Fixing the Singapore transport system will take some guts

I refer to the story “The Big Read: Despite push for public transport, a love for cars endures” (17 July, Today).

The article presented most sides of the transport problem in Singapore – a growing desire by commuters to wean themselves off cars, yet they face perennial issues of inconvenience or sometimes, the sheer impracticality with the state of public transport in Singapore.

However, like most conversations around transport in Singapore, the article did not address what it really takes to solve a long-standing problem of getting around in this tiny city state. Or at least, getting more people to stop driving.

Let me tell you what I think it takes – immense courage and conviction at all levels of society to actually make things happen.

As Singapore turns 50, I see less and less of the mindblowing bravery that our early leaders demonstrated to bring us from third world to first. These days, I observe too much hemming and hawing in the public sphere. Policy decisions seem to be made to desperately preserve the status quo, not to truly transform Singapore for the next stage of its existence.

By now it is clear that transport is both a personal and political matter for everyone.

I take all forms of transport every week – my car for weekend family outings and errands, my motorcycle for daily work commutes, buses and trains whenever the need arises, and once in a while, I will cycle to work via a mixture of park connectors and public roads.

While I am thankful I have so many transport options at hand, I also have had the chance to experience all the possible scenarios depending on which mode of transport I’ve taken. I don’t know if I can say the same for the Transport Minister or his policymakers.

When looking for realistic solutions to our transport problem, there are some things that need to be made clear first:

Stop saying car ownership is a status symbol or lifestyle aspiration.

As long as this mentality is perpetuated in the media (see the Today story) and government, it makes it quite impossible for a real solution to appear.

Who does not have lifestyle aspirations? Who wants to appear of low status? Come on!

But we need to decouple this popular statement from car ownership. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy if enough people believe it.

I often see high-powered executives take the train and squeeze in with the crowds, because it’s really more convenient than getting stuck in jams or paying high parking fees in the business district. Some people driving supercars are young greenhorns whose parents earned the car, and it’s part of their lifestyles by default.

Cars are so expensive today in Singapore, even the entry-level family car costs at least $100,000 SGD.

Obviously, a family sedan is no “status symbol” and people still buy them because they truly find a need for it, not because they want to appear important or wealthy.

The mindset of the transport policymakers might be hampered by this very crutch – as long as they believe that people cannot give up their cars due to their ego or lifestyles, then the policies will always be half-baked and spineless in their resolve to solve the problem.

The roads get jammed because of poor COE management in the 2000s and even today.

Don’t hate me for saying this, but my 2009 Corolla Altis has a $4,460 COE, ridiculously cheap by 2015 standards when the same COE now costs $58,700.

The car population jumped from 417K in 2004 to 595K in 2010 (+42%!) because the LTA failed to tweak its decades-old COE policy in that period, and COE prices plunged from $25K (Jan 2004) to $5K (Jan 2009).

Cars became more affordable to many more people. In 2010, the LTA finally decided to press the brakes with policy amendments on how COEs were released and COE prices started climbing again.

But in my opinion, the truly effective measure came in 2013 when the Ministry of Finance (note, not the LTA) mandated the 50% to 40% downpayment and reduction of car loan periods to 5 years. Many asset-rich but cash-poor Singaporeans immediately stopped car-shopping.

The huge jump in the car population also coincided with the period in the 2000s when the government allowed many more foreign workers into Singapore, causing a steep increase in the load on the public transport system.

Even with all the policy tweaks, it’s still ludicrous that the LTA allows for an annual vehicle population growth rate of 0.25% today.

If you are trying to get people to switch from cars to public transport, you should be mandating a NEGATIVE growth in the overall vehicle population. Stop saying positive vehicle growth should happen because you are widening roads or building new ones – those should be done in any case to make traffic smoother, not allow more cars on the roads!

Finally, COEs will bring an estimated $5 billion revenue to the government this fiscal year. There have been many calls to solve car ownership problems without a financial sledgehammer solution, but they have been ignored by the government since the early 1990s when the COE was developed.

As long as there is such huge financial risk to the government coffers involved, which policymaker will truly be able to think out of the box without worrying about his job prospects?

Public transport has its limits of improvements

Yes, we’ve heard this to death – more people will switch to public transport when it is deemed better than private transport.

