Can S'pore go car-lite?

Can S'pore go car-lite?
Cyclists in front of the National Gallery Singapore on Car-Free Sunday SG on 28 February 2016. The Civic District and Central Business District (CBD) went car-free in a pilot initiative to encourage a car-lite lifestyle. With cars off the roads, the streets and public spaces came alive for families, joggers and cyclists who had fun with doing a wide range of programmes such as mass aerobics, kid-friendly activities as well as having breakfast picnics.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

When Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong unveiled the Sustainable Singapore Blueprint two years ago, he declared the Government's intention for Singapore to go "car-lite".

The $1.5 billion 15-year plan aims to have the country reduce its reliance on the car and move towards more sustainable modes of transportation.

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan echoed the call in Parliament last week, prophesying that the car would "go the way of the horse carriage" in the next 15 to 25 years.

Mr Khaw's pronouncement seems ambitious, given that there are nearly a million vehicles on the roads now and that private vehicles account for more than a third of transport modes - 37 per cent.

Despite Singapore's land constraints, roads make up 12 per cent of its land area, almost rivalling housing at 14 per cent. But as Mr Lee said, "we have to rely less on cars on the road, because we can't keep building roads".

The Ministry of Transport (MOT) has thus adopted a three-pronged strategy for Singapore to go car-lite.

First, it is beefing up public transport options. The bus industry will be gradually restructured to increase competition and boost standards, while the existing fleet is being increased by about a third.

Meanwhile, the rail network will be doubled to 360km by 2030.

The aim is to have 75 per cent of trips made by public transport by 2030, and 85 per cent by 2050.

Second, MOT is also starting to provide alternative modes of transport - for instance, under the National Cycling Plan, 700km of cycling paths will be built by 2030, up from about 350km now. Bicycles and mobility devices such as e-scooters will soon be allowed on footpaths and shared paths as well, in a move to boost their usage.

Finally, the Government is trying to curb the growth of private cars.

Observers say this three-pronged approach is a good start. Transport expert Gabe Klein feels Singapore has already done most of the heavy lifting in its car-lite journey.

"You've made these great investments in transit," said the former transportation commissioner for Chicago and Washington DC, who was in Singapore recently for a workshop on sustainable transport.

"Some of the heavy lifts to be car-lite, you've already made. It's the lighter lifts which you haven't, which sometimes culturally can be harder to make."


One of these cultural shifts is recognising that the streets should no longer be the domain of the car, said Mr Klein.

Indeed, urban development and mobility experts reckon that private cars and their role as status symbols are steadily becoming an anachronism in developed and increasingly crowded cities.

Cars sit idle for 95 per cent of the time, taking up precious space, said Professor Carlo Ratti, the director of the SENSEable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He told The Straits Times that an MIT study showed Singapore's mobility needs could be met with a third of its existing vehicles.

Singapore has been trying to curb car ownership and usage since the 1960s, when it started levying high taxes on cars. The Electronic Road Pricing congestion charging scheme - which began in 1975 as the area licensing scheme - has also ensured that roads here are not choked with cars, unlike those in many neighbouring countries.

The vehicle quota system, which was started in 1990, requires car owners to obtain a Certificate of Entitlement (COE). It controls the vehicle population by regulating the number of certificates.

At the moment, the COE growth rate is set at 0.25 per cent per annum until January 2018. The Government has said it has plans to bring this down to zero.


Stiff caps on vehicle numbers are the way forward, but the Government should also incrementally reduce the amount of road space available. Many countries, including South Korea, have done this. In 2003, Seoul tore down a highway to uncover the Cheonggyecheon river and create an urban park.

At the same time, the city increased parking fees, toughened laws on illegal parking and boosted the capacity of public transport.

This article was first published on April 18, 2016.
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