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Op Ed on Singapore's bus funding injection announcement

Update:  I appeared on a panel discussion of this topic on the Talking Point program on Channel News Asia TV. The full video can be viewed HERE (for a few months I think). It is the 21 - 03 - 2012 episode.

Singapore's Budget 2012 announced a large funding injection into the bus system. This has caused much debate.

I felt the need to write something to explain that I see a wider importance in the announcement. The initial Government explanations have focused on the need to improve bus services while we wait for the MRT system to grow further.  But I think the funds should be used strategically to enable two important reforms. In fact, I suspect that this may be the intention, although it has not yet been clearly explained.

So, with some trepidation (it has become a hot political issue since I started writing it), I submitted an Op Ed to the Straits Times. It appeared in the ST Review section on Thursday 1 March. Subscribers to the Straits Times Online can read it HERE

More of my writing on public transport regulation issues is hereherehere (PDF) and here (go to April 2007 edition).

If you want more background on why a simpler, hubs-and-spokes (or even better a grid) bus network would be an improvement even though it would force more transfers, the Human Transit blog is a good place to look. Or get the Human Transit book.

Here below is the text of the Op Ed. 

Straits Times, 1 March 2012. 

Don't miss the bus on that $1.1b
Funds for more buses will ease transition as system is reformed
By Paul A. Barter

THE $1.1 billion government funding injection for the bus system has ignited debate by seeming to skewer the taboo against operating subsidies. It has provoked calls to make 'cushy monopolies' face real competition. Some say the money just enriches shareholders. Others say: Nationalise!

This Budget bombshell is indeed important but for a reason not often remarked upon. To appreciate its revolutionary potential for Singapore's bus system, look at two policies from the 2008 Land Transport Masterplan (LTM).

The more important of these policies is to restructure the route network towards a more efficient structure. Rather than a complex tangle of 305 routes with much duplication, the idea is to have a simpler and easier to understand hubs-and- spokes network with fewer routes but more frequent services connected with each other. Once this is done and routes stabilise, the Government can proceed to the next stage, of parcelling out routes for competitive tender in a shift towards a so-called 'procurement approach'.

I hope the Government remains committed to these two interconnected changes. The bus system is now the weak link in Singapore's public transport. If pursued, these two shifts will be much more significant than a temporary boost to the bus system while the MRT expands.

And here is the key point: That $1.1 billion funding injection is critical to the success of these two reforms. But we will need to hold our noses and accept some messiness in the arrangement.

In fact, reform of bus routes has been taking place gradually since 2008. The shift to a hubs-and-spokes network means fewer lines but better service frequencies on each line and less waiting time. This shift was the key agenda behind the Land Transport Authority's (LTA) takeover of bus line planning to reduce wasteful networks, and the shift to distance fares.

But there is a political problem here. Reforming bus routes involves taking away some direct services commuters are used to. It requires more transfers. Such changes are unpopular and will spark howls of protest, especially when current bus frequencies are too low and improvements from reform take time.

So there is a need to boost bus frequencies first. Waiting times must be reduced and transfers made more attractive before planners go on to major reorganisation of bus routes. That $1.1 billion injection can buy buses to ease the pain of transition.

Once the network has been reformed, the LTA can continue the shift towards a procurement approach to industry regulation. Under this system, the Government would do more of the system planning, while private operators put up competitive tenders for the right to run bus lines.

How does this compare with the status quo and the alternatives raised?

Singapore's longstanding approach is a common one around the world. It involves giving out monopolies ('franchises') to private companies under regulated fares. Bus franchise holders retain some autonomy on timetables and routes, and do their own marketing. Some cities also keep franchisees on their toes with competitive tendering, as in Hong Kong.

This set-up served Singapore quite well over 35 years or so. But it is reaching its use-by date. Integration improvements have reached a limit. Necessary financial balancing across the public transport system faces obstacles. The route network was allowed to become too complex. Rivalry for passengers between the two operators can be wasteful.

So, according to the 2008 LTM, Singapore should move towards a procurement approach.

How might this work? One successful example is the 'Scandinavian model', practised in Stockholm, Copenhagen, London, Seoul and Perth. A government- owned coordinating agency plans the routes and timetables. Yet there is competition via regular competitive tendering. Private sector companies run the buses but there is a single logo and colour scheme. The companies are profit-making, yet there are usually operational subsidies.

This model is well suited to ambitious integration efforts. Apart from marketing and ticketing, it allows for cooperation with other industries, including taxis and car-sharing. Public objectives are set clearly, and the services procured in an accountable manner.

But what about other alternatives, such as nationalisation or open competition? We can quickly dismiss on-the- road competition where swarms of minibuses crowd onto lucrative routes but neglect others. The experience of Britain, which opened bus systems (outside London) to a more staid version of competition on the road was also disappointing.

As for government-run monopolies, many are inefficient and overstaffed, as in parts of India and North America. Some government-run public transport systems do much better, as in Zurich. Swiss-style public transport is actually similar to the Scandinavian model but with only minor private sector involvement.

Of the three, a procurement approach makes most sense for Singapore's efforts to improve the public transport system, not just the bus network.

