Monday, May 31, 2010

Density without tears: Singapore's Transportation Secrets

Density. Sprawl. Car-dependence as a result of car use's gradual reshaping of our cities. The unintended consequences of a no-policy transport and land use policy can be catastrophic for many, in many ways. And once the damage has been done(see the map of last week's piece contrasting two cities of the same population size: Atlanta and Barcelona)it is not easy task to get the toothpaste back into the tube. But let's get to that another day. Today let's listen to Christopher Tan on Singapore's no tears transport policy.


Singapore's Transportation Secrets: Density without gridlock

- By Christopher Tan, The Singapore Straits Times

More vehicles, more trips, more people -- but gridlock remain a rarity. What gives?

Singapore is a city on the move. Literally. Furiously. In cars. In buses. On rail lines. At rates of expansion that would make most transport executives blanch.

Workers celebrate the final tunnel breakthrough for Singapore's Circle Line, a 33km orbital MRT line slated for completion in 2011

More and more people are moving - all the time. Three decades ago, they made 2.7 million daily trips. Now it's more than 11 million - in cars, buses and trains. Yet Singapore has little of the congestion that almost paralyzes so many cities around the world.

What's the secret? It's simple. Early planning. Timely action. Massive investment across many modes of transport.

Density without gridlock

Not that Singapore's situation is simple. This sovereign state is just 710 square kilometers -- a bit bigger than New York City. It has 5 million people -- more than double its population 30 years ago. Now, close to 1 million vehicles (of which 40,000 are from across the Malaysian border) zip around in a network of well-paved roads spanning 3,400 kilometers.

And in contrast to neighboring cities such as Jakarta, Bangkok, and Kuala Lumpur - and indeed, farther flung examples such as London, Paris and Los Angeles -- gridlock is a rarity in Singapore.

This is despite growing car ownership. Back in 1981, there were 163,355 passenger cars here. Today, there are 570,000. Yet Singapore's average car speed on arterial (main) roads during peak hours is 27 kmh (17 miles per hour), compared to as low as 16 kmh in London, 11 kmh in Tokyo and 5 kmh in Jakarta.

Clues to the formula

So, how has Singapore managed this seemingly text book success story on urban mobility?

Mr. Lew Yii Der, group director for policy and planning of the country's Land Transport Authority (LTA), says the the recipe "boils down to two important ingredients: a convenient and well-connected public transport network, and an effective set of demand management measures to regulate traffic flow and keep road congestion in check."

As a relatively young nation (gaining independence in 1965), Singapore's bureaucracy of scholars and technocrats had the advantage of learning from older, more established cities. Urban planning soon became the government's forte, and transport infrastructure a cornerstone of development.

Expanding on a blueprint drawn by the country's British colonial masters, policy makers began to build new roads -- lots of them. Starting in the early 1970s, Singapore opened the first of what today is a network of nine expressways crisscrossing the island, including such technological marvels as a 12-km long, largely underground expressway opened two years ago, and an upcoming (in 2013) link that not only goes underground but undersea.

But like all other modern cities, roads are rarely sufficient to move the masses. Singapore opened its first rail transit line -- 6 kilometers, five stations - in 1987. Today, the rail network spans over 150 km (94 miles), with 106 stations serving four mass rapid transit lines (one partially opened) and three light rail transit lines.

Major added investment -- $40 billion in Singapore dollars (U.S. $28.4 billion) -- is committed to expanding rail lines to 280 km by 2020.

With this ambitious expansion, the current balance in Singapore's average daily trips of 11 million (6 million by private transport, 3 million by bus and 2 million by rail) is likely to shift significantly toward public transit (even with some additional roads).


LTA Rail Group Director Mr. Chua Chong Kheng recalls: "Since the first steps were taken... on Oct 22, 1983, the government has invested heavily to ensure that the rail network form the backbone of an efficient public transport system."

Key ingredient: congestion pricing

Policymakers recognized early, in fact, that that a country as small and dense as Singapore cannot rely solely on road expansion. Demand for road space must be held in check. And the best way to do that, they discovered, are user charges.

Literally decades ahead of European cities, Singapore in 1975 instituted an "Area Licensing System" featuring stiff fees for any car entering downtown Singapore during business hours. In 1998, this congestion pricing system went high-tech with an electronic road-pricing system that requires any vehicle in Singapore (as well as those coming in from Malaysia) be fitted with a stored-value card reader.

As a car passes any of the city's 69 gantries (electronic checkpoints), the card reader charges a fee, which varies significantly depending on time of day. For someone driving into the city during the morning rush hour, tolls across multiple gantries often add up to S$10 a day.

Following Singapore's lead, congestion pricing for traffic-clogged cities has since been adopted by London, Oslo, Stockholm, and Milan. Mayor Michael Bloomberg also proposed the idea in New York City, but was overruled by the New York State Legislature.

