SINGAPORE: A plan to reduce congestion at crowded choke-points on the rail network during peak periods by offering incentives to choose different transport options could succeed if people see genuine benefits in being flexible, analysts have said.
Their comments follow the Land Transport Authority’s (LTA) announcement on Thursday (May 9) of the new public transport incentive to be launched in the second half of 2019. Named Travel Smart Journeys (TSJ), it will be aimed at distributing peak hour demand more evenly by rewarding commuters along congested areas to consider alternative transport modes or routes.
READ: Train commuters to be given incentives for using other modes of public transport in congested areas: LTA
Dr Walter Theseira, transport economist at the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) said that this is part of LTA’s “fine-tuning” of its Travel Smart Programme to improve efficiency.
He added that for such a scheme to work, commuters would have to be “flexible in their travel demand”.
“Generally, public transport has a lot of uniform pricing. But this is not efficient, because of the peak capacity problem - most people want to travel at certain times of the day, and the investments required to provide enough capacity for all of them comfortably are incredibly expensive because those extra trains and buses will sit idle the rest of the time.
"So, differentiated pricing (off-peak lower fares, etc) is used to try and spread out demand so that the capacity investment can be more efficient. Of course, this cannot be carried out unless people are actually flexible in their travel demand. They won't be, if all employers require that all workers show up at the same time, for example,” explained Dr Theseira.
BE PREPARED TO WALK OR CYCLE
Meanwhile, his fellow transport analyst at SUSS, Dr Park Byung Joon, thinks that the LTA may not necessarily be encouraging the use of taxis or buses as alternate modes of transport, but could instead incentivise the public to consider walking, cycling or using Personal Mobility Devices (PMDs).
“The train network will still remain the backbone of (Singapore’s) public transport (network), but the buses are seen as complementary,” added Dr Park. “If I alight one stop earlier, I can still walk or use PMDs.”
LTA has said that more details on the TSJ will be announced at a later date, but added that it will replace the existing Travel Smart Rewards initiative, and will focus on being “more localised”. The TSJ will be implemented alongside the existing network-wide lower morning pre-peak fares scheme.
The latter allows commuters to get up to 50 cents off their fare when they tap in at any train station islandwide before 7.45am on weekdays, excluding public holidays.
Dr Park said that to the individual commuter, the discount “does not add up to much”.
“From the monetary incentive point of view, it is not that great. Singaporeans spend around S$170 a month just on trains. If I take a train from Tanah Merah to Clementi, I will have to spend more than S$2. I cannot even buy a drink from the hawker centre with the 50 cent discount,” he added.
However, to the train operators, shifting the crowds away during the peak period are of greater value. LTA said that was a 12 per cent increase in commuters travelling during the morning pre-peak period in 2018, significantly larger than overall ridership growth of two per cent.
“If they can reduce the load factor just by a little bit, it really improves the quality of ride experience. Any figure (in increasing pre-peak period travel) that hits two digit is a success,” said Dr Park.
PRACTICAL, BUT CHALLENGING TO TAKE ALTERNATIVE ROUTES AND MODES
Meanwhile, Dr Theseira said that having a system that rewards commuters to take alternative routes and modes of transport to bypass congested points “is more and more practical”, but “challenging” as Singapore’s rail network expands.
“For example, with the building of the Circle Line, passengers have a choice of going through the city centre or through the Circle Line if they are traveling, say, from the North to the West. So the choice they make could reduce congestion, if part of the line is overcrowded.
“Likewise, there may be cases where one service (e.g. bus) is overcrowded compared to a parallel service (MRT). However, targeting these specific choices with incentives could be challenging as the system relies on automatically identifying travel routes from tap-in and tap-out data, so on the MRT network, your route choice for a given trip is not detected automatically,” he said.
However, Dr Theseira noted it will be important for LTA to help commuters understand the trade-offs in the various transport routes and modes. One such solution would be to give accurate information on the expected travel time and type of congestion – though this should be a reward, he highlighted.
“I think they generally do a good job of planning, provided that they have the necessary lead time. The challenges we've faced in the last decade or so have come largely because the increase in demand from population and economic growth was faster than expected, and of course maintenance also was deferred for too long,” said Dr Theseira.
THE NEED TO IMPROVE QUALITY OF ACCESS
Dr Park added that while assisting the transport operators, such as SMRT, with their passenger needs, the authority should not lose sight of its key focus which is to build up Singapore’s rail infrastructure as the country pushes for a larger population.
He noted that at present, there are no lines being developed are announced for new direct lines that connect the Northern part of Singapore with the East and West areas.
“Commuters today are focused on the quality of access and ‘how quickly I can move from Point A to Point B. Not enough is being done to address this area,” said Dr Park.