Transport landscape reflects Singapore’s income gap and rightwing ideology

Why are the rates charged by Singapore’s Electronic Road Pricing scheme (ERP) so low? Why aren’t they three or four times higher? This was the intriguing question posed (but not fully answered) by Christopher Tan, the Straits Times’ motoring correspondent in his op-ed 30 April 2012 (Time to rethink COE system?).

It was a thought-provoking article with some interesting numbers. For example, he wrote:

Hong Kong has 59 cars per 1,000 residents – half of Singapore’s 117. Taipei has 250 cars per 1,000 residents, but the annual mileage of cars there is half that of those here. Ditto Tokyo.

New York is another example. The Big Apple is one of the wealthiest cities in the US, but its car ownership rate is among the lowest (230 per 1,000 residents).

These cities share a common denominator: a superior rail network and limited parking facilities. In the case of New York’s Manhattan, 60 per cent of work trips are made by public transport. In Hong Kong, the figure is 90 per cent.

I don’t know what the latest figure for Singapore is, but a few years ago, then-transport minister Raymond Lim said only 59 percent of trips to work in 2008 were made on public transport.

A transport survey in Singapore has shown that the public transport share has shrunk.

The survey of some 10,500 households revealed that despite efforts by the authorities to get more people on buses and trains, challenges still remain.

Singapore aims to boost the usage of public transport among its population to 70 per cent by 2020.

But the Household Interview Travel Survey on some 10,500 households revealed that the target is now harder to achieve.

The survey found that 59 per cent of respondents used public transport last year, down from 63 per cent in 2004.

During the same period, the number of daily public transport journeys went up by 16 per cent as Singapore’s population grew.

The number of car journeys increased by 31 per cent as the car population also grew.

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) explained that this behaviour could be due to a lack of major infrastructural improvements in public transport during that period.

– Channel NewsAsia, 26 October 2009, Drop in public transport share in Singapore: transport survey, by Hetty Musfirah Abdul Khamid. Link.

So, it seems that in Singapore, car ownership is still high relative to Hong Kong, which is also a city-state (though lower than in cities with hinterlands, such as Taipei, Tokyo and New York), but car use is higher than in Taipei and even in New York.

We are not supposed to be in this situation. Our auction system for Certificates of Entitlement (COE), pieces of paper that entitle holders to buy cars, and our ERP road pricing scheme that charges for use of roads have been touted as brilliant innovations to control car population and road congestion, whilst applying market principles.

Yet, the facts suggest they are not working, with vehicle ownership twice the level in Hong Kong despite COE prices rising to cross $90,000 and car use remaining high despite ERP.

“Back in 2007,” reported Benson Ang in the New Paper (24 April 2012), “the premium for an open COE, which can be used to buy any vehicle type, went only as high as $19,500.”

In his report, he quoted the general manager of Tan Chong Motors, Ron Lim, as saying COE prices will likely breach the $100,000 mark “probably before August this year, maybe as early as late June.”

Yet, people are still bidding for COEs and buying cars. Despite ERP, people are still driving — and more so than in other comparable cities.

Meanwhile, the lesser half of Singaporeans on public transport complain about congestion, long waiting times, unreliability and poor network connectivity.

Why are our car population and car use not much lower than in those other cities? This was the question Christopher Tan posed. He explained:

None of them has a quota system, or even high taxes on cars. They rely instead on letting the motorist bear the brunt of driving: jams and the frustration of not being able to find parking.

– Straits Times, 30 April 2012, Time to rethink COE system? by Christopher Tan

There is another way to formulate the above statement:  The financial costs imposed in Singapore on vehicle ownership and use are not equivalent to the cost from being stuck in traffic jams and lack of parking spaces. Our costs are too low. That is why the deterrent effect is much weaker in Singapore than in those cities.

Some readers may find the above statement hard to absorb. COEs at $90,000 are too cheap?  The answer may well be Yes from the fact that there is still healthy demand. This only shows how well-off certain sections of our population are.

As for ERP rates, aren’t they pegged to the levels necessary to alleviate congestion? If they are too low, why don’t we see much worse congestion? A moment’s reflection will indicate the answer: The ERP is not the only tool for alleviating congestion. Congestion is also being alleviated by road-building or road-widening. With expanding road capacity, the ERP rates do not have to reflect fully the cost of using roads. That’s why it can be argued that they are too low. The public dollars spent on road-building act as subsidies to ERP.

But expanding road capacity has deleterious effects on the environment and habitats , both for wildlife and humans. The proposal to run a highway through the Bukit Brown green lung comes to mind. And everywhere in Singapore, families find themselves living in flats that overlook roaring expressways. Has anybody tried to measure the toll on our sanity and quality of life?

