Driving the car-lite transformation
For the Little Red Dot, size matters.
With a limited land area of just 719 square kilometres, Singapore treats land as a critical resource, and efforts to maximise the productivity of every square metre are constantly underway.
Nearly 12 percent of Singapore is covered by roads, rivalling the area set aside for housing.
Roads are the arteries and veins that convey the lifeblood of Singapore’s economy — including its people — to and from the heart of the city every day.
With Singapore’s burgeoning population set to hit 6.9 million people by 2030, the need to balance road transportation against other land functions is now more pressing than ever before in the aspiring Smart Nation.
To prevent the traffic congestion problems that plagued Singapore in the 1960s from recurring, urban planners must start thinking about making Singapore a ‘car-lite’ society, said Dr Hee Limin, Director of Research at Singapore’s Centre for Liveable Cities.
She was giving a keynote address on 19 July during the World Engineers Summit 2017.
“It’s very difficult for us to expand our road system, so there is a lot of compulsion to think of alternatives to the car-based culture we have today,” added Dr Hee.
Constraints often breed innovations, and creative solutions to manage the volume of cars on Singapore roads came in two waves.
The first wave was a policy decision to levy a charge on cars entering the central business district (CBD).
“In 1975, Singapore was one of the first cities in the world to introduce an area licensing scheme to control traffic into its city centre,” explained Dr Hee.
Gantries were manually operated, but as the total number of cars increased over the years, this eventually became untenable.
Hence, the second wave: the electronic road pricing (ERP) system, an engineering solution that substituted manpower with technology.
This consists of two parts: an in-vehicle unit into which car owners insert a stored value card, and electronic gantries that deduct funds from the card as cars pass under them.
“In 1998 we implemented the first ERP system which makes people pay a tax for driving on roads, thus pricing driving to reflect the real costs of private car usage,” said Dr Hee.
Still, the use of physical gantries means that the system becomes unwieldy as traffic conditions evolve.
In anticipation of this, a new system is already in the works.
“In 2020 there will be a new rollout of ERP 2.0, a satellite-based system that charges for the use of private cars in a more pervasive manner,” Dr Hee added.
A wireless and gantry-free system, ERP 2.0 allows road pricing to be adjusted dynamically to ease congestion.
Convenience and comfort are top considerations when people choose private cars over public transport.
The fundamental design of urban environments can therefore go a long way in shaping people’s commuting preferences.
“Our compact, transit-oriented new towns are arranged such that many amenities are within walking distance or a bus ride away,” said Dr Hee. Such urban planning decisions reduce the use of private cars within neighbourhoods.
However, when people travel beyond their neighbourhoods, private cars are still preferred because of the first-and-last-mile problem.
This refers to the hassle of getting from home to the nearest public transit network, and (after alighting) from the network to the final destination.
“In Singapore, we have hot and humid weather, interspersed with sudden thunderstorms,” Dr Hee lamented. Private cars will thus remain a more attractive option unless there are ample covered walkways and underground and overhead linkages, she added.
Another way to solve the first-and-last mile problem is to promote the use of personal mobility devices such as bicycles or scooters. Here, the government is working closely with businesses to create an ecosystem where the private car feels redundant.
“We need to foster collaborative partnerships between the public and private sectors so that people can benefit from seamless mobility,” said Dr Hee.
“Instead of telling people you can’t drive, it’s better to offer them incentives in the form of mobility options.”
Changes in external factors only go so far to motivate changes in behaviour.
For a sustained push towards a car-lite society, a paradigm shift in Singaporeans’ attitudes and mindsets towards private cars must occur.
“There is a need to promote the car-lite vision as a lifestyle,” urged Dr Hee. “If you send your kid to school every day in a car, your kid will get the idea that it’s impossible to go anywhere without one.”
Efforts are also being made to acquaint people with the idea of roads and streets as public spaces.
“We have introduced the concept of car-free Saturdays or Sundays in Orchard Road and the CBD. Can these become a more permanent feature?” Dr Hee asked.
Despite the challenges, Dr Hee is hopeful that the next generation of Singaporeans will buy into the idea of a car-lite society.
“Millennials no longer harbour thoughts of owning cars as much as people did in the past, and today with our technology-rich environment, we have many enterprise models that increasingly look at mobility as a business opportunity.”