Jul 3, 2013

Singapore's urban mobility model: a slightly critical look

Don't be too starry eyed about Singapore's urban transport policies. 

Yes, they do offer plenty for others to emulate. But there are also problems and cautionary tales. 

In a recent book chapter I look at some of the problems with the current approach and speculate about a different overall strategy for Singapore urban transport policy.

High-speed one-way traffic in Singapore's new CBD. 

I have been here more than 12 years now and during that time I have been watching Singapore urban transport policy and practice pretty closely, as part of my research and as a user. I think I am well placed to offer a balanced perspective.

The chapter is called ‘Singapore’s Mobility Model: Time for an Update?’ and is published in the Institute for Mobility Research's 2013 book, Megacity Mobility Culture: How Cities Move on in a Diverse World, (Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer).

To give you a sense of my argument, here is the conclusion of the chapter:
Singapore is a useful case for the study of mobility models and public sector decision-making because of its relative coherence in policymaking and its unusual determination to accept sharp trade-offs.
Since the 1970s, Singapore’s transport and urban policies have been firm in facing up to the tight spatial imperatives of this island city-state. This has meant taking a long-term perspective to ensure space for urban development over many decades.
In a hard-nosed bargain, unpopular vehicle taxes and fees have greatly slowed the growth of the vehicle fleet and managed its use. The more popular payoffs of the policy were steadily improving public transport and efficient traffic movement. The resulting urban transport achievements have been widely praised.
However, the old version of this hard-nosed bargain contains some contradictions. The high level of service on the roads was justified primarily for the sake of commerce, but has gradually come to be seen also as a quid pro quo for motorists in return for the high costs they experience.
This has encouraged an overemphasis on high traffic speeds as an end in itself in road design, undermining the more important goal of space-efficiency.
The bargain also involves a rather narrow framing of its objectives, focused on efficiency of movement but ignoring potentially popular place-making and liveability payoffs that would result from containing traffic.
Finally, with such a premium having been put on speed over the years, it has proved difficult for policymakers to see the importance of the slower modes that are necessary in order to complement urban rail, which is understandably seen as the only alternative which has serious potential to compete with cars.
It might seem churlish to complain about a set of policies that have achieved so much. Nevertheless, it seems clear that Singapore may need a change of emphasis in its transport planning in order to build on its achievements, continue to face unavoidable constraints, and yet at the same time offer more appealing mobility choices to an increasingly demanding and informed population.
ERP or Electronic Road Pricing (Singapore's version of congestion pricing) is an emblem of Singapore's "hard nosed" approach to urban transport.

It is not all criticism. I also make some suggestions for a new strategic approach.

Here are some brief excerpts from the 'ways forward' section (with some links added):
The old bargain was a technocratic one. Any successful update will need more widespread appeal and can only emerge from a much wider debate.
... Singapore needs an update which poses a more positive vision of success, rather than being so Spartan in its focus on efficiency...
Hold up a More Positive Alternative
The unpopular elements of Singapore’s TDM policies might be more palatable if making the non-car-owning lifestyle an attractive and high-status option becomes the focus of much more strenuous and integrated efforts. This could involve promoting a broad vision of a ‘combined mobility package’ or ‘mobility mix’ that can compete head-on with car ownership ...  
Emphasise Place-Making Payoffs from the Bargain
Greater emphasis on the positive payoffs from hard-nosed mobility policies could involve more focus on liveable places, including streets, as central parts of the public realm. Singapore currently gives most of the ‘dividend’ from its strict TDM policies to existing motorists by keeping traffic speeds high and delays to a minimum. It might be better to give more of this dividend to place-making.
...
Transcend the Obsession with High Traffic Speeds
These changes would require Singapore to overcome its obsession with high traffic speeds. This would need to involve changes in road design priorities for most streets except the high-level arterials and expressways. A key measure that would reclaim space for the public realm, without imposing overly harsh restrictions on private vehicles, would be taking a smarter attitude to speed in road design priorities ...
... Singapore is rightly praised for avoiding widespread congestion on roads whose central purpose is mobility. But its emphasis on speed goes too far in its aversion to the slowing of traffic on multi-purpose streets where lower speeds and an acceptance of delays for the sake of access movements, pedestrians, buses and cyclists would be entirely appropriate.

Any comments, especially if you know Singapore well, would be much appreciated. 

5 comments:

  1. I think your point on slower modes of transport that must complement the urban rail system is very apt.

    Here our buses are so unreliable that they easily form the bulk of travel time, despite the fast speed of the MRT.

    I wonder if a radical overhaul of our bus network is necessary. As it is, it makes short journeys under 5km a real pain due to long waiting times and circuitous routes.

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    1. Hmm, for slow speed short-distance travel, how about bike-share?

      If Singapore really has enormous roads like the picture above, they could easily use quite a bit of that space for a bike route network...

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    2. Despite the many merits of cycling as a transport mode, I think that Singapore is not well suited for it - too hot, humid, and prone to sudden downpours.

      A better option may be to cut down on road width - as pointed out, roads in Singapore are really enormous and too wide.

      With narrower roads (e.g London, Tokyo), walking would be a lot less of a hassle and it frees up space for urban redevelopment, which in turn encourages higher densities and make bus/rail more attractive to run.

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  2. The roads in Singapore are really enormous and too wide. A better option may be to cut down on road width. And to create a space for motor cycle and bicycle.

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  3. I agree that LTA should really consider a "right-sizing" programme for streets in Singapore - in spite of the potential political risk of doing so... However, there are also urban design issues to consider - what do we do with the new road space? Do we allocate space to bikes (while being wary of the health implications of placing bikes so near to heavy traffic), or bus lanes, and leave the roads as wide as they already are? Or do we widen sidewalks, which would be great for areas with high foot traffic but not for minor streets? What do we do about the enormous setbacks of buildings from the roadway - which in itself creates an unpleasant walking experience devoid of shade and enclosure - do we resurrect the five-foot way or its modern incarnation? There is a lot of potential here to reclaim precious urban space from the automobile, but how do we build the constituency to do so?

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