It’s true, but let’s also get real, there are limits to how much public transport can be improved on this island.

Just look at the SMRT system. Time after time, they will tell us it is going to get better. But the breakdowns have only gotten worse – the recent 7th July 2015 breakdown of all North-South and East-West lines was the most devastating ever with an estimated 250,000 commuters left stranded during evening peak hours.

That night, I drove out to help a friend who was stranded at Ang Mo Kio. Even though it was three hours after the SMRT first announced the breakdown at about 7pm, there were still hundreds of people spilling onto the streets outside Bishan MRT trying to get onto a bus or flag down a taxi.

It was a disgraceful incident that does not happen in countries like Hong Kong or Japan with even older and more complex train networks. I have no doubt it can happen again…it is just a matter of when, given the frequency of SMRT train breakdowns here.

I feel sad for the current SMRT management who have the tough job of fixing deep-set problems left behind by the previous management and have to face public wrath so often.

I feel even more sorry for the beleaguered SMRT staff and all the Traffic Police and LTA folks who were deployed that night to manage traffic control. Do policymakers realize how many people were truly affected that night and with every other breakdown? Being “gravely concerned” doesn’t cut it anymore.

It is worth noting that the decline of the SMRT network also came about in the 2000s as the company’s previous CEO and management decided to focus on retail profits instead of track sustainability. Come think of it – Just how many things went wrong with the transport system in that decade?

Aside: What also flabbergasted me was the fact that people trying to compare this SMRT breakdown to the London Tube subway strike which was a planned outage, not a catastrophic, unpredicted system breakdown (which as of this time, nobody in SMRT or LTA even knows the actual root cause).

So yes, 550 more buses are also being added to the network using tax dollars, and given to private transport companies like SBS to manage. It still doesn’t change the fact that the roads are clogged up with private cars, or that having more buses in the same network of bus lanes may actually mean more congestion in the bus lanes.

I don’t disagree that we need to give the SMRT more time and leeway to fix the train system, and I’m not against adding more buses because they are often too crowded at peak hours.

However, will these planned improvements make public transport that much “better” than private transport? I strongly doubt it because it’s just adding more of the same stuff to the equation.

Take for example, I sometimes have to travel from my house in Bishan to Ang Mo Kio Ave 5 Industrial Park 2. By car or bike, it’s not more than 10 minutes. By bus, it’s at least one hour of waiting, sitting in the bus and walking! It’s just the dense road network that limits how fast or far buses can go in each route.

I don’t mind taking a cab, but if I don’t use an app like GrabTaxi to call a cab, it’s impossible to flag one down most hours of the day. Don’t get me started on the taxi situation in Singapore…

So back to my point on public transport, perhaps we need to be clearer what “better than private transport” means.

For example, are people willing to slow down for the slower pace of the public transport system?

If you want to keep telling people that they should aspire to be rich, and that means living a high-life and getting multi-tasking work done quickly in the world’s most expensive city, they’ll never consider taking life in the slower lane, both figuratively and literally.

Or maybe, it’s really getting public transport right once and for all, no more excuses. Spend tax dollars for all you will, but make it a Hail Mary move, not some Handyplast remedy that doesn’t fix deep-set issues.

It could be in the form of true competition for taxi companies with no stupid, complex surcharges or no taxi COEs so cabbies don’t have to pay high rentals. Or shutting down the entire SMRT network once a week so the engineers can rip out every deteriorating part and replace them with truly hardy stuff. Everyone can hop into car-pools in the meantime, or work from home if they don’t need to be in the office.

And Singapore’s size makes it a zero-sum game : The more buses you add to the network, the more cars  you need to remove. And the more new trains you buy, the more you need to ensure the tracks can take the additional load. These are the two things that aren’t happening. With the number of cars on the road today, whenever there are major accidents on one expressway, you’ll find the ripple effect spreading to other roads and expressways – there just aren’t enough “escape routes” for vehicles.

So by this time, some readers will probably say I’m idealistic and that I’m asking for too much.

Guess what? I’m going to go even further, because I have some ideas that are not mired in the usual “it can’t be done”, or “we need to tax the citizens again because solutions cost money” attitude that plagues this country from one level of bureaucracy to another.

