The Straits Times says

Make public transport the way to go

It has been a long-held principle that transport fare revisions ought to reflect affordability, moderation, transparency, and predictable frequency both when costs fall and rise. But there have been second thoughts on whether one "must recover operating cost by charging correct fares", as stated in the 1996 White Paper on "world class" land transport. Any model of financing public transport represents "a kind of social contract among the Government, the people, and the transport service providers", as decision makers said then. But the old deal had to be revised later for a number of reasons, most significantly, public dissatisfaction. That peaked during the massive rail breakdown of 2011 which saw commuters breaking train windows and walking through tunnels.

The 2013 Land Transport Master Plan recognised that the state had to play a bigger role, given the service disruptions, attributed by many to SMRT's missteps. Consequently, public financing of transport infrastructure, assets and operating costs is being viewed differently.

Planners in recent years have taken a broader, and much bolder, approach to land transport development. Significantly, the master plan envisages train stations close enough (within a 10-minute walk) to eight in 10 households by 2030, public transport used for three-quarters of all journeys during peak hours, more connections, and an extensive walkway network.

To help make public transport "a choice mode", it's not just the infrastructure and service that must meet expectations, but also the cost of travelling on public buses, trains and perhaps autonomous vehicles of the future. The considerable economic and social benefits of enhanced urban mobility would justify state intervention in keeping public transport accessible and affordable. Importantly, reducing the car population will also check ever-expanding land use for roads, which at 12 per cent now is close to the 14 per cent for housing.

The latest fare revision is in step with the master plan's "people-centred" focus, by simplifying the fare structure for rail and giving commuters an overall fare cut of 4.2 per cent. While falling oil prices allowed a reduction of 5.7 per cent, moderation was in order as there is no telling how energy markets will move over the coming months. Rolling over the remaining 1.5 per cent reduction to next year will help to smooth out fluctuations.

Over the longer term, the financial sustainability of the public transport system remains critical. This revision will see state revenue from bus fares, under the bus contracting model, take a dip. If there's political pressure in the future for generous fare cuts, the system could be saddled with large deficits. The Public Transport Council, as an independent body, should use its newly acquired advisory role to flag such fiscal dangers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 31, 2016, with the headline 'Make public transport the way to go'. Print Edition | Subscribe