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jeudi, septembre 13, 2007

 Singapore's ERP Gantries and traffic woes

(Please read while bearing in mind that I have no economics background.)

With the recent announcement that ERP hours are going to be extended, came a flurry of complaints about how expensive it is to drive these days (as usual). As a part-driver, part-public-commuter my question to the government scholars working on this issue is: how much more money are you pumping into public transport systems in Singapore now? And I don't just mean money dumped into new systems telling us when the bus is next arriving - if anything, Singaporeans need the ambiguity to develop more patience.

The question is a pertinent one, yet a very difficult one to answer. This is due to a number of facts: (1) public versus private goods and services, (2) population politics, (3) politics and the population. All these factors point to one thing: this is a very sticky situation that is tough to navigate and balance. Not that it hasn't already been for the longest time, but it's new to me since I've never bothered to think much about it before. (Plus, guess whose blog this is? In the eternal words of Homer - and I don't mean the dude who wrote Odyssey - "D'oh!")

(1) Public and Private Goods
The fact that our roads are maintained by the Land Transport Authority (LTA), but the public transport system are run by (quasi)-private companies. Comfort DelGro (and the other cab companies), SBS and SMRT technically do not have an incentive to pump any more money into our current infrastructure - with our population burgeoning, there will always be someone taking public transport somewhere. Why should they bother so long as the systems they've put in place run smoothly?

If you think that they're on the side of the consumer because they're supposed to be serving the public, think again. We've already seen how some of them functioned after the NEL was built and operational. Due to their monopoly on bus and train services, SBS or SMRT (I forget which company, or it could be both of them) cut their direct bus services into town, so as to ensure that there were enough people taking the NEL into town.

What they didn't consider (at all, in my opinion) was the fact that many people take a direct bus into town, allowing them a rather restful - sleep-on-the-bus kind of restful - journey to work. With the introduction of the NEL, these buses were cut, and now these poor commuters had to take a feeder bus to the NEL station, take the NEL into the MRT line, then switch to the MRT line. This means two changes and three modes of transport. Not particularly restful, in my opinion.

(2) Population Politics
The public-private transport problem is compounded by a number of factors, not the least of which is the politics of our tiny population size. According to the government, we would like to further increase our population size from its current 4m to a couple more million people. This will cause jams EVERYWHERE as people bump into other people. Think Smith Street during Chinese New Year. That will be Singapore, and - trust me on this - the best and the brightest won't have much loyalty to this patch of ground that they're standing on, if you don't give them some form of quality lifestyle. (I just suggest that we use Ho Ching's Temasek money and buy Australia or New Zealand, just as a holiday resort for Singaporeans.)

And yet, we need to increase the population to remain economically competitive. So our transport woes will increase exponentially if the public transport companies are twiddling their thumbs. The Circle Line is not enough. We need more trains, and at more frequent intervals.

(3) Politics and the Population
This has to be credited to Andy F., who commented over lunch that the government cannot cut down on its quotas any more because it still needs to please the up-and-coming younger generation. "They cannot tell the younger generation they cannot buy cars," he noted sagely. The man is in his late 30s, drives an MPV, has two kids and a wife, and apparently that gives him more insight than me into this matter, since I never thought of it that way.

When applied to myself, I concluded that - yes, I would be pissed as hell if the government decided to bar me from having a car. I'd take it as a personal affront to my freedom of movement, and yes, it would matter during vote time. Not that it matters much in my constituency anyway.

So what's to be done? How can these things be balanced? I think we need an updated problem definition before we come to any conclusions. The current problem definition is an old one - how do we transport Singaporeans around? The newer problem definition needs to add - "6 million" into the equation. The current stopgap measures are insufficient to handle our out-of-control population. This may come as a surprise to many of us, who have grown up listening to "falling birth rate, falling birth rate, falling birth rate", but the fact of the matter is that our immigrant policies are rather friendly, and we've got many non-native Singaporeans in our number now.

Apart from that, we need to consider the unthinkable - less cars. We might have to bite the bullet on this one; I have no desire to see Singapore go the way of Bangkok and their infamous traffic snarls.

This last suggestion from me is somewhat unusual - we need to develop another central business district, preferably somewhere which is new and underdeveloped. Somewhere like Punggol or Seng Kang. History tells us that CBDs are developed over time, and often grow from the location of the colonial headquarters for The Commonwealth. I suggest we say 'nay' to this sort of thinking and just invest a couple of billion to build buildings and develop infrastructure to Punggol and Seng Kang. There's a lot of space out there near tributaries as well, plus the views of our neighbours would (for once) not be of neon lights and dancing advertisements. A little bit of an unorthodox and out-of-the-box suggestion, but we need to push ourselves if we are to solve seemingly unsolvable problems.

Transport in an urban society almost always seems to be an intractable problem, with very few options. In a modern society, transport is a need, not a want. People need to get to work, to do business, to conduct their transactions. There are no two ways about it. Unfortunately, the desperate needs of the lower classes are often taken for granted as policymakers make lengthy decisions. The middle-class too, is being squeezed (and for full disclosure, I'm raising my hand here.)

While the decision-making process in Singapore is already very fast, and usually not-too-bad, there is a general fatigue that I sense in the transportation sector (which involve the usual players like the LTA, SBS, SMRT, and PTC.) We need bigger ideas, not just the run-of-the-mill "let's build yet another MRT line" suggestion. Let's face the bare facts: due to geographical reasons (tunnelling through granite, anyone?) MRTs will never be able to service the whole island, and buses don't run frequently enough for Singaporeans*.

Bigger ideas, people. Good ones. (I am tempted to say non-scholar ones.) I wonder what the Feedback Unit has on this matter?

* Let us not compare ourselves with other countries with useless transport systems, like say, France or London, with their lovely strikes and tiny pre-war compartments. Singaporeans run on a different, faster schedule. We're already the fastest casual walkers in the world!
* All photos by me! I rock my camera so hard, it's not even funny.

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[Singapore's ERP Gantries and traffic woes]
Sngs Alumni @ 13.9.07 { 0 comments }


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