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No cakewalk to ditch car, but can deeper reasons move drivers?

Call me a wet (and humid) blanket to Singapore's fight to go car-lite. It is often too muggy, hot or rainy for us to cheerfully walk or ride here.

Drivers whose cars are not essential to their sanity may be persuaded completely or up to a certain point by the car-lite strategy to consider taking public transport. But as it is no cakewalk to leave the car behind, can deeper reasons move drivers to one day stand the heat?

When the Sustainable Singapore Blueprint was unveiled two years ago, the Government's intention was for the country to go car-lite.

Among other goals, the 15-year plan aims to have the country reduce its reliance on the car and move towards more sustainable transportation modes.

Private vehicles account for more than a third of transport modes - 37 per cent - and the aim is to have 75 per cent of trips made by public transport by 2030, and 85 per cent by 2050, reported The Straits Times. Short-term parking rates are being raised by 20 per cent, while monthly season parking charges will increase by as much as 27 per cent from December, even as experts say that parking policy should be addressed in the car-lite strategy.

Then there is the charm offensive. If you have been driving slowly enough to look at banners that have popped up next to some roads, you would read about characters who are transported with joy about taking the bus or cycling.

Plastered across the pedestrian bridge that I use on my way to work is a "Walk Cycle Ride, Singapore" banner by the Land Transport Authority (LTA) with the words, "Freedom to come and go", which is a fair enough statement, though you can say the same of driving.

These are earnest moves to coax drivers into going the public transport route, but they kind of turn me into one mean wet blanket: I like the banner. The cyclist depicted in the illustration looks dewy-eyed, sweat-free and unscorched by the sun. I like the banner because it helps shield me from the punishing heat of the sun or the splatter of driving rain as I walk by. I, too, can be dewy-eyed and sweat-free. What made me nearly fall off the bridge giggling one day was the juxtaposition of Ms Dewy-Eyed and a sour-faced steely-eyed auntie cycling past the banner on the bridge. Hello, reality. (And hello, auntie, fine: $1,000).

On bridges and pavements across the island, Steely-Eyed Auntie along with grumpy "my grandfather's road" uncles ring-ring-ring their bike bells for pedestrians to get out of the way. These are the "considerate" ones.

Younger ones whizzing along on electric bikes or personal mobility devices zigzag without warning around pedestrians, scaring them into dropping the cellphones they are glued to. So, actually, another one of the LTA banners - the one that urges riders to "slow down when sharing your path" - is very much appreciated for its down-to-earth approach.

Are steely-eyed solutions better than dewy-eyed dreams?

Well, such solutions are already being built.

Since last month, the LTA has been testing out the use of electric fans at five bus stops, and is studying the feasibility of installing them at others, reported The Straits Times. The six-month pilot scheme is under way to see if the wait at bus stops can be made cooler for commuters.

This month, The Sunday Times reported that the ongoing transformation of Ang Mo Kio into a walking and cycling town could pave the way for the rest of Singapore in the drive towards a car-lite society. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said this after marking the completion of the project's first phase, which includes a 4km biking route, cycle ramps with slow-down rumble strips and road markings, so motorists can better watch out for cyclists and pedestrians.

I had a quick look at the shared bike and pedestrian path outside AMK Hub. On the pedestrians' side, a woman led an elderly auntie by her hand, a young dad pushed a pram leisurely, while a girl rode on the cyclists' side.

Those few nice minutes felt like some unreal film shoot of a model Singapore scenario. A breeze even stirred Singapore flags put up for National Day at the right moment on that hot afternoon.

While we are in a fantastic moment, may we cross into a fantasy world, where we can maroon thoughtless smokers on a traffic island, so they can suck slowly on vehicle exhaust fumes.

Just one smoking pedestrian can leave a long trail of second-hand smoke for scores of people behind her or him. They are mini-haze-producers spewing noxious stuff including carbon monoxide, arsenic and… Wait, is that a whiff of sulphur straight from hell? My real-world solution is to pick up the pace and overtake them, giving them the side-eye.

So is this wet blanket just sweating the small stuff? Well, I am just being realistic about the daily discomfort of life without a car. I have been more or less a long-time public transport commuter with some rides thrown my way.

I get to be in a car only when I accept lifts from very kind people. It is such a treat; it is like Star Trek's Scotty asking if I would like to be beamed on board USS Enterprise, or being asked if I would like to tumpang a ride in the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars.

But when I was a child, the bus was my USS Enterprise, for me to boldly go where no kid with a bus pass has gone before (or so I imagined).

I first took a public bus on my own when I was 10. I went places on it and did homework like reading, writing and even drawing graphs. Each time the bus swerved, it translated into an additional squiggle on my wildly inaccurate graph. Getting the bus pass, which allowed me to take unlimited rides as a student, was when I felt like a walking cliche, that dewy-eyed "freedom to come and go" girl in the banner.

So even though I enjoy a car ride, that affection for public transport has not left me. Maybe we have to start them young, let children get used to walking and taking trains as the norm instead of ferrying them everywhere.

When you're on the bus or train, you can daydream. (Yes, there is an LTA banner about that.) So for those who keep banging on about being nostalgic for the so-called good old days and wanting to have a slower pace of life, well, you can time-travel back to the past by stepping out of your car, walking to the bus stop and waiting.

Life slows down. Wait for the bus. Slow down, let elderly uncle get on the bus first. Slow down, let the pregnant lady sit down first. Check for could-be creeps, then tune out the crowd. Daydream on the bus.

Tune back into the crowd when you overhear entertaining conversations ("No knife? No gun? No security guard?!"). A woman with a pricey designer bag comes on board. Slow down, she has to ask the driver how this works and she digs around for coins. Maybe it is her first time taking the bus. It costs more to pay by cash than by card. Daydream a bit more.

Some can do a lot using only public transport. But perhaps you're worried that you will do less and get less without a car. But isn't that what you say you want in exchange for less stress?

Walking home gives you an even slower pace of life. Take time to smell the roses? I literally can smell the flowers when they sometimes release a heady tropical fragrance into the night as I walk by.

In an article for The Straits Times a couple of years ago, on how to make Singapore more "car-less", dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy Kishore Mahbubani noted that in Tokyo and New York, company managing directors, senior bankers and lawyers take public transport. In Singapore, however, even middle-level executives working in Raffles Place drive to work.

When increases in the cost of car ownership make only a little dent in how affordable cars are for the wealthier among us, deeper reasons are needed to draw them out of the comfort zone. I would like to think that among the movers and shakers are thinkers who want more out of life than just comfort and efficiency.

So, at the risk of sounding like a dewy-eyed idealist, if you say you want to be more connected to the community, here is where it lives and breathes. (Hey, when stuck in trains during a breakdown, you will be close enough to community members to see them breathing.)

If you say you want to bring up independent and tolerant kids, letting them use public transport is a step to them dealing with and understanding a cross-section of people - warts and all. So sweat a little and walk this way.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 31, 2016, with the headline 'No cakewalk to ditch car, but can deeper reasons move drivers?'. Print Edition | Subscribe