This country often cannot think out of the money box and you can read another post about it here. If you think that taxing people further for car ownership or usage is the way to go, then here’s a grim reminder : It’s not working anymore lah. People are still snapping up every available COE and go under ERP gantries whenever they like.

We still need private transport for businesses, disabled and elderly people, but how can we seriously reduce the car population for good while ensuring people can get around via public or private transport?

So here goes, and my key guidelines are that these ideas should not be expensive to implement, are founded on logic and behavioral triggers, and don’t revisit the same old, failed ideas again.

Idea #1: Get serious about cycling

Convert the full left lane of every road (even highway roads) into bicycle-only lanes with small barriers (or road dividers) to ensure cars, lorries or motorcycles don’t drift into them. The natural outcome is that the remaining lanes will get so clogged with vehicles, more people will switch to bicycles out of frustration or joy.

I’m so tired of hearing people asking about making Singapore a cycling nation and someone retorting that there isn’t enough space to widen the roads.

Then don’t widen the roads lah – divide them up and it won’t cost a bomb at all. The park connector (PCN) routes are very limited in which areas they can serve, and many of them require me to haul my bicycle across overhead bridges or cross multiple traffic lights. You’d want a bicycle network that can link people to ANY location and not just some park.

Really, people should stop paying lip service to the idea of a “cycling nation”. You either make it happen, or you don’t.

Idea #2: Make it really difficult to get a car licence, using motorcycles.

As a motorcyclist, I have to take three tests (Class 2B, Class 2A and Class 2) and wait nearly four years before I am allowed to drive a motorcycle above 400cc. I hate this, and so do all other bikers. But I do agree it’s logical to ensure bikers have enough experience on smaller capacity bikes before they graduate to super bikes and power cruisers.

Yet car drivers are allowed to drive any type of car from the time they pass one single Class 3 test! That’s why you have so many inexperienced twats in powerful cars causing all sorts of deaths.

Now, what if we made it mandatory for everyone to pass Class 2B, 2A and 2 motorcycle practical tests before they can get a Class 3 licence?

Firstly the fear of dying on a motorcycle (which is very real, I assure you) will stop many people from even going for Class 2B lessons.

Secondly, by forcing everyone through the same filtering system, you will actually get very high-quality drivers on the road and less traffic jams due to accidents.

Most Class 2 riders know how to properly handle powerful machines that accelerate faster than a Ferrari and have proven their ability to stay alive on the roads with all the daily hazards – that’s why we tend to be better drivers with greater spatial awareness and reaction times.

A consequence is that you may see more motorcycle-related accidents on the road.

Or you may not, as the fear of dying keep people from even wanting to ride.

The stigma against motorcyclists is so deeply ingrained in Singaporeans, you might as well leverage on it.

I won’t even bother trying to suggest that more people should just ride motorbikes instead of driving cars or take public transport– most people just don’t have the guts to do it and that’s ok.

Bikers all know the joys of overcoming any traffic jam or the low maintenance costs of a two-wheeler. Unfortunately, the LTA is constantly reducing the number of motorcycle COEs and transferring it to the pool of larger vehicles.

Go figure.

Idea #3: Go for car-pooling measures

I don’t understand why car-pooling measures are hardly suggested in Singapore. Just look at most cars on the road – they often contain only the driver.

What if you could incentivize car-pooling? Or penalize cars that have only one person during peak hours? Or ensuring every car owner is registered into a car-pool database and is required to provide minimum hours of car-pooling each month?

Car-pooling in itself may not be effective, but coupled with a slew of other measures like reduction of the vehicle population, it could be more useful. There have been some recent car-pooling moves by the LTA but it largely flies under the radar of most people.

We really need to bring this topic up again, because the train network needs to be lightened of passengers, not further burdened. There is also much talk about reducing air pollution, but practical measures like this are not discussed.

In closing

So all three ideas above could be flawed or stupid in your opinion, but at least I’m giving it a shot from my perspective. If you have a better idea, please post in the comments below and be polite about it.

Really, I’m weary when the state tells me that Singaporeans need to be creative and think out of the box, and then they go stick with transport policies that have not really changed in over 20 years.

I don’t think anyone is convinced when it is repeated ad nauseum – that the COE system is not a revenue-generating tool, or that complex and varying ERP rates are effective in regulating traffic flow.

