Commentary: What will it take to make Singapore truly car-lite?
COVID-19 has allowed us to rethink how we live, work and play. It is time to think about how we get around too, says SUTD’s Samuel Chng.
SINGAPORE: The rapid adoption of digital technologies to learn or work from home following the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly changed how we travel within Singapore.
Data from Moovit indicated a significant 77 per cent decline in local public transport ridership during the circuit breaker period, in April and May.
With falling road traffic, Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) was also suspended from Apr 6 and has only partially resumed since Jul 27.
Since easing measures, schools have resumed face-to-face lessons, and employees are gradually returning to workplaces.
Last week, the Ministry of Health (MOH) announced that it would allow more people to return to offices but stressed for employers to stagger reporting times and implement flexible schedules to avoid travel during peak hours.
READ: COVID-19: More people allowed to return to workplace, subject to conditions like capacity limits
Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung noted on Aug 27 when laying out his ministry’s plans: "The lower traffic and new travel patterns brought about by COVID-19 have opened a window of opportunity to re-imagine our road infrastructure."
In this reimagination, we should ensure that changes not only continue to meet Singapore’s mobility needs but also lead to a more environmentally sustainable transport system.
We now have a unique opportunity to encourage the use of micromobility devices - bicycles, electric bicycles, and motorised and non-motorised personal mobility devices (PMDs) - for short-distance travel.
Learning and working partially from home, and the desire to avoid large crowds mean that we may see a rise in short-distance travel, as many of us would travel largely to meet basic needs – such as buying groceries, sending children to school or running personal errands.
Several cities including Berlin and Seattle have seen an increase in biking and use of micromobility devices following COVID-19. These modes have been viewed as safer and accessible alternatives to shared public transport.
Cities are also rapidly expanding their infrastructure including carving bike lanes out of existing vehicular roads.
Apart from being more environmentally sustainable, research has shown that using active modes such as walking and cycling are associated with better physical and mental wellbeing.
We should review the guidelines governing the use of micromobility in Singapore. Much has changed considerably since PMDs were banned from footpaths in November 2019.
The use of micromobility devices is currently only permitted on certain roads and pathways in Singapore.
While electric bicycles are allowed on roads, cycling paths and park connectors, motorised PMDs are confined to cycling paths and park connectors. Both are not allowed on footpaths for pedestrian safety.
Our existing 460km cycling path network is being expanded to about 1,300km but it will take up to 2030 for it to be a viable network for everyday travel in addition to recreational use.
Working towards integrating more micromobility modes into our system is also in line with Singapore’s longstanding vision to be car-lite.
RETHINK OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH CARS
Singapore is becoming car-lite since 2014 through a three-pronged strategy.
First, by improving and expanding public transport systems. Second, by providing alternative modes of transport. Third, by managing the private vehicle population and its usage.
Policies such as expanding the ERP, revising vehicle growth rate to neutral, phasing out internal combustion engines, increasing the capacity of the MRT and bus systems, and expanding cycling infrastructure nudge us to rethink our relationship with cars.
Yet, despite these longstanding efforts, private vehicle ownership rates remain significant. There were 528,013 (54 per cent) private cars among the 973,101 registered vehicles in 2019.
More 12 per cent of land in Singapore is also taken up by 9,509 lane-km of roads in 2019.
Authorities are working towards their vision of a “45-minute city, 20-minute town” but the challenge lies in improving the already high share of public transport ridership.
Public transport clocked a daily average of 7.69 million trips ridership in 2019 with a peak hour mode share of more than 67 per cent, much higher than other cities.
Car ownership in Singapore meets more than the mobility needs, often signifying one’s relative affluence and social standing. Thus, the ambition and attitude towards car ownership pose a hurdle to becoming car-lite.
Nevertheless, there might be a burgeoning rethink of our relationship with cars among younger Singaporeans as they view private cars as depreciating liabilities and less environmentally sustainable than the plethora of alternative mobility options available today.
Because Singapore’s goal is to be car-lite, not car-free, it is worth reviewing how new cars can contribute towards achieving sustainable mobility. For instance, can we be more ambitious than phasing out internal combustion engines by 2040?
Perhaps, we can also revise the existing zero vehicle growth rate to aim for a smaller private vehicle population while speeding up the adoption of electric vehicles powered by renewable energy sources.
A FUTURE WITH MOBILITY INNOVATIONS
Two potentially revolutionary mobility innovations in this decade may speed us down that path: Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) and Autonomous Vehicles (AVs).
MaaS has been described as the “Netflix of urban transport” – by having one platform that integrates private and public modes of transport that is accessible on demand.
Early versions of MaaS include apps called MobilityX and Whim, both currently under development or trial in Singapore since 2019.
Both services are working towards integrating different taxi, ridesharing, public transport options in Singapore into one journey planning platform.
A future trip with MaaS might start with a short cycle on a shared bike to the MRT station to catch the MRT before taking a short ride-share to our final destination, all arranged and optimised using an app and at a single fare.
This provides an attractive, convenient alternative that is cheaper and possibly more sustainable than driving.
While driverless vehicles are still being developed, AV trials have been taking place in Singapore since 2015 and there are plans for trials in three neighbourhoods (Punggol, Tengah and Jurong Innovation District) in the early 2020s.
Electric AVs could be made available round the clock to provide on-demand services to improve first- and last-mile connectivity, areas currently underserved by public transport.
They can also replace bus services with low ridership, preventing a repeat of the recent debacle following the removal of the 700/700A bus service in Bukit Panjang. AVs in public transport would greatly nudge drivers to reconsider driving.
READ: Changes to Bukit Panjang bus services postponed to Aug 30, mitigation measures to be introduced: Chee Hong Tat
COVID-19 has brought about changes to how we travel and we should capitalise on this opportunity to pause and rethink our strategy for achieving Singapore’s car-lite and sustainable mobility vision.
And judging by the resilience and adaptability of the people in Singapore in this pandemic and their growing consciousness of doing their part for sustainability, we can afford to be bolder in our ambitions and actions.
Samuel Chng is an applied social psychologist and heads the Urban Psychology Lab at the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities at the Singapore University of Technology and Design.