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Commentary: Singapore’s new headache of fewer public transport commuters

Singapore’s public transport system, once geared towards dealing with high ridership rates, is now grappling with under-capacity, says an observer.

Commentary: Singapore’s new headache of fewer public transport commuters

Commuters on the train during rush hour on Jun 2, 2020, the first day of Phase 1 post-circuit breaker. (Photo: Gaya Chandramohan)

SINGAPORE: It seemed so long ago that Singapore was grappling with packed MRTs, where complaints of full carriages and slowdowns were the big challenges of the day.

People were worried about getting to work on time. After all, a breakdown in train services on the North-South line halted services between Newton and Ang Mo Kio for 20 hours in October 2017.

The recent MRT disruption on Oct 14 harks back to those days. In this case, a power fault struck during the evening rush hour and trains were out of service for up to three hours.

READ: Commentary: What will it take to make Singapore truly car-lite?

CHANGING COMMUTER PATTERNS

These days, however, public transport faces a different set of challenges arising from reduced ridership and changing commuter behaviour.

Since Singapore pulled the circuit breaker on Apr 7 to stop the spread of COVID-19, most have worked from home. 

Overnight, bus stops and MRT stations became ghost towns. Ridership plummeted by 75 per cent in April compared to pre-COVID levels, according to the Land Transport Authority (LTA).

Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) charges were done away with on Apr 6, only resuming at certain gantries on Jul 27.

READ: Commentary: Will COVID-19 dim Singapore’s love affair with cars?

Some commuters have returned after the circuit breaker was lifted. As community cases have remained low, authorities are now allowing more offices to reopen while spacing out starting time to reduce peak commuting traffic.

Still, we expect lower ridership compared to pre-COVID-19 trends to continue overall, fuelled also by a general inclination from commuters to avoid public transport.

LISTEN: Returning to the office – can you say no?

Crowds at Buona Vista MRT station after a power fault disrupted train services on several lines on Oct 14, 2020. (Photo: Christy Yip)

An Oliver Wyman survey, conducted in June, found that a quarter of Singaporean respondents were less willing to take public transport since stay-at-home measures were put in place.

Private transport, on the other hand, has become more appealing. 39 per cent of respondents were more willing to commute by car, and of those who drive, 61 per cent were now more willing to use a car.

That said, we are still seeing peaks in ridership at certain times, adding to the pressure to find strategies to encourage distancing on public transport. 

When MRT services broke down last week, bus stops were packed with passengers looking for another ride home – a worry for those mindful of COVID-19 risks.

READ: Commentary: People are missing their daily commute while working from home. Here’s why

These trends raise an interesting conundrum: How does Singapore’s public transport system, which has been geared towards dealing with high ridership rates, now deal with new patterns of movement?

Will fare hikes be next?

While the Public Transport Council announced in September that public transport fares will remain the same this year, they may have to be increased if ridership rates remain lower than what’s needed for operators to stay profitable.

READ: Commentary: People love walking and cycling. So why aren't more ditching their cars?

KEEPING UP WITH RIDERSHIP PATTERNS

To pre-empt that, governments and transport planners around the world must observe new commuter patterns and adapt to match transport demand and supply.

Authorities and private companies alike should use data analytics to understand how people are travelling and adjust operations more nimbly.

In Singapore, this is less of an issue as much of the information already resides with authorities. 

Data on commuter hotspots, bus timing arrivals, traffic conditions from commuters’ fare cards, sensors installed on buses, GPS systems from taxis and more is available to LTA and operators to optimise bus and MRT train deployment.

File picture of taxis in Singapore. (Photo: TODAY)

Over the years, as part of Singapore’s Smart Nation push, LTA has already used such data to inform LTA’s transport planning. 

It has achieved a 92 per cent reduction in the number of bus services with crowding issues, and up to seven-minute reductions in waiting times for popular services.

The priority for transport authorities now is enabling the use of data to protect public health. Masks are mandated, hand sanitisers are available and heightened cleaning schedules are in place.

But this same information about how many commuters are on board specific services can be used to encourage distancing rules on buses and trains.