Also key: paying for the right to use a vehicle

Singapore in 1990 inaugurated a second method for keeping auto use in check. Anyone who wants to buy a vehicle must first secure a "Certificate of Entitlement," valid for 10 years. Certificates are auctioned off twice a month.

The price today hovers around S$20,000 in Singapore dollars, but it has been as high as S$110,000. On top of that, Singapore motorists pay 44 cents in duty for every liter of fuel they use (roughly $1.75 a gallon in the U.S.).

Pulling it off

But how has Singapore managed to implement controversial policies such as congestion pricing and the expensive auto "certificates of entitlement" when several other cities have tried launching similar systems but failed?

A unified local government with strong leadership has surely been a major factor.

But there have also been persuasive politics. The LTA, for example, softened the blow of the auto certificates of entitlement by lowering car registration taxes which had previously been a stunning 200 percent of the value of new vehicle. And trains and buses have relieved the crush on the roads -- "an effective public transport system that is a viable alternative" to driving, in the words of LTA Director of Road Operations Dr. Chin Kian Keong (who was also one of the authors of the road pricing system).

Observers do not disagree that the public transport system is on the whole effective. But they point out that commuter complaints about packed trains and long bus arrivals have grown louder in recent years, largely because of Singapore's population growth.

Not only that, road traffic has grown noticeably heavier in the past five years.


The city has initiated a slew of responses, including higher driving charges, more frequent train service, more bus lanes -- plus the S$50 billion worth of rail and road projects scheduled for completion by 2020.

Transport Minister Raymond Lim has an ambitious goal: to increase the percentage of public transit trips during morning rush hours from 59 percent in 2008 to 70 percent in the next 10 years. To do this, he acknowledges that public transport has to be as convenient and nearly as speedy as driving.

Analysts applaud the efforts, but some say more needs to be done immediately. Transport researcher Dr. Lee Der Horng, an associate at the National University of Singapore, says: "I am concerned by the peak-hour capacity on our public transport system, and the increased congestion levels on our roads."

Member of Parliament Lim Wee Kiak, who also heads a policy-monitoring committee, believes Singapore may face a serious transport crunch if not more is done between now and 2020. "We have an acute problem now that needs fast solutions in the short and medium term," he notes.

Despite the complaints, a Gallup world poll of 20 cities in 2008 found that Singaporeans were the most satisfied with their public transport system. Whether they will still be so in the next few years remains to be seen.

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Expert Viewpoints

Thomas Downs
Chairman, North American Board of Veolia Transportation. Former president/CEO of the Eno Transportation Foundation, CEO of Amtrak, and New Jersey Commissioner of Transportation.

Thomas Downs There is a strong story here. Singapore shows the advantages of long term comprehensive planning. Transportation infrastructure demands such a long term horizon, something that much of the developed world ignores, and much of the developing world feels it cannot afford.

Singapore also has shown the value of using road pricing and access management to fund capitol investments. It pays off by linking the real price of mobility to the future needs of the entire system. While the author does not mention the obvious gains in environmental outcomes for Singapore, by meeting significant population growth with a balanced transportation system, it is meeting its carbon reduction targets and promoting its own energy independence.

The limits of the Singapore story is the relative simplicity of the political processes in Singapore. It is it's own city, state, and nation all rolled into one. Most of the failures in the cities mentioned are not planning or vision failures. They are political failures. Complex governmental structures -- competing local jurisdictions -- are the primary cause of the gridlock that transportation faces globally. Local and state issues of who is taxed and who gets the money are the real challenge in making the Singapore model a workable one.

We can learn a lot from Singapore about how long range planning benefits a region. Perhaps we can use their experience to spur us on to overcome the political stagnation that has kept us from solving these problems, because Singapore has shown us that they can be solved.

Peter Newman
Professor of Sustainability at Curtin University in Perth, Australia; author of Cities as Sustainable Ecosystems: Principles and Practices

Peter Newman 
In the 1980's I was involved in an intense debate about whether Toronto was the next urban paradigm for developed cities because it had decided not to build freeways but to put its money into urban rail. I was challenged by a freeway supporter in an article Toronto: Paradigm Lost. I replied in an article Toronto: Paradigm Regained that history will show by how many other cities will follow this paradigm. Today it is obviously working as the gloss of urban freeways has worn off and urban rail is resurgent everywhere. 



Nowhere is this more obvious than in Singapore which has in particular become a paradigm for how to build a sustainable city in the high density Asian tradition -- which is over half the world. As Christopher Tan says it demonstrates the obvious value in early planning and timely action, especially in urban rail investment. 

Having just spent a month in Singapore I share Christopher's concern about the growing problem of traffic however.

