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So what's driving higher parking fees?

The increase has upset and confused motorists, and been criticised by experts for being across-the-board. The journey to a car-lite future need not be so bumpy.

They had it good for 14 years. No wonder then that the first hike in public carpark fees since 2002 had motorists blaring their horns.

The bombshell dropped on June 30. 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. Residents will also have to pay more for season parking tickets for any car beyond their first.

Protest at the increases - which come into effect in December - came fast and furious, with some drivers pointing out that the hike would also impact businesses, and that there were poor alternatives to driving.

Transport experts pointed out that raising parking charges was inevitable, and the right thing to do amid Singapore's push to be a car-lite society.

Tell that to the drivers whose monthly season parking rates will rise from the $65 to $90 range now for a first car, to $80 to $110. And to CBD workers, for whom short-term parking fees will go from $2 to $2.40 an hour within the restricted zone in the city area. Outside the zone, they will pay $1.20 an hour, up from $1.

Any thoughts of the future, of a better society with fewer cars, would be hard to contemplate amid that impending hit to the hip-pocket.

Adding to their hip-pocket pain is the confusion over why this, why now?

To many, it seems you could get a different answer, depending on who you ask.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

The agencies which announced the hike - the Housing Board (HDB) and Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) - said it is to help them recover the costs of running parking operations, which have spiked dramatically.

And earlier this year, both the ministries of National Development and Transport also said carpark charges in Singapore were much lower than other global cities, and parking policies needed to be tweaked to bring them in line.

A car-lite Singapore in 2030 will probably be a city with less parking for fewer cars. It will likely cost a lot more to park, but cars will spend less time in a carpark, and more time shared among users on the roads.

After their announcement of the parking hikes, and the ire this sparked among shocked motorists, the HDB and URA explained that costs of running public carparks have risen by 40 per cent since the last increase back in 2002. The agencies manage 631,000 public parking spaces.

If charges did not increase, the HDB would lose $100 million a year for its parking operations, it pointed out.

But while the HDB and URA said they were worried about costs, the latter, which has many carparks in the city centre, also said that it was setting higher parking charges "in order to appropriately manage parking demand".

Then, there is the National Development and Transport ministries' take, about bringing Singapore's parking policies in line with other cities, to help reduce reliance on the private car.

Perhaps, to get motorists on board the car-lite bandwagon, better and concerted communication might be needed, to help them see beyond a knee-jerk reaction to raised fees?

EXPERTS SAY IT'S A BLUNT TOOL

Upset motorists may be confused about the reasons for the hike. But some transport experts have also criticised the rise, arguing that a blanket increase blunts its effectiveness as a tool to manage travel or parking behaviour.

Parking policy expert Paul Barter from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy feels strongly that prices should instead be pegged to occupancy targets - and priced such that carparks will always have spaces or be about 85 per cent full.

Parking rates could be dynamic, changing based on whether it was a peak period or in a busy area, said Dr Barter. This could mean that prices could go up much higher than the planned hike, but in some areas or during certain times, they could be lowered or even made free.

"If it's too full, it's too cheap, and if it's too empty, it's too expensive," he said.

Charging HDB residents more for owning more than one car seems one-sided as well, considering most households with more than one car are located in private landed estates.

According to the HDB, only about 31,500 households, out of a total of 981,100 resident HDB households, have more than one car.

While most residents of private estates are adamant they should not be charged for parking outside their homes on public roads, National University of Singapore transport researcher Lee Der Horng noted: "They park on the road and the road is a public space. If we consider parking as a commodity, then it must come with a price."

NEED FOR A SINGLE AUTHORITY

The carpark fee hike, and subsequent furore, has highlighted another issue about parking policy here - that different government agencies, under different ministries, handle parking matters in different areas.

The HDB takes charge of public housing estates, the URA handles commercial areas and places in the city, and the LTA says it takes a "consultative approach" with residents when deciding whether to put in paid parking at private estates.

However, for parking policy to be wielded as an effective "travel management tool", it must come under the auspices of a single authority. That is according to a study released this month by a Singapore Government think-tank, the Centre for Liveable Cities , and the Urban Land Institute, a research organisation based in the United States. The study said this would ensure that "parking planning and management are more aligned with overall land use and transport policies".

Bad policies, on the other hand, can handicap the car-lite effort.

The study, which puts forward 10 recommendations for how cities can go car-lite, said cities needed to put a stop to cheap and easy parking, as this prompts people to drive.

Interestingly, while it discourages use of the private automobile, the study does not say that cars have no place in the cities of the future. Instead, it encourages thinking of the car as a mobility service - with cars being shared, serving the transport needs of multiple people.

Car ownership and its private usage may become unnecessary. The writing is already on the wall. Last month, it was announced that an electric car-sharing scheme will be launched from next year.

Such schemes make sense, considering cars spend only 4 per cent of their time in motion and the rest of the time parked.

Singapore's car-lite movement has been gathering steam for some time now and you can see the broad outline of what the city would look like in the future.

Towns would have cycling networks like those in Ang Mo Kio, with bike-sharing stations like those that will be built in the Jurong Lake District next year.

People would also be able to bring their foldable bikes and mobility devices onto buses and trains, boosting their utility as commuting tools, if a six-month trial announced last week by the Transport Minister is successful.

More importantly, the public transport network is being beefed up, with a much more comprehensive network by the time expansions are completed by 2030.

At the moment, the car is usually the fastest way to get to any destination - if public transport can close this gap, it will win over many converts.

A car-lite Singapore in 2030 will probably be a city with less parking for fewer cars. It will likely cost a lot more to park, but cars will spend less time in a carpark, and more time shared among users on the roads.

The hope is, by then, people would choose not to own a car, not because charges have made it too frustrating to own one, but because alternatives will present a much better ride.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 28, 2016, with the headline 'So what's driving higher parking fees?'. Print Edition | Subscribe