The recent train breakdown was the final straw for many people, and whether the PAP admits it or not, they lost a lot of goodwill overnight despite all the SG50 rah-rah.

It’s time to stop treating the symptoms and be courageous about drastic solutions to public transport. Singapore is nimble because it is small, but in this matter, we no longer dare to look at hard choices to punch above our weight.

We are a first-world country without a first-world transport system, period.

(Postscript – I suggested the three ideas above as a demonstration of the scale of change or the different mindsets needed in order to get more people to stop driving and encourage public transport usage. They are not the magic bullets, I would like to remind people who are trying to argue the feasibility of each idea in Singapore. The bottomline is to get everyone thinking harder about what is possible, instead of what is not.

I also take my hat off to every person who works in the public transport system for keeping things going on a daily basis. And we do have excellent transport facilities and staff that we often take for granted. This post is not meant to disparage all these good things, but to put forward a hope that all the different elements of the transport system can be tied together in a more coherent whole… and yes, of a first-world standard.)

41 Replies to “Fixing the Singapore transport system will take some guts”

  1. The cycling thing would work if offices were equipped with shower facilities and laundromats do (reasonably priced) same-day turnaround for cycle gear. Otherwise, it’s unlikely one would show up at work as is after riding for 30 minutes or more in our humidity. I cycle home twice a week, and that involves me being dropped off in the morning with my bike.

    1. Agreed, G, a lot of toilets in offices needed to be upgraded with simple shower facilities. Or I could possibly start a business renting out portable shower facilities!

      1. its easy to say start a business, first talk about the high rent cost, the problem of workers and the visibility of your busniess hangs on policies that stops. This is one reason many bicycle repair is more home based which is illegal.

      2. I have nary an entrepreneurial bone in my body, Ian, but you’re on to something. If you rent a small space and offer shower facilities, plus a laundromat for riders’ sweaty gear, you’ve got a winner. IINW, there used to be such a business in Amoy Street.

        1. Yes, shower facility is needed for cycling to work to be feasible.

          Laundromat may not be needed as the cyclist can always bring another set of clean clothes.

  2. If our home grown talent can not manage to run the SMRT perhaps we should do what the government has always advocated in the labour industry – allow foreign talent to come and work here. Replace the management of the SMRT, hire in say HK MRT in to run the system after their running of the London train system resulted in the trains system in London running on time after long period of inability to run on time. It also meant that breakdown incidents on London system must have fallen to lower much lower numbers – trains that break down do not run on time, you feel where I am getting at ?
    Top management at SMRT needs to understand your job security is tied to the smooth running of the line, profits aside. If you can not manage the most basic criteria of the job – running the system but only can generate large profits – you need to be be fired. The mission statement for the SMRT is should be making the train system work such that commuters have a awesome rider experience each time they use the system (that means our fares has to be relooked at they are too high for such a fault filled system) that way the people can be persuaded to give up cars for transport. If a family of 4 finds it cheaper to go by taxi to their designation which is served by MRT and buses simply because it cheaper that points to fact that bus and train fares are too high or taxi fare are too low ( good fare structuring for public transport has to be that train and bus are cheaper alternative for individuals and families to use over privately own cars and cabs which should be a higher alternative form of public transport).

    1. The problem is not that there are no locals capable of doing the job, but that the higher management positions are reserved for transfers from completely unrelated fields. Someone who is good at strategically positioning infantry regiments (giving the benefit of the doubt here, since none of our generals have actually had real combat experience) is not, by the same coin, good at discerning the difference in the long term performance of two different alloys in the construction of a rail line, or two different types of wiring in the power circuitry.

      I don’t believe that SMRT consists entirely of people incapable of running the system well, because they -already- ran the system well for over 20 years before the previous leadership seems to have dropped several time bombs that are exploding in this current leadership’s terms. But you’re not going to be able to fix any issues if the people who are capable of fixing the issues are overruled by people without technical knowledge in train construction and operation, because they came from a retail, or a military, field.

