Street life thrives in car-free zones

Pedestrianised streets are gaining a foothold as more events are held on roads closed off temporarily to cars

On a Saturday afternoon last month, artists, yogis and partygoers took over Keong Saik Road, which was off-limits to vehicles for seven hours. When night fell, the crowd swayed to soulful beats spun by a DJ.

They had turned up for the second edition of Urban Ventures, a project to turn public spaces such as Keong Saik Road into platforms for arts, culture and people to mingle.

Urban Ventures was organised by design studio Lopelab and the first edition in March was also held in Keong Saik Road.

Pedestrianisation is gaining ground as more events are being held on roads that are turned into temporary car-free zones.

There were at least 10 such events over the past year and three more are set to take place next weekend: Keong Saik Carnival in Keong Saik Road; the fourth edition of Car- Free Sunday SG in the Civic District and parts of the Central Business District (CBD); and the family- friendly SRFun at Robertson Quay.

More roads - there are now 12 - are also keeping out vehicles for a few hours on weekends.

  • Regular weekend car-free zones

  • Baghdad Street, Bali Lane, Bussorah Street and Haji Lane in Kampong Glam: Closed to traffic between 6pm and midnight on Friday, and from noon to midnight on the weekend

    Circular Road: Closed to traffic between 6pm and 1am on Friday and Saturday

    Club Street and Ann Siang Hill: Closed to traffic between 7pm and 2am on Friday and Saturday

    Stretches of Kerbau Road and Chander Road (from Race Course Road to exit point at Block 668), Dunlop Street (between Serangoon Road and Clive Street) and Lembu Road in Little India: Closed to traffic on Sunday from noon to midnight

    Liang Seah Street: Closed to traffic between 7pm and midnight on Friday and the weekend

These initiatives are in line with the Government's push to steer Singapore towards a car-lite nation.

Says an Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) spokesman: "Eventually, we hope Singaporeans can see our roads as spaces for people and contribute to our car-lite objective by reducing reliance on cars."

Mr Lorenzo Petrillo, founder of Lopelab, which is located in Keong Saik Road, says Urban Ventures was made possible by the Streets for People programme - a ground-up scheme launched by the URA in July last year to support community- driven projects to turn streets into car-free public spaces.

"The goal is to bring people back onto the streets and use public spaces as a platform for arts and culture," he says.

So far, seven initiatives under the Streets for People scheme have been implemented, says the URA.

The scheme does not support projects that restrict access to the street, say, through ticket sales or a registration process. Applicants must operate or reside within the area and show that they have gained support for the project from others in the community.

The URA also assists applicants in getting approval from government agencies such as the police and Land Transport Authority. It may also provide up to $5,000 in funding and items such as safety barriers and signage.

So far, response to both editions of Urban Ventures has been good.

Mr Petrillo estimates that about 2,000 people attended the first event and twice the number turned up for the second. He plans to hold more editions in the next few months.

Mr Richard Letch, owner of cafe Luxe Sydney in Keong Saik Road, notes that business doubled during the one-day street carnival.

Though it is too soon to say whether the cafe will benefit from the events in the long run, he notes that it has brought "a whole new audience" to the area, known for its trendy eateries and bars.

It is not just roads in commercial zones that have benefited from the Streets for People programme.

On Sept 12 last year and April 30 this year, Maju Avenue, a lane in the largely residential neighbourhood of Serangoon Garden, became a gathering spot for families, thanks to eZoo School of Music and Fine Arts.

The school's event director Ian Thuri says: "We wanted to create a ground-up festival for residents in the area to come and hang out for an evening of music, performances and art."

For the first event, 300 people popped by, while more than 400 attended the second one.

Students and teachers showed off their musical talent on various instruments and there were child-friendly activities such as face-painting and free food such as popcorn and ice cream.

Resident Patricia Teysseyre attended both editions with her husband and their two daughters, who are students at the music school.

She likened the event to street festivals that are common in her hometown in south-eastern France.

The 40-year-old, who works in the health sector, says: "It was something different to do in the neighbourhood and the kids could run around on the street without a care."

For Mr Cai Yinzhou, founder of social enterprise Geylang Adventures, he saw the Streets for People initiative as an opportunity to educate the public on migrant workers and the back alleys of Geylang.

He organised the Backalley Fest in Geylang Lorong 24A in December last year.

"We wanted to change the perception that back alleys are dangerous and sleazy. In Geylang, migrant workers living in the area hang out in these alleys to chill or call their families," he says.

Tables were set up for visitors to sit and eat the free food and a booth was set up for art jamming. More than 200 people attended, of which half were migrant workers, says Mr Cai.

The biggest pedestrianisation initiative thus far has been Car-Free Sunday SG, a six-month pilot scheme that started in February.

The event sees the Civic District and parts of the CBD closed to traffic on the last Sunday of each month.

The URA says thousands have attended the first three editions and that new activities are introduced each time.

This month's event will be held in conjunction with the launch of the Families for Life Celebrations 2016 and include several family-friendly activities such as a breakfast picnic and a film screening under the stars.

The number of weekend car-free zones has grown too. Liang Seah Street and Baghdad Street are the latest to go car-free in the past six months.

In the Kampong Glam district, four streets - Haji Lane, Bali Lane, Bussorah Street and Baghdad Street - are pedestrianised on the weekend.

Mr Saeid Labbafi, chairman of the One Kampong Gelam business association, says that footfall is up 15 to 20 per cent, compared with days when there are no road closures.

He notes that there are more families frequenting the area and they hang around longer too.

The association plans to hold weekly events on the streets during the weekends from next month.

