Can Marina Bay area do without cars?

Tourists and a couple take photos along Marina Bay, Mar 9, 2015.
Tourists and a couple take photos along Marina Bay, Mar 9, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

Govt think-tank and US-based research body to study if a 'modern urban district' can go car-free

Imagine travelling down the Marina Bay area on a bicycle, weaving between skyscrapers that tower above roads devoid of private cars.

The Urban Land Institute (ULI), a US-based education and research organisation, is hoping to study whether this could become a reality.

Together with the government think-tank, the Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC), it is embarking on a year-long study to see if a "modern urban district" could go car-free.

The site and scope of the study have not been confirmed, said CLC director Hee Limin, but The Sunday Times understands the Marina Bay area has been proposed as a location. The joint research group won a US$20,000 (S$28,000) grant from the ULI last month to study the iconic downtown area.

ULI Asia Pacific senior vice-president Pauline Oh said the group intends to hold two workshops with about 50 stakeholders, comprising urban planning experts, developers and tenants. Their findings will be distilled into a book which would be published next year, she added.

  • How other cities have gone car-lite

  • BICYCLE-SHARING IN TAIPEI

    The Taiwanese capital has one of the most successful bicycle-sharing schemes in the world, said research associate Yuo Pei-hsian from the Nanyang Technological University's Centre for Infrastructure Systems.

    Called YouBike, the bike-sharing scheme has had more than 46 million rentals since it was launched in 2008.

    "One of the government's policies was to make cycling in (Taipei) better than taking the MRT or bus over short distances," said Ms Yuo, who is Taiwanese.

    "With YouBike, cycling is like a feeder service. In the past, people would walk the 10 minutes from the MRT. Now, they cycle."

    CAR-SHARING IN BRITAIN AND THE UNITED STATES

    Zipcar, which touts itself as a "car club network", operates in a number of cities, including London, Boston and Vancouver.

    The company allows users to reserve a car in advance online or through a mobile app. In return, they pay a monthly membership fee, and an hourly or daily rate.

    "You can book and have a car for the day. It's similar to bike-sharing programmes," said Mr Scott Dunn, director of development for global engineering group Aecom.

    BANNING CARS FROM THE CITY CENTRE IN OSLO

    "In Europe, it's quite common for many inner-city areas to be car-free," said Dr Paul Barter, an adjunct associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

    But some cities are taking bold steps to take the car out of the equation. In Norway, Oslo's city government announced last month that it intends to ban private cars from the city centre by 2019. It is part of a plan to slash greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2020, compared with 1990 levels.

    Danson Cheong

Taking private cars entirely out of the equation is a bold proposition in car-centric Singapore, but it is also a calculated one. "If we really want impact, we need to push boundaries," said Ms Oh.

This is the third joint study by the ULI and CLC. Last year, the group published a report on active mobility in Singapore, and before that, one on urban development.

Mr Scott Dunn, ULI's principal researcher for the latest study, said Singapore has the "right governance structure" for such a car-free urban area to materialise.

"Because there is a lot of control on the use of private cars, the ability to future regulate their use is already in place," said Mr Dunn, who is also South-east Asia vice-president of global engineering group Aecom.

Taking Marina Bay as an example, he said roads would still be in place for delivery vehicles and public transport, but private cars could be replaced with public transit, car-sharing, walking and cycling.

"There will be a need for good connections to bus stops and rail stations, bicycle storage, changing and shower facilities," said Mr Dunn.

Going car-free would have huge implications on almost all aspects of development, said experts. For instance, there would be a reduced need for parking space, said Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy transport researcher Paul Barter.

With car-sharing and autonomous vehicles, the need for private cars can be slashed dramatically, said Professor Carlo Ratti, director of the Senseable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He pointed out that a recent study done by MIT showed Singapore's mobility needs could be met with 30 per cent of its existing vehicles. "Fewer cars may mean shorter travel times, less congestion and a smaller environmental impact," he said.

Excess road and parking space could be adapted for other uses.

Dr Alexander Erath, a transport researcher at the Singapore-ETH Future Cities Laboratory, said the challenge would be thinking about how this should be done.

"How should we reuse it? As a cycling lane or space for other kinds of mobility, maybe a tramway? Or should it be turned into a public space?" he said, adding that the chief consideration should be given to providing viable transport alternatives.

"For most people, the car is just a utility. If you can cover this mobility (need) with viable alternatives, they won't need their cars so much. People want reliable mobility, not cars," said Dr Erath.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 22, 2015, with the headline 'Can Marina Bay area do without cars?'. Print Edition | Subscribe