      The solution is relatively simple. Promote people up the ranks. The current set of people need to be removed, and replaced by the most senior people actually cognizant of train operations currently at SMRT, who are probably holding junior management or middle management positions at best. Hire new people to fill those junior positions, to be trained under their wing. When people who know what they are doing have the power to make things happen, things will run well. At present, the people who know what to do have no power to do them, and the people with the power to act have no idea what they’re doing – because they were good in an entirely different domain.

      Paradropping people from foreign companies is less likely to be effective than leveraging the experience of the people already here, because they worked with entirely different systems. The power supply of overhead conduction systems for instance is entirely different from the third-rail electrification systems, and you should not expect someone used to the former to be able to advise on the proper construction, maintenance and replacement of a third rail. Foreigners are not, contrary to what passes for common belief nowadays, superior in all aspects to Singaporeans, nor a panacea for all the problems the country will face, neither now, nor in the future.

      1. Hi Hayashi,

        Personally, I come from a background where I’ve been dropped into a lot of new situations and asked to figure out new things I’ve not have experience handling before. I have a media and arts background, but I find myself working in sales more than marketing now. So I think people can pick up things quickly if they want to, but you are also right that having expertise is key in such an engineering-related field. I don’t know much about the makeup of LTA or SMRT management, but the top leaders don’t necessarily need to be subject matter experts. What they need to be able to do is extract the best experts within and without their organization to solve the problems in the best way, and inspire people to come forth and to do their best for the organization and customer. I don’t know if this is being done, but I hope it is.

        Another important aspect of management is ensuring continuity from one generation to the next. Historical knowledge is important and the org must ensure the lessons of the past are passed on to the next batch of leaders and managers, or else everyone starts afresh every few years being no wiser, and deep-set issues ferment and blow up later.

  3. Ian could be right that the use of cycles should be better implemented – you need to have a system where bicycles are not sharing space with pedestrians, cars, bus, trucks. It is a fundamental safety issue for each of the classes of users of which pedestrains now suddenly become a vulnerable group. Bicycles are powered vehicles in respect to pedestrians, the 2 groups can not co share a space because the danger of accidents will be very real then plus if you look at any efficiency outlook – bicycles can travel a lot faster than people can walk, mixing the two together means bicyclist have to travel much much slower to avoid hitting pedestrians. In any country with traffic rules, riding across a pedestrian crossing is illegal – a safety rule, bicyclist has to stop riding before the crossing and push the bike over the crossing. That is not really happening here is it ? You see cyclists happily cycling thru a crossing and pedestrains have to part like in Moses and the Red Sea so that they do not get hit by a cyclist. A total thought through concept has to be done and not as in the last 15 years a piece meal approach of doing it bit by bit and hoping we do not end with what would look like Frankenstien’s monster when completed. That’s what our MRT line system is beginning to look like now. It most definitely does not look like they had an overall game plan from the start does it ?

    1. Ellery, I think you got it right that many things are piece-meal here. For eg. I’ve never understood why many HDB flats were built with lift landings on every few floors instead of every floor. Then a decade or two later, HDB spents millions upgrading these same flats with lift landings on every floor. Would it have cost that much more to get it right in the first place? I wouldn’t know. And the core NS-EW SMRT lines were never built to accommodate double the 3m population of 20 years ago. I see some people commenting online that building of the new MRT lines would solve the problems of today, but that’s a bit like saying, let’s add a spanking third arm and leg to this body whose central bone system is breaking in multiple spots.

  4. I am totally onboard with the idea of making drivers go through the Class 2B, 2A and 2 licenses before they can get a Class 3 license. Would be great if it becomes like Taiwan where motorcycles are so much more commonplace than cars.

    1. Thanks BMan, it’ll be a proposal hard for anyone who hasn’t ridden a motorbike to swallow. The very thought of Singapore being filled by motorcycles will chill many civil servants to the bone, because they’ve been taught from a young age that motorcycles are bad things.

  5. Real solution is to go to the root cause of the problem, ie: the over-crowding by population that our infrastructure was not ready to cope in the first place. So, remove that from the problem equation first.
    1) get rid of the un-talented “foreign talents” first – rewind the number to our existing population numbers of “just Singaporeans” plus selected “FT” esp those that can help build our infrastructure without using them. Eg. Construction workers who go to work by their company buses and stay at dormitories. These groups don’t tax our system to create so much social problems other than “little India” riot.
    2) then SmRT can get start to trace the track problems by shutting down part of system once a week, etc . Everyone would then have more breathing space to work on the solutions and get everything ready for more population growth.
    3) encourage biking as mode of transport means we need to have shower facilities, and Bike parking facilities.

