COVID-19 SPECIAL

Transforming transport during a pandemic

With traffic usage slowing down during the coronavirus pandemic, it is a good time to relook fundamentals: rethink cycling, improve pedestrian walkways, cap point-to-point transport vehicles and boost on-demand services.

As devastating as the raging Covid-19 pandemic is, it provides Singapore with a rare opportunity to reshape its land transport system.

Change is seldom easy, but it often becomes impractical or overly disruptive when the entire transport machinery is moving along at full speed.

The pandemic has slowed things down drastically. Public transport ridership has plunged by up to 75 per cent, resulting in suspension of bus services and longer intervals between train arrivals.

The point-to-point sector - dominated by taxis and private-hire cars - is seeing as many as half of its 75,000-strong registered fleet sitting idle.

The pavements are relatively empty. The roads, emptier. So much so that Electronic Road Pricing has been suspended - the first time since the charging system was introduced in 1998. Even certificate of entitlement bidding has been suspended.

Combined, they act like an invisible pause button. During this pause, Singapore can look at fixing the broken bits in the system and future-proofing others.

HOUSING FOR FOREIGN WORKERS

A large proportion of the 300,000 or so foreign workers in the construction industry help repave Singapore's roads, erect viaducts, excavate MRT tunnels and do all the heavy lifting necessary to keep the nation's land transport system moving.

With the pandemic, housing for them has come into sharp focus. Clearly, these people who are so vital to our economy deserve proper housing.

Veteran architect Tay Kheng Soon suggests modelling future dorms on the bunks used for our national servicemen. There is merit to that. Military quarters have served generations of NSmen well, with a centralised cookhouse providing nutritional meals, proper and adequate shower and toilet facilities, and daily bunk inspections to ensure cleanliness and hygiene.

To ensure that workers who build our multibillion-dollar projects are used efficiently, a good starting point must surely be an acceptable level of accommodation.

RIGHT-SIZING OVER-INFLATED POINT-TO-POINT MARKET

Before ride-hailing apps started to make their presence felt here six years ago, Singapore had about 28,000 taxis. Today, there are more than 75,000 vehicles in the point-to-point transport sector. That is a 170 per cent growth in six years.

Clearly, commuters are happy because they find it easier to get a ride (if they are willing to put up with surge pricing and occasional cancellations), but drivers are suffering.

Demand for point-to-point transport has grown by an estimated 40 to 60 per cent in the last six years - not quite close enough to match the spike in supply.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

Singapore has always had a quota for taxi numbers. Strangely, it does not apply this cap to private-hire cars.

Even before the pandemic, the oversupply was obvious. Now, the situation is untenable. Tens of thousands of vehicles fill carparks across the island. One fleet owner with an unhired fleet of 2,000 cars is said to be incurring more than $200,000 in parking a month.

Now that there are 30,000 or more idle vehicles (more with the extension of circuit breaker measures), it is a good time for the Government to introduce a quota for point-to-point transport fleets.

RETHINK CYCLING

With road traffic down to a trickle, how about designating the left-most lane as a cycling/active mobility lane?

Transport planners have long resisted implementing cycling lanes on our roads, for fear of them having a negative impact on motorised traffic. We pride ourselves on efficiency, so dedicating a lane (or even half ) to slow vehicles such as bicycles has largely been unthinkable.

 
 
 

But every now and then, old rule books have to be revised. And this is as good a time as any to do so. To start, we can designate bus lanes as cycling lanes, with the understanding that cyclists must give way to approaching buses.

Allowing bicycles on expressways should be explored as well. Expressway shoulders are under-utilised. Why not allow cyclists to make use of them?

The fact that the bulk of our journeys are within 10km makes cycling feasible. What about the weather? Well, those who cycle regularly will tell you that if they keep to a leisurely pace, they hardly perspire. At least, cyclists do not have to put up with snow and sleet here.

BEST WAY TO COMMUTE IS NOT TO COMMUTE

It is quite clear now that a large number of us can comfortably work from home. Past initiatives to promote telecommuting have had little success. But a virus has proved it is doable if we legislate it. Not only that, telecommuting is green and efficient.

In fact, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan had expressed hope that our transport habits would not revert to pre-pandemic days even after we have beaten this outbreak.

That way, Singapore would not have to keep building new rail lines and beefing up its public bus fleet. As it is, nearly $100 billion has been set aside for transport projects over the next decade.

The thing about transport infrastructure is that it is always built to cater to peak-hour demand, which translates to about four hours each weekday. The rest of the time, we have to contend with buses and trains which are not optimally used.

If we can telecommute more, or encourage more flexible working hours, we can avoid this wasteful predicament.

Also, less commuting leads to less emissions and better air quality - the importance of which we appreciate now more than ever.

ON-DEMAND TRANSPORT

After a short trial last year, on-demand buses were deemed to be less cost-efficient than regular fixed-service buses.

Perhaps that conclusion applies to the current usage pattern, which tends to be peak-and-trough. But if the pattern were to change after the pandemic, we could revisit on-demand buses.

The algorithm used by an operator such as Swat Mobility allows for cost savings, as proven by the growing number of companies which have engaged its services for their employees.

Certainly, during this circuit breaker period, where many essential-service workers are complaining of crowded buses and long travelling times because bus services have been pared down, on-demand buses can help. They can serve hospitals, for instance, where some 40,000 public healthcare workers still need to report for work each day. Surely, we do not want our front-line Covid-19 fighters to be relying on transport modes that provide patchy safe distancing?

WALKWAYS OF LIFE

We can speed up our plans to improve pedestrian facilities. After the ban on e-scooters from walkways, planners said they would improve pedestrian and cycling facilities.

 
 
 

With far fewer people up and about, we can expedite work on widening, smoothening and making our walkways more pleasant for all. Again, Mr Khaw had proposed that during this lull, we can increase works that would have meant disrupting traffic during normal times.

Cycling path and park connector projects can be sped up. Instead of waiting for 2030 or 2040 for these projects to be all up, we can aim for a five-year target.

Experts cite micro-mobility as a growing trend for cities all over the world. With improving motor and battery technology, single-occupant emission-free vehicles can certainly take the load off our bus and train networks.

Towards this vision, we should promote active mobility - and go "car-lite" - like we mean it. And this needs to go well beyond lip service. Build it and they will come.

After all, why queue for buses and squeeze into trains when a breezy commute by bike or e-scooter to the office is feasible?

As alluded to at the start, seeing to Singapore's future mobility needs hinges on our readiness to fix old problems and try new things. No better time to do some rewiring than when the circuit is broken.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 23, 2020, with the headline 'Transforming transport during a pandemic'. Subscribe