Despite incentives, the moderate success gained in moving MRT commuters off the morning rush hour, so as to relieve congestion, makes it plain that a solution does not come easy. This is aside from the progressive expansion in the rail network, as capacity added over a long gestation period could just keep pace with demand from a growing population. In the year since commuters who completed their journeys to city-centre stations before 7.45am rode for free, and those who got off before 8am received generous discounts, the take-up rate of 7 per cent, though helpful, is a way off the projected range of 10 per cent to 20 per cent the Transport Minister had aimed at. Clearly, travel patterns and habits take time to change.
The incentives have now been extended for another year, until June next year. Although even marginal load shedding will reduce some of the stress that commuters face, this has to be set against the continued growth in ridership. Adding to the problem are car owners being encouraged to take the train to work while keeping the car for weekend use, or driven to do so by high car prices.
The Land Transport Authority's (LTA) own research showed that businesses' inflexible work arrangements are the reason not more commuters are taking advantage of the free train rides. The public sector has been an enthusiastic supporter, however, offering staff work starts of as early as 7am if the nature of work permits it and service to the public is not compromised. According to the LTA, eight in 10 state agencies offer flexi-time, including some located away from participating stations. They are setting the pace.
If there is resistance from the private sector, the LTA should find out whether the varied nature of their operations does not lend itself quite as easily to flexible start times. Retail, food and hotel businesses have later or staggered starts for staff, but service firms are more traditional in their hours. But in between these staples are a whole host of businesses operating in the MRT's central catchment which might see staggered starts as a benefit to their workers and their businesses. The LTA has to work on them, and ways will have to be found to nudge them into coming on board the programme.
The scheme as it stands is targeted at businesses and government offices clustered around 18 designated city-area MRT stations. How can general activity in these areas spring to life earlier to prompt early-bird consumers, workers and business operators to take early morning trips? It's a chicken and egg situation. Achieving substantial results might well call for transformational initiatives rather than just another round of free or cheap rides.