But there is a more immediate issue: how to make sure the new funding works as intended, so that the $1.1 billion injection really lays the foundation for longer- term structural improvements.

Injecting funds successfully requires mechanisms to link the funding with clear public objectives. Current arrangements, which rely on quality of service standards as their main tool, may not be good enough.

A temporary arrangement is needed to link this funding with outcomes. One approach could be to use contracts so that payments are for specific, measurable improvements chosen by the LTA, not by the operators.

Ensuring that this $1.1 billion injection actually delivers better service is important not just to reassure the public. It is also a key to the success of crucial reforms to the route network and for a shift to a procurement model. These two reforms are Singapore's best hope of achieving a truly excellent bus system within the decade.

The writer is an assistant professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, at the National University of Singapore, where he teaches infrastructure policy, urban policy and transport policy.

The article is copyright Straits Times.


  1. Hi Paul,

    Although its agreeable that lesser routes with higher frequencies would be the way forward, but would the current infrastructure be able to cope with such an change? Most bus stops are only able to take two 12meter buses stopping, and having more transfers would increase the frequency of buses stopping at stops.

    Some of the newer interchanges built recently are also unable to cope with high movement of buses, as they have gone smaller in size in terms of the number of buses that each can accommodate.

    Additionally, I would like to touch on the issue of Multi Modal Transport Operators (MTO) which the two PTOs are termed as. Both operators operates multiple modes of transports, which are rapid transit (MRT), light rail (LRT), buses, and taxis.

    However, as Singapore is not large at all, services would often overlap when operating both MRT and buses. Such overlaps may result in the operator putting less buses on that particular service, so as to promote people to board the train instead. Effectively, cost would be saved in the operator's point of view by operating lesser bus trips.

    The question here would be whether the 1.1bil is a result of the PTOs unwillingness to invest more into the bus network as they already operate MRT lines that can serve as some of the bus services. Furthermore, this would be amplified with the opening of the DTL in 5 years which the PTOs feel there is no reason to operate the buses on top of operating the DTL.

  2. Thanks for the comment, @Frankie. My guess is that bus stop congestion should not worsen. Although a more integrated network style boosts frequency on each line, we should also see less overlap between routes, so the number of buses at stops should stay roughly the same (roughly speaking). But in the short term, after the injection increases the fleet but before the route reorganisation is finished, we may see some problems I guess.

    Rationalising buses to complement the MRT is probably actually a good thing. However, managing it would be easier under a 'procurement approach'. But we need to reduce waiting times first, so those new transfers will not be too painful.

    But we will still need a big bus system even after the full Downtown Line and Thomson Line are open. So getting the organizational model for buses right is still important - both short term and long term.

  3. Hi Paul,

    One common travel pattern is from residential hubs to major destinations like schools (e.g. Ngee Ann Polytechnic, UniSIM, NUS, NTU) work place (e.g. Raffles Place, HarbourFront). We keep using the same method to move people, that is, have the transport (bus or train) move along a pre-determined route, picking up, and letting passengers alight as the transport stops at pre-determined stopping points along the route.

    Most travellers have fixed schedule. Students have to be in for 830 am class and many groups of workers have to be at work by a certain time. I fail to understand why we make these travellers move from stopping points to stopping points, when we could easily have moved them from point A to point B at one go!

    It is time for transport operators to seriously consider point-to-point services at peak hours. This is an effective way to reduce congestion and also, travelling time.

    The problem of bus stop congestion should not be under-estimated. Very often, packed buses spend up to 3-5 minutes at bus stops, organizing passengers. You can imagine how bad it can get with a few buses lining up, all doing the same thing. and on many bus stops along the route.

    I believe, in Singapore, we can quite easily find out where the majority of the travellers are headed, during peak hours. And it is no rocket science to organize their mass transit.


  4. Hi Anon,

    SBS does have express services from Boon Lay to NTU during peak hours (bus 179A: But I agree that more of such routes should be introduced to reduce travelling time.

  5. @anonymous Point-to-point service is a seductive idea but it is simply not an efficient way to organise the main public transport system. (But no problem to have premium buses doing that at higher prices). If we want a high-frequency network of MRT and basic bus routes (and that is what makes public transport most attractive and effective) then we need that network to be relatively simple (a 'connective network, such as a hubs-and-spokes or grid-style network). People can go anywhere to anywhere but need to be willing to make connections.

    I suggest you look at the links to the Human Transit blog for more detailed explanations on why a 'direct service' network is a big mistake. It guarantees you a low-frequency and unattractive system or an expensive one or both.

  6. Very well thought out piece. It's always hard to predict the outcome of nationalisation or leasing out to private companies. A council-owned bus service in Bournemouth was sold to a private company though and the fares have almost doubled since then. It's ridiculous, fares rise faster than wages do and people who have to get the bus every day find themselves out of pocket.

  7. Hi Paul,

    I really like your blog post regarding Public transport issues and some guidelines regarding the same. It will be really great from my point of view that the bus stops should be minimized. Because, if your are a student or an employee, then time is more precious for you and for you always want to reach your school, college or office in time. But, most of the public transport normally being late only for the reason of so many stoppages. In fact they want that for their extra bit of earning and you will find reason is the more number of bus stops.


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