    Car population and congestion problems had always been in existence even when our population back then were only 2.2million. I do not think the govt really want to solve this problem. To be blunt, with the idea of Coe and ERP, and proven huge and fast, daily revenue for the govt, they love the existence of this problem. It is indeed an opportunity for more revenue resulting from a problem. So, why would there be incentive for the govt to “really” want to solve the problem? If they really do, they would not have influx of foreigners. More people means more cars, simple as that. So, from the time I tried carpooling to CBD area via restricted zone, I have been hearing about car congestion as the reason for whatever system they implement to control traffic jams, yet ….who in the authority really want the problem solved for over more than 4 decades already .? No smart people to resolve? Too smart to reap more revenue from a problem instead.

    The repercussion from their bad policy of having influx of foreigners too fast and too much has so adversely affected our public transportation which Govt. didn’t expect. Plus, having a lousy SMRT management made it worst. And I am still wondering when they will “swallow their own medicine” to hire REAL foreign talent that we so desperately need from Japan, hk, Germany or London who has the expertise to run a complicated train network for decades. They can replace common Singaporeans jobs but they refused to replace themselves with foreigners when we truly needed?

    Conclusion – traffic congestion is a problem govt will not genuinely solve, as long as it contradict their aim to have more population artificially by importing.

    1. I have nothing against foreign talent (our ancestors were all FTs) and I don’t know if it’s feasible to reduce the population to fix an infrastructural issue. I’d say, keeping all other things constant (population size and demographics), the infrastructure needs to be overhauled like you said, bit by bit, but surely and steadily.

      1. Don’t get me wrong, I am not xenophobic. I grew up relating to foreigners, and they were the very respectful to our people and culture- type. I am against “selling off our land” to any “tom, dick and Harry” type of foreigners.

  6. why you just wasted your time typing all these bullshit – you are just a commoner speculating from the observable information relating to the issues. You don’t know what you don’t know about the intricacies behind the issue and implications and links to the economic, infrastructure and political aspects. You clearly haven’t looked at this from the perspective of every stakeholder involved. Cheers.

    1. Dear “E” of “” – I have allowed your comment to be published so I can say this : You don’t even have the guts to use your real name or email address. If commoners like me kept quiet, had no opinions or don’t dare to speak up because we don’t know what we don’t know, then the country will be overrun by the likes of you. And welcome to my website, where trolls have no right to exist.

  7. I’m thinking that more companies should allow more remote working. If less of us travel to work, there would be a reduction in population travelling on any transport, public or private.

    My company is able to allow all staff to work remotely. I know this solution may not suit all businesses but it should be encouraged. By working from home, we get to wake up later, not get frazzled by peak hour traffic, rest more and start work in a much better mood.

  8. IMO, buses can be a great alternative to the overcrowding trains. The trains are already coming in at once every 2 minutes during peak hours on the EW line. It cant get much faster than that or else there wont be enough space between trains. We could push it to 1/min but the risk of collision in case a train breaks down would be higher.

    The only practical solution would be to double the number of tracks on the EW line. But that’s not very feasible and it would take years to implement. We could also widen train stations in order to add one more carriage, but again, how long would an implementation take?

    A better solution would be to have more buses that go from the heartlands straight into town/CBD. We already have the infrastructure(roads). Just need more buses. Yes, it would mean that roads would get more crowded, but that’s why we need to reduce the number of COEs given out at the same time. Reduce the number of COEs given out for private cars. Private cars are quite a waste of space. There are 540k private cars in Singapore. Thats more than half the number of all Singapore registered vehicles(974k). In comparison, we only have 17.5k buses.

    Or we could even consider to have bus service that mimics the train and that stops only at the MRT stations. Like a bus that starts at Joo Koon, stops only at each MRT (pioneer, Boon Lay etc.) and ends on the other side of the MRT line. This way more people can choose to take the bus instead and lighten the overloaded trains.

  9. Hi Ian

    Kindly explain why you detest e-scooter so much? As much as you wanted to ride your bicycle on the PCN, e-Scooter riders would like to share the PCN too.

