the Government is trying to curb the growth of private cars.

Observers say this three-pronged approach is a good start. Transport expert Gabe Klein feels Singapore has already done most of the heavy lifting in its car-lite journey.

"You've made these great investments in transit," said the former transportation commissioner for Chicago and Washington DC, who was in Singapore recently for a workshop on sustainable transport.

"Some of the heavy lifts to be car-lite, you've already made. It's the lighter lifts which you haven't, which sometimes culturally can be harder to make."

CURBING THE CAR

One of these cultural shifts is recognising that the streets should no longer be the domain of the car, said Mr Klein.

Indeed, urban development and mobility experts reckon that private cars and their role as status symbols are steadily becoming an anachronism in developed and increasingly crowded cities.

Cars sit idle for 95 per cent of the time, taking up precious space, said Professor Carlo Ratti, the director of the SENSEable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He told The Straits Times that an MIT study showed Singapore's mobility needs could be met with a third of its existing vehicles.

Singapore has been trying to curb car ownership and usage since the 1960s, when it started levying high taxes on cars. The Electronic Road Pricing congestion charging scheme - which began in 1975 as the area licensing scheme - has also ensured that roads here are not choked with cars, unlike those in many neighbouring countries.

The vehicle quota system, which was started in 1990, requires car owners to obtain a Certificate of Entitlement (COE). It controls the vehicle population by regulating the number of certificates.

At the moment, the COE growth rate is set at 0.25 per cent per annum until January 2018. The Government has said it has plans to bring this down to zero.

TAKING BACK THE ROAD

Stiff caps on vehicle numbers are the way forward, but the Government should also incrementally reduce the amount of road space available. Many countries, including South Korea, have done this. In 2003, Seoul tore down a highway to uncover the Cheonggyecheon river and create an urban park.

  • About The Big Quiz

  • This primer is part of The Straits Times' initiative to discuss issues of national concern. Each Monday, the paper's journalists will address burning questions in the Opinion section, offering Singaporean perspectives on complex issues.

    The primers, as well as five campus talks helmed by editors and correspondents, are part of this paper's outreach programme called The Straits Times-Ministry of Education National Current Affairs Quiz, nicknamed The Big Quiz.

    The nationwide event, whose presenting sponsor is the Singapore Press Holdings Foundation, aims to promote the understanding of civics among pre- university students.

    Yishun Junior College won the first round of the year, held at Innova Junior College on April 6.

    The other talks by ST journalists and quiz rounds will be held on:

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    •April 27 at Anglo-Chinese Junior College;

    •May 18 at River Valley High School•; and

    •July 20 at Raffles Institution

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At the same time, the city increased parking fees, toughened laws on illegal parking and boosted the capacity of public transport.

The result? Travel mode share for private cars dropped from 21 per cent to 15 per cent after the project, according to the Seoul Institute.

In Singapore, the upcoming North-South Corridor - linking Woodlands to the city - will have an entire lane reserved for buses, and cycling and pedestrian paths along the entire 21.5km route. When launched in 2021, it will be the only expressway to have been built this way.

In Bencoolen Street, two out of four lanes along 450m of the city arterial road are being turned into cycling and walking paths.

Even so, planners should also look to take back road space when they design upcoming cycling and walking networks in HDB towns, as well as implement policies that discourage car use (see sidebar).

Doing so would send a clear message that the streets belong to everyone, and not just those who drive.

VIABLE ALTERNATIVES

At the moment, you cannot fault drivers for wanting to drive when the car is the most convenient way to get around.

For instance, it takes me 45 minutes by bus to get to work in Toa Payoh from my home in Tampines.

The 14km journey by bike would take a similar amount of time, but the route snakes through the traffic-choked industrial neighbourhood of Ubi, and is not at all pleasant. So most times, I end up driving, which takes about 15 minutes. Viable alternatives must be presented.

Cars still have a place as tools to get from point to point, but that does not mean people must own them, said Mr Klein. "Car-sharing services provide the right kind of use... with cars functioning a lot more like transit," he said.

Chauffeured services such as Uber and Grab are also valid options.

These choices offer people the convenience of a car, without their having to own one.

Bicycles and other personal mobility devices such as e-scooters are fast gaining legitimacy as well - MOT last week accepted an expert panel's recommendations to allow the devices on footpaths and shared paths. It also plans to build cycling networks in all towns by 2030 to facilitate the use of such devices.

In future, mobility devices will allow people to zip conveniently to and from bus stops or train stations, so they can tap into the expanded transit network to get to their destinations.

As for riding directly to one's destination, the authorities are studying how to build seamless cycling connections from six sites - Bishan, Geylang, Hougang, Marine Parade, the Bukit Timah or Central area, and Queenstown - to provide a 30-minute bike ride from those estates to the Central Business District.

The potential is enormous.

As Dr Alexander Erath, a transport researcher at the Singapore-ETH Future Cities Laboratory, pointed out: "For most people, the car is just a utility - if you can cover this mobility with viable alternatives, they won't need their cars so much. People want reliable mobility, not cars."

Have a burning question related to this week's primer topic?

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 18, 2016, with the headline 'Can S'pore go car-lite?'. Print Edition | Subscribe