READ: Commentary: The revival of the digital economy – building citizen confidence as Smart Nation momentum picks up

To solve this problem, Singapore, like many other cities, needs to use data to predict travel times to ensure adequate transport is provided to cater to the demand and allow for distancing.

In the longer term, it should focus even more so on the utilisation of Internet of Things (IoT) sensors and AI to manage transport resources, assets and services efficiently as we strive towards integrating infrastructure and built environment elements to create smart, people-centric cities.

Singapore’s past incentives, in the form of lower fares to encourage people to travel off-peak, could also be reviewed to space out commuters.

READ: Commentary: Artificial intelligence and automation would actually benefit Singapore

Commuters who remain concerned about crowding have access to apps such as MyTransport.SG and Citymapper which provide real-time information on how packed transport is and how to avoid hotspots, for example by taking alternative routes or sitting at the ends of a train rather than in the middle. 

Authorities should boost public education efforts to encourage the use of these tools so people can make informed decisions. Public confidence in the transport system can go a long way to encouraging its use.

LAST-MILE TRANSPORT AS A SOURCE OF PROFIT

While shared bikes and personal mobility devices have gained a bad rap in Singapore, integrating last-mile transport can build elasticity in the system, and provide a new revenue source for public transport operators who have stayed within the bus and rail business for decades.

An e-scooter on a footpath in Singapore. (File photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman) Many Singaporeans approve of the effort to rein in the scooters, which now number about 100,000 in the space-starved country of 5.7 million AFP/Roslan RAHMAN

After all, much of the lacking infrastructure has been built, with more investments going into making HDB estates like Marine Parade, Hougang and Bukit Batok more cycling-friendly. 

The expansion of park connectors and cycling paths, while a decade-long effort, would not only give e-scooter riders a designated lane, but also offer commuters more walking pathways.

Pedestrian priority zones, where cyclists must give way to pedestrians, and silver zones, which feature elderly-friendly features such as narrower roads to slow traffic have been expanded.

Singapore is also spending more than S$1 billion to expand its current 440km network of cycling paths to 800km by 2023, and 1,320km by 2030. 

These paths connect commuters from their doorsteps to transport hubs, malls and schools, supported by secure bike docking and storage and ramps in place of staircases.

Indeed, bike-sharing service Anywheel’s ridership this January before the circuit breaker was 68 per cent higher than in Dec 2019.

READ: Commentary: After a chaotic first wave, does bike-sharing have a decent second shot in Singapore?

READ: Commentary: The year e-scooters were kicked off footpaths

OPTIONS FOR PRIVATE TRANSPORT

What if public transport also factored in what has been traditionally private transport as part of a more resilient system and policymakers can see how to facilitate mergers?

This sector may be undergoing an overdue consolidation. BlueSG, a company with a fully electric fleet of vehicles, saw its revenues halved over the circuit breaker – but rentals rebounded by 50 per cent in June, when Phase 1 of reopening began.

Meanwhile, Smove, one of the first start-ups in the scene, has been under liquidation since late May.

A BlueSG electric car-sharing vehicle is parked at a charging station. (Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su)

Authorities should also hedge against the impact of decisions by ride-hailing giants given how much losses have been racked up, which may go some way to explain the Government’s interest in Gojek, during Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung’s visit to the firm in end-September.

Uber reported a net loss of US$1.8 billion (S$2.5 billion) in the second quarter, and laid off 23 per cent of its global workforce.

Grab too has come under tremendous financial strain, laying off 360 staff, suggesting it may be on shaky ground.

COVID-19 has ultimately changed how we work and travel. It is up to us to determine how to apply what we have learned from this experience, in building a model of sustainable mobility for Singapore.

The CNA Leadership Summit 2020: Navigating the Post-Pandemic World will discuss through a series of TV programmes and webinars how businesses and organisations have reacted to the pandemic and applied innovative practices.

More details are available at: cna.asia/leadership-summit.

Jamye Harrison is Global Solutions Lead of Smart Cities, and Amos Cheong is Head of Project & Programme Management and Business Advisory, Singapore at Arcadis.

Source: CNA/el
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