    Define trouble.

    May i know if you have tried riding on an e-scooter?

    1. E-scooters and other types of e-bikes may be efficient forms of transport, but they are often ridden by people who turn them into menaces on the pavement and road – these people don’t observe traffic rules, they demand right of way, they don’t brake for anyone, etc etc. Yes, I have ridden one briefly but I prefer either a leg-powered bicycle or a full-blown motorcycle (see the rest of this blog). My suggestion about cycling lanes not allowing e-scooters is because the same e-scooter riders will create havoc for the cyclists. The cycling lane will no doubt face issues between slow and fast cyclists, and having engine-powered wheelers makes it unviable. But all these are just my opinions and a formative idea, I could be wrong!

      1. Hi Ian, thanks for putting up a note to attempt solve Singapore’s transport woes. Indeed cycling can feature in the solution although I feel the escooter can also further enhance the options.

        You might like to check out BWSS, the biggest escooter community in Singapore and the etiquette BWSS promotes at

        The fact is there can be cyclists as well as escooterists who insist on riding dangerously, this should be discouraged. Isn’t it better to let Singaporeans have a choice, be it cycling or scootering or escootering as everybody’s needs are different and peacefully share the country’s infrastructure assets.

        1. Awesome article Ian but yup we agree with Andy too…when cycling became much of a norm, there was a need to educate and provide proper infrastructure for the masses and its got to be the same with electric vehicles. Every form of transportation will its own fair share of ‘bad apples’ but its not that they’re douchebags they might just simply lack the awareness of the implications/hazards of some particular actions….Scoot On!

  10. agree with the cycling ideas but that will not be enough to reduce cars on the road as most residents of Singapore treat it as their portable A/C device and seemingly prepared to bear the costs. We need not only control cars but more importantly emissions and that is simply not being addressed in Singapore. Singapore needs a zero emission vision target for the nearest future and introduction of biofuels and electric alternatives must be encouraged. London is introducing electric double decker buses produced in China, why not here? Most countries in the region (Thailand, Phillippines) have adopted biofuels mandates to reduce emissions yet Singapore has been silent.

    1. Henri, I spend my motorcycle rides avoiding the thick black fumes that pump out of the exhaust pipes of many lorries and even some taxis in SG. I hear you, man.

  11. As a motorcyclist myself for 14 years, i too am confounded by the ever rising COE for motorcycles recently. Getting bike-phobic commuters to enjoy motorcycling isn’t difficult as long as they get their hands dirty and actually do it. Lots of SG tourists, who have never ridden a motorcycle, ride scooters on Thailand or Indonesia while on holiday and always say it’s hell’a fun!

    In the recent few years, after my little one was born, the family car became important. I cannot ride my 2 yr old to childcare as he is just too young to hold on. Since his childcare is so near my workplace, I would gladly cycle to work and put him in a toddler seat. But riding a bicycle to commute is almost suicidal, and that statement coming from a motorcyclist shouldn’t be taken lightly, much less with a precious toddler in tow.

    Ideally, SG would get lanes for cyclists like they do in China. It’s great, and it’s definitely worth implementing. Let’s just hope they don’t spend 5 years “pilot testing” the damn idea, by which time countless cyclists deaths would have occurred.

    1. For parents with young kids, a car is really a necessity given the need for childcare and other errands. Once the kids have grown up (mine are 10 and 12), you can go back to solo motorcycling while the kids take the bus/train 🙂 Of course, the COE is a blanket measure that doesn’t understand context.

  12. Whatever happen to decentralization of the CBD nobody knows. Everyone seems to be travelling in the same direction in the morning and back in the evenings. As one staying in the Northeast, I see empty trains running in the opposite direction every weekday. My gripe is the poor utilization of public transport and lack of supporting public infrastructure (covered walkways, better bus stop designs etc). Our tropical weather does not help much, cycling is for a certain segment (me included) who also does it for health reasons. Much needs to be done and our transport policies from the previous 3 minsters are just fire fighting measures, part revenue, part shoving it down your throat.