And I would like to correct a few statistics as this is our game and the new data from Jeff Kenworthy is just completed on Singapore. 

Singapore has an average speed of its traffic of 31 kph in 2005 (down from 35 in 1995) which is better (just) than London at 30 kph, and quite a bit better than Tokyo 24 kph and Jakarta 24 kph. Its public transport is significantly better than any American or Australian city but is only around the average European city.

Singapore's boardings per capita dropped between 1995 and 2005 from 408 to 353 whilst European cities on average went up from 380 to 447. 

Why did public transport drop in Singapore? Train boardings went up 16% but bus boardings went down 25% as service levels were reduced by 11%. This appears to have happened because the bus services are not subsidised, nor is the MRT but it is much faster than the traffic (42 kph) so is being extended to many new lines as demand outstrips supply. Because the road congestion system is so effective at keeping traffic moving (especially at peak times when it costs so much more) then many people have moved to cars rather than wait for buses (which average just 19 kph). In the evenings we were taking an MRT train which came every 6 minutes but the linking bus was often an 18 minute wait so we would take a taxi. 

Perhaps it is time for Singapore to join the rest of the world and subsidise its buses to enable a better service level otherwise it may struggle to retain its status as the paradigm of the Asian sustainable city.

Julie Wagner
Julie Wagner, based in Switzerland, is the Trans Atlantic Fellow for the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program. She previously serviced as deputy planning director for long-range planning in Washington, D.C.

Julie Wagner When American and European urban policy makers turn to Asia for insightful learning, the intent is not to learn anything "sustainable." For Americans, Europe is often cited for its innovative approaches in both transport (such as congestion pricing and high speed rail) and land use (such as restoring urban cores and preserving its historic fabric). For Europeans, the U.S. is commonly referenced for its public/private partnerships in transport, local financing tools, and the role of philanthropic-minded city builders.

The conventional wisdom about "Asia" is that it's a region with hyper-growth at hyper-speed. What we see are cities such as Shanghai growing from 300 skyscrapers in 1996 to over 3000 in 2006 and embracing our addiction to cars. Yet as this article shares, Singapore offers sustainable, Asian-based policy and planning lessons for Europe and the U.S. to weigh.

In studying the transportation strategies in cities such as London and Milano, Singapore clearly takes us a step further to advance sustainable transport goals. In fact, it could be argued that Singapore demonstrates how a society functions when social policy objectives take a back seat to environmental ones. The name "Certificate of Entitlement" couldn't be more fitting as it clearly delineates drivers on the road by income. On the other hand, even with the adoption of congestion pricing, some European cities are still choked in traffic. While an entitlement approach would almost impossible to enact politically anywhere else, the Singapore approach is a stark reminder that additional hard-hitting policies are necessary if cities are to have a more even spread across their transportation modes.

Rich Varos
Varos is Director of Intelligent Transportation Solutions for IBM.

For the first time in history, digital and physical infrastructures are converging. Tiny sensors can be deployed in everything from roadways and livestock to even natural systems such as rivers and bays. Advanced analytics can turn the mountains of data supplied by those sensors into actionable intelligence.

As such, we need to stop focusing on pieces of the problem by simply adding a new bridge, widening a road, establishing commuter lanes or encouraging car-pooling.

While all of these traditional methods are still critical, we need to look at relationships across the entire system. By infusing intelligence into the entire system -- our streets, bridges, intersections, signals and tolls -- we can improve our commutes, give better information to city planners, increase our productivity and raise our quality of life.

You're wondering, how does this work? Data collected from cameras and sensors can be linked to databases that track information on speed, traffic volume, incidents, weather or emissions. This information can be analyzed and leveraged to produce new capabilities impossible only a few years ago such as predictive traffic modeling, congestion charging and real-time monitoring.

In Stockholm, a dynamic toll system based on the flow of vehicles into and out of the city has reduced traffic by 20 percent, decreased wait time by 25 percent and cut emissions by more than 10 percent.

City planners in Kyoto, Japan, simulate large-scale traffic situations involving millions of vehicles to analyze urban impact. The system can optimize traffic lights to reduce jams and predict the effect that a new shopping mall or traffic regulation will have on a community's roads.

In Singapore, real-time data from sensors embedded in the roadway, combined with existing probes like GPS systems in taxis and public transportation, are helping to predict traffic flows 15, 30 and 45 minutes ahead of time with greater than 90 percent accuracy.

If we move beyond the old way of doing things and prepare our transportation network for the 21st century, we will improve our quality of life and lay the groundwork for a new era of economic growth.

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About the author:

Christopher Tan is a senior correspondent with The Straits Times newspaper in Singapore, and prepared this article for our colleagues at CitiStates. Thanks to Christopher and CitiStates for permission. (Photographs courtesy of Land Transport Authority.)


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