Commentary: Why I will probably never own a car – not even an eco-friendly one
The newly announced Budget 2021 initiatives to pivot to electric vehicles may make car ownership more attractive to some. But for many Singaporeans, there is probably no going back from the country’s excellent public transport system, says Karen Tee.
SINGAPORE: Like many other young adults in the noughties, I got my driver’s licence while I was in university.
Back in those days, it was assumed that many of us would eventually own a car when we started working full-time, so getting that licence was practically a rite of passage.
As it turned out, I never got around to buying a car. For starters, I have never been thrilled at the thought of having to spend such an exorbitant amount of money on a depreciating asset like a vehicle.
Then, there were the day-to-day realities of driving that ultimately deterred me from taking the plunge.
From having to deal with bad traffic and parking nightmares to an ever growing list of car-related expenses that included road tax, Electronic Road Pricing (ERP), insurance, maintenance and petrol, the hassle and cost of driving have always outweighed the benefits of car ownership for me.
Instead, like many others in Singapore, I turned to the country’s ever improving public transport system as my main method of getting around, pleased that I was saving money and being eco-friendly at the same time.
I am aware that for thousands of people, this isn't even about choice. With limited means, they simply have to rely on public transport to get to work, get their children to school and tuition or go out as a family.
This is exactly why our well-oiled transport network is such a boon.
OUR CAR-LITE SYSTEM WORKS WELL
Over the years, with the widespread adoption of technology and the Government’s push towards a car-lite system, I have never felt like I was compromising on my quality of life by not owning a car.
The ongoing improvements to the public transport system such as enhanced bus frequencies are paying off big time. Additionally, bus route and timing apps have made it a breeze to plot one’s journey while minimising waiting time.
The spotlessly clean trains are a joy to ride too. From just two MRT lines, there are now six lines – with more lines and extensions slated to open over the next decade to cover a distance of 360km, a significant increase from the current 230km. The goal is for eight in 10 Singaporeans to be within a 10 minute walk of an MRT station by 2030.
In reality, the network of buses and trains already brings us very close to a 10-minute (or less) walk to just about any destination on this island so these developments will only make it even easier to get around.
These days, my public transport commutes are generally seamless enough that I always look forward to bus rides. They are a “daily luxury” where I can enjoy 20 to 30 minutes of uninterrupted me-time while enjoying the view from the window.
As for times when I simply need to get somewhere fast or if the destination is not serviced by public transport, there are plenty of ride-hailing apps to use.
Long gone are the days when we had to stand by the kerbside in the hopes of flagging down an empty taxi. Or worse, having to suffer the indignity of a taxi driver rudely speeding off when he decides one’s destination is somehow too inconvenient for him to do his job.
Now, with a few taps on my smartphone, a car pulls up at my doorstep within a matter of minutes.
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FINALLY WELCOMING ELECTRIC CARS TO OUR ROADS
In Tuesday's Budget speech, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat announced a slew of incentives to encourage the adoption of electric vehicles (EV), while at the same time phasing out internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles.
From lowering the Additional Registration Fee (ARF) floor to zero for electric cars to revising road tax bands, the measures certainly help to make it more affordable to own an EV.
These financial measures, in tandem with the immediate increase in petrol duty rates, will likely spur an increasing number of drivers to switch to an EV in due course.
It certainly is about time that electric vehicle usage is being encouraged. Remember how back in 2016 the owner of Singapore’s first Tesla Model S, a car which does not produce direct carbon emissions, was slapped with a baffling S$15,000 carbon tax?
Now, the Government is dedicating S$30 million to various EV initiatives, including building charging points at public carparks and private premises.
Plus, there are so many more choices when it comes to purchasing an EV. Besides Tesla, many car brands ranging from the high end such as Audi and BMW, to more affordable names including Hyundai and Toyota, now offer their own versions of green wheels.
It’s almost enough to make one head to the car showrooms over the weekend to check out what’s new – but not quite.
(With new green targets announced by the Singapore Government, when will we be seeing more electric vehicles on our roads? And will town council and condominium committees get involved? The author and a business professor weigh in on CNA's Heart of the Matter:)
IS EV SHARING THE NEXT BIG THING?
While the EV initiatives are a great eco-friendly option for those who wish to continue owning cars, I am still not about to jump on the car ownership bandwagon.
Maybe it is a millennial thing. After all, our generation is the one that has made the sharing economy a norm, from co-working spaces and staying at Airbnbs on vacations to reselling unwanted possessions on apps like Carousell.
So I am certainly not opposed to car-sharing too – a potentially affordable alternative to car ownership that hopefully could be the next public good to come out of the Budget initiatives.
For a while now, I have been curious about EV rental service BlueSG, as it has set up a charging station within my HDB estate. However, I have noticed that cars are not always available there when I need one.
And since parking spots with charging points are not yet widely installed islandwide, it is more often than not that I would have to park the car at a significant distance from my destination, hence leading me to choose a bus, train or Grab instead.
With the Government committing to building more charging points, it is possible that EV sharing could become more commonplace and widely adopted. It is also a practical solution to a potential shortage of EV charging points.
Minister for Transport Ong Ye Kung previously said that the former target of 28,000 charging points to be built by 2030 might not be able to support the expected growth in EVs. This target has since been increased to 60,000 charging points by 2030, as announced by Minister Heng in his Budget speech.
Car sharing could nonetheless help to ease the burden on charging points and smooth the transition to EVs, while still adhering to the nation’s car-lite ethos.
READ: Obstacles remain in electric vehicle adoption despite incentives, say transport experts and drivers
I for one would certainly welcome this as another viable transport option to my already decent basket of choices.
But truth be told, I am in no hurry to put that driver’s licence to use. Rather, I am perfectly happy to spend the rest of my life being “chauffeured” from one place to another via public transport instead.
Karen is a freelance lifestyle and travel journalist, and a graduate of Columbia University’s School of Journalism in New York City.