SINGAPORE: This low-income family did not renovate their flat when they moved in. Neither do they go on holidays. But there is one sacrifice the Hans are unwilling to make: Give up their car for public transport.
So on an income of about S$3,000, which is the average income of the bottom 20 per cent of working households, they spend up to S$500 every month on car expenses like petrol. And they are not alone.
Some 16 per cent of these households own at least one car. Among the top 20 per cent, meanwhile, who earned an average of S$25,000 a month last year, 61 per cent owned at least one car.
Singapore may be one of the world’s most expensive places to buy a car, but to many Singaporeans, the costs involved are not reason enough to forego owning one.
The Hans, for example, felt that they had no other option but to buy a second-hand Fiat, for which they paid up front last year.
As Mdm Joanne Marie Sim explained on the Mediacorp series Talking Point, “It’s quite (difficult) trying to travel with two young children on public transport.” (Watch the episode here.)
With the nearest MRT station about a 10-minute walk from her home, she added: “If I want to go to the MRT station, I have to either walk in the sun or squeeze onto a bus.”
CONVENIENCE OVER COST
The Hans are not the only ones to have also factored distance into the decision to drive.
According to the Land Transport Authority’s Household Interview Travel Survey, 71 per cent of those living within 400 metres of a station would primarily use public transport to commute.
This is compared with 67 per cent of those living 800m from a station, which is a 10-minute walk, and 55 per cent of those living more than two kilometres away.
So whether a person – rich or not – sees owning a car as a necessity depends on one thing, noted economist Walter Theseira from the Singapore University of Social Sciences. He said:
You’ll buy a car if you feel your transport needs aren’t that well met by public transport. The reason that people buy cars (is) to basically save time.
Amid the push to make Singapore a car-lite city, he finds it ironic that the control of car ownership here makes life with a set of wheels “much more convenient” instead.
In some cities, because there is no such policy, “the roads are very congested, so if you take a car, you’re going to spend a lot of time sitting in traffic”.
“But in Singapore, traffic is actually pretty light because there aren’t that many cars on the road for our population,” he added. “You can travel on the expressway during rush hour … at speeds of around 40 to 60 km/h.”
EFFECT OF ZERO CAR GROWTH
The latest move in the Government’s master plan, however, may make the price of convenience even costlier.
From February, the car and motorcycle growth rate will be cut to zero, it was announced last month. This means there will be no new cars on the roads unless older ones are deregistered.
Mr Ben Lau, who has been a car dealer for 24 years, thinks this will cause Certificate of Entitlement (COE) prices to rise, conservatively, by 15 to 20 per cent.
Already, the COE price for small cars is S$46,791, with a regular 1.6 litre Toyota Corolla Altis, for example, setting buyers back S$108,988.
If there are Singaporeans who should forego owning a car, Mr Lau thinks one group should be retirees, as “most of the time, the things that (they) do aren’t time sensitive (and) don’t contribute to an income”.
The car consultant added:
The other category of people who I feel shouldn’t drive are those who, most of the time, are driving alone or just with (their) girlfriend or boyfriend.
“They don’t fetch anybody, their car is empty half the time and they only use it to work and back.”
ARE DRIVERLESS CARS A SOLUTION?
For attitudes to change, however, solutions are needed, and one in the works is driverless vehicles.
Singapore opened its first autonomous vehicle test centre last week, and from 2022, self-driving buses and shuttles will be plying the roads in Punggol, Tengah and the Jurong Innovation District.
Mr Doug Parker, the chief operating officer of self-driving car company nuTonomy, believes that the advantages of driverless cars, such as in terms of safety and cost-effectiveness, will help Singaporeans to give up their cars.
He reckons, for example, that autonomous cars will cost “at least 50 per cent less than a traditional taxi”.
As for convenience, he said: “They’re so good at distributing themselves (that) we think the wait time will be about half of what it is for traditional taxis.
"Our models go about from an eight-minute wait time to a four-minute wait time, which to me is less time than it takes to get my kids out of the garage or park my car at the destination."
According to nuTonomy’s research, there would be less congestion should everyone embrace autonomous cars – even if there were people riding alone in these cars. Mr Parker said:
It’ll reduce the number of cars on the road by about 70 per cent. If (we) go further and were to do carpooling in autonomous cars, we can reduce it by 80 to 90 per cent.
“It can … also allow for Singapore to keep growing without adding more roads, without adding more cars.”
PUBLIC TRANSPORT A KEY FACTOR
A car-lite society will need more than a future with smarter options, however. It also requires a better transport system commuters can rely on to work effectively – a point people have made to Government Parliamentary Committee (Transport) member Zaqy Mohamad.
And he agrees. Pointing to the infrastructure build-up taking place, the Member of Parliament (Chua Chu Kang) also thinks this will help in the long term.
“We’re building more train lines … to solve some of these redundancies in the train system. So that will provide more options for commuters to take public transport, (and) increase the volume of trains,” he said.
By 2030, eight in 10 homes will be within a 10-minute walk from an MRT station. But this means a number of Singaporeans would still not opt for public transport.
One of Mdm Sim’s main beef about public buses used to be that prams had to be folded before boarding, which was “impossible” with two children. Since April, open prams have been allowed, an improvement she acknowledges.
When asked, however, if there was anything that would make the family give up their car, the answer was an emphatic no.
Watch this episode of Talking Point here. New episodes air on Mediacorp Channel 5 every Thursday, 9.30pm.