His dream is for the entire precinct to turn into a car-free zone one day.

"There is a good mix of retail, history and food and beverage outlets here. It's almost like a mall here, so why not go car-free?"

But not all businesses have gained from car-free days.

Liang Seah Street became a car-free zone in December last year. The road is closed from 7pm to midnight from Friday to Sunday.

Mr Khoo Siow Kiat, the chief executive of food-and-beverage group 8 Bar that runs three eateries along the stretch, says two of them saw business grow by 10 to 15 per cent in the initial months.

But now, only one has sustained the growth. He attributes this to "the highly competitive nature of the food-and-beverage industry and the slowing economy".

Waiter Rich De Villa, 36, who lives in Liang Seah Place, likes the added buzz to his neighbourhood. "It's easier to get my friends to come over and hang out now," he says.

Civil servant Lin Yusen is all for increasing pedestrianisation in Singapore and is especially thrilled about the street events.

The 33-year-old, who has attended past editions of Urban Ventures and Car-Free Sunday SG, says: "The spaces are rejuvenated and we get to see these streets in a different light. If they can execute this in the heartland, that will be even better."

Keong Saik Carnival

The Keong Saik Carnival next Saturday will recreate the bustling street atmosphere from yesteryear, when hawker stalls line the streets at night.

Keong Saik Road, along with Jiak Chuan Road, will be closed from noon and the two roads will host two main performance stages, 25 food and retail booths, art installations inspired by the area, amusement park rides and a lion dance performance.

Entry to the carnival is free.

It is organised by restaurant-bar Potato Head Folk and produced by creative agency Division Communications.

Potato Head Folk's creative director Earn Chen says: "Our catchphrase is 'old streets, new treats', so we looked back at the past and Singapore's music scene in the 1960s, and recreate the lively communal atmosphere on the road here."

He has selected artists from Singapore and China's underground music scene - musicians whom he says tap on the past and "are out to produce good quality music like the musicians in the 1960s".

Headline acts include Beijing's Howie Lee, a DJ who fuses electronic music with traditional Chinese elements, and Shanghai- based hip-hop artist Al Rocco.

Local acts include veteran indie band The Observatory, all-girl DJ collective Attagirl! and Fauxe, whose track Chang Siao Ying drew inspiration from Zhang Xiaoying, a household name in the Mandopop scene here in the 1960s.

Old-school vinyl records by Analog Vault and #vinyloftheday, and curated magazine titles by Magpie will be sold, while the barbers from the Hounds of the Baskerville will be around to do stylish cuts.

Potato Head Folk will serve hotdogs while cafe Luxe Sydney will sell oysters and champagne.

Where: Keong Saik Road When: May 28, noon to 10.30pm Admission: Free Info:


To get more people to the Singapore River precinct, a family- friendly event will take place at Robertson Quay.

Called SRFun, the two-day event next weekend will see the otherwise quiet Caseen Street, off Mohamed Sultan Road, transform into PlaystreetSG, a giant playground where kids can run freely on the street as they play a variety of games such as jump rope and hopscotch.

There are activities for the adults too.

On the afternoon of May 28, fitness junkies can try Xtend Barre, a vigorous workout that is a cross between dance and pilates, at The Quayside in Robertson Quay.

Travelling music ensemble Singapore Pocket Theatre Opera will serenade attendees.

To top off the evening, animated film How To Train Your Dragon will be screened under the night sky at Robertson Quay.

These activities are organised by Singapore River One, which represents the business interests of tenants and businesses in the area.

The organisation's executive director Michelle Koh expects an attendance of 200 and hopes to replicate the success seen in regular car-free zone Circular Road, another area the organisation manages.

She says: "Events such as SRFun allow visitors to enjoy the outdoors and have some fun."

Where: Caseen Street and Robertson Quay When: May 28 and 29, from 4pm Admission: Free Info: 2016.html

Car-Free Sunday SG

On Car-Free Sunday SG, roads within the Civic District and parts of the Central Business District (CBD), such as St Andrew's Road and Shenton Way, are partially or fully closed to traffic for a number of hours. This allows the public to walk, cycle or engage in the various activities that are organised for the event.

Car-Free Sunday SG will be held every last Sunday of the month till July.

This month, the initiative will kick off the Families for Life Celebrations 2016. Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin will flag off the first activity at 7.30am, a walk that starts from the National Gallery Singapore and ends near Empress Lawn.

If you are up for a challenge that could potentially make history, drop by Connaught Drive at 8.30am to take part in an attempt to set a Singapore record for the most number of people bouncing basketballs.

Sporty types can try their hand at either Tchoukball (pronounced chukeball), Kin Ball or Speedminton at 10am at Connaught Drive.

Prefer to start your day with a hearty breakfast? Stop by Empress Lawn for a picnic featuring local hawker delights from 8 to 10.30am.

A new activity in this edition of Car-Free Sunday SG is the 3km Civic District Tree Trail.

Some of the trees along the route have stood tall for over 130 years and gained Heritage Tree status.

Or head to The Arts House on Old Parliament Lane to check out an exhibition that charts the history of the almost 200-year-old building from 1827 to 1999 when it housed the Parliament of Singapore.

Wind down in the evening at the Empress Lawn, with a screening of Night At The Museum: Secret Of The Tomb and where husband- and-wife singers Alfred Sim and Tay Kewei will perform.

Where: Roads within the Civic District and parts of the CBD When: May 29, from 7.30am Admission: Free, some activities require prior registration Info:

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 20, 2016, with the headline Street life thrives in car-free zones. Subscribe