New routes to keep Singapore moving

An artist impression showing the Land Transport Authority (LTA) plans to make the North-South expressway user-friendly for cyclists, pedestrians and bus commuters.
PHOTO: Land Transport Authority

It may seem novel in Singapore, but allowing bus commuters, cyclists and pedestrians to have equal rights on the road is commonplace in many cities.

The reconfiguration of the planned North-South Expressway to include a dedicated bus lane and to incorporate biking and walking paths signals a bold change in the policymakers' mindset.

Similar plans to reclaim road space for cyclists and pedestrians are also being rolled out, starting with Bencoolen Street, where two out of four lanes along 450m of the city arterial road will be turned into cycling and walking paths.

But for such a "sustainable mobility" project to succeed, a mindset change among end-users is also needed.

It was not too long ago that policymakers felt commuting by bicycle was not feasible in a hot and humid place like Singapore. That, in part, has prevented cycling lanes from being built.

It is clear that philosophy is changing. And in the long run, it is necessary for a small city state like ours.

At the same time, we must be careful not to throw all economic considerations out the window. For instance, for a dedicated bus lane on an expressway to be worth the money, it has to have a high frequency of buses. Few bus services ply expressways today.

Will there be enough demand for "city direct" services to justify a dedicated bus lane in both directions of a 21.5km highway?

There might be, if the services are as frequent and as predictable as train services. A bus rapid transit system, popular in countries such as China, Australia and Brazil, will meet this service criterion.

If Singapore takes this route, it will be another affirmation for buses which, until recently, played second fiddle to trains. Many bus services were "rationalised" whenever new MRT lines were built in the past.

The impact of this new thinking on motorists is clear. When the new highway opens, some time after 2020, it will be the only two-lane expressway for cars. So, it is unlikely to be as speedy as the other expressways here.

That again, is part of the grand plan to wean people off driving. Because no matter how many MRT lines are built and no matter how many services are pumped into the bus network, consumers will choose to drive as long as the efficiency of private transport remains far superior to public transport. From door to door, driving is easily twice as fast today.

So, if Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan aims to have at least 85 per cent of trips made by public transport by 2050, the speed gap between private and public transport has to close considerably.

One way is to degrade the speed on our roads. The other is to attach a substantially higher economic cost to maintaining the current efficiency of driving - either via road pricing, parking policies, fuel duties or a combination of all three.

That is how New York and Hong Kong are able to have two of the highest public transport mode shares in the world.

But Singapore abhors inefficiency, so it is likely to choose the economic avenue to push people away from cars. At the same time, the pull of public transport has to be beefed up. For that to happen, we have to ensure that the train and bus services are, at the very least, dependable. No other way works. Not even building cycling paths.

This article was first published on Jan 22, 2016.
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