  13. If the government states that the COE is not purely for revenue generation, perhaps they can consider fixing the COE price, say $30,000 and distribute COEs via a ballot. After all, we are already balloting to buy our HDB flats, why not COEs. A car, whatever the cc, takes up more or less the same footprint, so I don’t see the need for separate categories of COEs if they are balloted for. And, yes, it would be good if they could keep the car population growth close to zero or perhaps even negative.

    I agree with your view that taxis as a form of “semi” public transport should not be under the current COE system. Though making it zero cost might encourage some people to exploit it and lease it for their own usage and not as a form of full time employment.

  14. I think we need to be gutsier, dream bigger and leverage technology and innovation to re-envision the Singapore transport system layer by layer. You really hit the nail on the head about disassociating car ownership from lifestyle aspiration and status symbols, but we can do much more. Singapore offers the perfect grid for driverless electric cars and a growing sharing economy. We need to get rid of parking lots wasting valuable real estate space and the whole archaic system of parking coupons and fees. Cars should be either in convenience moving people to a destination, or in downtime getting serviced. The entire Shenton Way area would be better served with driverless cars, a light-rail system and even bicycles. That $5 billion COE revenue should be used to invest in mobile devices applications such as developing our own brand of Uber, Zipcar and Lyft. Even BMW and Ford are moving towards subscription and sharing services.
    The next layer involves re-exploring the concept of “commute.” Singaporeans commute mainly to work and school. Looking at all the tired sleepyheads on buses and trains and we quickly realize commuting is one of the most draining, soul-crushing parts of anyone’s day. Think of all the wasted imagination and creativity going to waste. This is 2015 and we are still not using the internet, co-ops and the network technology to its full potential? If our jobs and schools are still requiring our physical presence to ensure productivity then we need to improve this model. If I can take a Harvard online course from the comforts of my own laptop anywhere in the world, then we can absolutely educate our young and grow our careers with the smart use of technology and just a wee bit of common sense. Think hub and spoke city planning and communities.
    Another layer could also be to differentiate between “drivers” and “passengers.” A friend of mine once remarked “if you own a car in Singapore, you better be prepared to give everyone lifts.” It’s sort of the sharing mentality that is good for everyone. A small island state cannot afford the one-driver in one-car all going in the same direction. Every car needs to be filled with passengers and here is where technology and mobile apps that open the entire car-share experience will find many sweet spots. Imagine being able to open an app, find drivers going to a certain destination and pay a reasonable price for the “tompang.” The point A to point B process couldn’t get any simpler. All we need are the right tools.
    Being the small island that we are absolutely gives us an advantage in being able to build a cutting edge high-technology transportation system that easily benefits all. The current model can be phased out in less than 10 years and change is really easy once everyone sees how seamless and efficient everything works.

    1. Great ideas, Eunice! I would like to add that we do need to consider the needs of those who are not tech-savvy (eg. some elderly citizens) and the technology implementations need to be as simple as possible without the need to own smartphones or tablets. Today, the benefits of Uber and GrabTaxi are not available to people who don’t use the technology, and even if smartphones get dirt cheap over time (they will), the telcos will still charge for usage as there aren’t that many revenue streams left. I’m all for sharing of cars, but it’ll often be restricted to known circles of friends because of the dangers of assault and other crimes. And you’re right, it’s about the change of mindsets.

      1. The system needs to be designed and scaled for the future, so tech savvy is the way to go. Our country is increasing in population and we have to find ways past the limits of capacity. Lyft has a ratings feedback system for both drivers and passengers, many people already have dashboard cams, and organizations can assist the elderly. As for smartphones and telcos, yes, that’s one of the factors that needs to be negotiated carefully, and who knows maybe even more revenue streams will open up as more developments are made to the infrastructure.
        Thank you for the very engaging blog, Ian!

  15. Learn a bit fr HK:
    1) carpark space at buldings (esp homes) has to be purchased
    2) enforce #1 by legislating a law to levy carpark development charges on building owners. This will incentivise developers to build more useful space for dwelling/commercial i/o everyone subsidize carpark users. Possibly lead to lower psf even 🙂 (wishful)
    3) ?? operate in outlying areas are fast/convenient/cost-effective/popular feeders to regional transport hubs

  16. Further to #2 point, i’d meant to say developers will allocate less carpark space vs other usage, because the former are costly and not easy to sell. Not encourage them to build ever more carpark space.

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