SINGAPORE - The number of commuters who exited MRT stations in the Central Business District (CBD) during weekday morning peak hours from January to October was about half that of pre-Covid-19 levels, with sustained flexible working arrangements driving a shift in travel patterns.
This is according to ticketing data from the Land Transport Authority (LTA).
Its statistics also showed slightly lower peaks in public transport ridership during the morning and evening rush hours, as overall ridership for buses and trains in October 2022 remained lower than in October 2019.
In the first 10 months of 2022, an average of 1.22 million trips were made each weekday on buses and trains during morning peak periods – 77.8 per cent of the 1.57 million trips made each weekday morning over the same period three years ago.
Whole-day ridership across the week, including weekends, made a slightly better recovery, with an average of 6.31 million daily trips taken on public transport from January to October – about 81.5 per cent of daily ridership before the pandemic struck.
This was despite a major easing of Covid-19 curbs in April, which removed limits on social gatherings and the number of workers allowed back at workplaces.
The data given to The Straits Times by LTA echoed comments made by Mr Chua Chong Kheng, the authority’s deputy chief executive for infrastructure and development, during a panel discussion in early November at the Singapore International Transport Congress and Exhibition (SITCE).
Mr Chong said then that travel on public transport between regions outside the CBD, versus travel into the CBD, had risen compared with before the pandemic.
During the same SITCE panel discussion, executives from public transport operators in other countries also highlighted changes in commuting patterns in their cities because of Covid-19 and the move towards flexible work.
Mr Brieuc De Meeus, chief executive of STIB-MIVB, the public transport operator in Brussels, said there has been a shift in the types of trips made on public transport in the Belgian capital and the profile of public transport passengers from business to leisure.
He said public transport ridership in Brussels exceeds pre-Covid-19 levels on Saturdays. But on other days, such as Tuesdays and Thursdays, ridership dips below 90 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.
Asked if there are similar trends in Singapore, LTA said the distribution of public transport ridership by the day of the week and time of day is generally similar to pre-Covid-19 travel patterns.
“LTA is still monitoring the situation, and will review the necessary measures to alleviate peak loading and encourage off-peak travel,” said a spokesman for the authority.
Observers pointed to flexible working arrangements and the reconfiguration of offices spaces to support hybrid work and hot-desking, where there is no fixed space for workers, as the main reasons for the reduced travel on public transport here.
Mr Wong Xian Yang, Singapore head of research at real estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield, said the office has evolved to become more of a “destination” that workers go to for a specific goal, such as meeting a client or mingling with co-workers, and then leave afterwards.
This has led to lower ridership on public transport during morning and evening peak periods, he said.
Ms Ray Krishna, head of the Singapore smart mobility department at consultancy firm Ramboll, said office buildings in the CBD are transitioning into mixed-use developments that also house residences, shopping malls and other amenities.
She cited this as another reason for the change in travel patterns from before, when all incoming traffic into the CBD would have been during morning peak hours and outgoing trips from the city were made during the evening peak.
Mr Wong said about 91 per cent of office stock in Singapore is still concentrated in the central region, with about 48 per cent in the downtown core, but an uncertain economic outlook could fuel demand for office space outside the CBD, where rents are relatively lower.
“Over the longer term, we anticipate more offices in decentralised locations, and this would influence travel patterns in Singapore,” he said.
Singapore University of Social Sciences transport economist Walter Theseira said LTA’s data suggests that demand for public transport here has fallen across the board.
“It is not that people are all taking long weekends with flexible work, or shifting work hours away from the peak hours. A portion of demand has disappeared, and the reasons for that aren’t fully understood,” he added.
Associate Professor Theseira also said there is no way to tell if commuting on public transport will stabilise at a permanently lower level or if it will recover and exceed pre-Covid-19 levels in the longer term.
“Some decisions made (during the pandemic) are hard to reverse in the short run, but all these could be revised back to the ‘old normal’ in the coming years if there is business necessity,” he added.
He said these shifts in commuting patterns are a good thing if they can be sustained and predictable, but the changes now are not significant or stable enough to justify planning on this basis, yet they are large enough to cause a dent in public transport finances.
Prof Theseira added: “Volatility in ridership will likely put more pressure on public transport lines that are primarily financed from fares, as when there are continuing shortfalls, the Government has to provide ad hoc subsidies to keep operations stable.”
He said: “This is less of a constraint on contracted services like buses... So I expect there may need to be more discussions on whether it makes sense to contract more MRT lines if ridership levels result in permanent operating deficits.”
The Public Transport Council (PTC) is in the midst of reviewing the formula used to determine how much public transport fares here can be adjusted each year.
The review, which will account for changes in commuting patterns, is expected to be completed by the first half of 2023.
Ms Krishna said the shifts in travel patterns do not necessarily mean that overall public transport ridership figures will not increase in future.
International Association of Public Transport secretary-general Mohamed Mezghani was equally optimistic, predicting that public transport ridership in Singapore and other developed cities will be back at pre-pandemic levels within the next one to two years.
However, he said the changes in commuting habits will make planning public transport operations more challenging, especially with rising fuel, labour and operating costs.
“If inflation continues like it is now, it will be very difficult for public transport operations to be sustainable financially,” Mr Mezghani told ST on the sidelines of SITCE in November.
“We need to find a solution that gets people back on public transport, and revenues back. We will also need support from governments for the increased costs.”
Some solutions mooted include road pricing and environmental taxes on polluters that can generate funds for public transport.
More can also be done to make public transport more attractive, said Mr Mezghani, but this should be done by improving the quality and accessibility of bus and rail services, rather than making them free of charge.
He said: “We still have to adapt to this new behaviour of people working from home, but the need for mobility will remain. Maybe we will have fewer commuting trips, but more trips for leisure. Now, we are in a kind of transition where we haven’t found the balance yet.”