It is another symptom of our rich-poor divide. Incomes for the upper end have risen to levels where $90,000 COEs are no deterrent. Meanwhile, public resources are expended to build and widen more roads, thus cushioning the needed rises in ERP rates for those who drive.

The less well-off pay the price to support the rich.

* * * * *

Meanwhile, even the Land Transport Authority has admitted that public transport has seen under-investment in the period leading up to 2009 – see the last sentence in the Channel NewsAsia report quoted above.

Indeed, unless public transport becomes nearly as practical and convenient as driving, pushing up the cost of driving (as I am implicitly suggesting above) will only create greater public frustration. In this respect, urban planners should be applying the measure of travel time. It is no use saying there’s a feeder bus route that takes you to a metro station, that joins to you another metro line, that connects with another bus for the final leg of the journey. When drawn on a map, it looks fine, but when you have to wait 20 minutes for a bus at either end, and the metro line loops seven extra kilometres to where you want to go, your public transport journey may take 110 minutes when a driver gets there in 18.

Take a look at this map of Clementi town (click to enlarge, if you wish). I have drawn a 400-metre radius around Clementi metro station – which is about a reasonable walking distance in our hot, humid weather. You will see that most apartment blocks lie outside the 400-metre circle. So, a great majority of Clementi residents have no easy access to the metro except via a feeder bus that takes 15 – 20 minutes to arrive at your local bus stop and then goes on a round-about route to the station.

Undeniably, mass rapid transit systems are costly and have long lead times in construction. While Clementi town could eventually do with three more metro stations (south, east and north of the present one), in the meantime bus feeder services can be much improved. The service quality standard should be a bus every 5 minutes at ALL times, not just at peak hour.

The government will throw up its hands in horror and say we can’t afford this. Then, a little later, throw a billion or so dollars at the problem and brag, oh what a caring government we are! But you’d notice it doesn’t equally announce how caring they are about the car-owning class when new expressways and road tunnels are built, or more neighbourhood roads widened, causing noise levels to go up.

Public transport commuters also complain perennially about congestion. And the government will say there’s a limit to what can be done to increase capacity within the bounds of affordability. The bus and metro companies cannot be expected to make losses on their bottom line, it says. It will insist that it is a bad idea to subsidise public transport on a continuing basis, even as ERP rates are subsidised on a continuing basis (as pointed out above).

If the hoi-polloi want a comfortable ride, then they must pay more. Bus and train fares may have to rise 50 percent. And the rhetorical question will be asked:  Do you want to pay more?

But affordability is a relative measure, not an absolute one. Affordable to what income levels? If average Joe earns twice as much as he is earning now, then yes, he is able to pay 50 percent more for public transport. He is able to buy a better quality of life.

Ultimately, the question of transport reduces to a question of income gap and the privileging of the better-off. We see average Joe being asked to suffer his travel time and congestion – and road widening – while public priorities aim to keep life comfortable and affordable for those who drive. COE prices rise to $90,000 and there is still healthy demand, which says a lot about our income gap. ERP rates are kept below the levels needed for their real effectiveness at congestion-control, with the slack taken up by more road-building at public expense, a sign of privileging.

43 Responses to “Transport landscape reflects Singapore’s income gap and rightwing ideology”

  1. 1 Jerry 1 May 2012 at 15:40

    Similarly in education and housing. In the former, the GEP selection test ensures that the best are sifted out of neigbourhood schools to enjoy better facilities in gifted schools – the system looking after the best to ensure they get better!

    In housing, singles are disadvantaged for not being able to buy new subsidised flats because of our government’s pro-family policy – not that I’m against such a policy. But it sucks when when one group is disadvantaged for no wrongs of theirs for the good of the other group.

  2. 2 stngiam 1 May 2012 at 15:51

    Christopher Tan is a classic example of the journalistic equivalent of regulatory capture. Instead of writing about the motor transport industry, he now _represents_ the motor transport industry, who obviously just want to sell more cars.

    Putting that aside, though, you are correct that the govt’s policy responses to our transport problems have been at least partly driven by ideology and growing income inequality. Unlike in KL or Bangkok where the rich have to share the pain of inadequate infrastructure by getting stuck in the same traffic jams as the commoners, in Singapore, the meritorious have bought their way out, though COE and ERP. There is no commonality of interests between the elites and the rest because the two groups literally do not even share the same roads ! For the rich, there is no transport problem so why would anyone expect the govt to do anything different ?

  3. 3 octopi 1 May 2012 at 17:00

    The car regulations are lopsided. COEs are too high. The ERP is too low. Ideally, we want people to own cars but not use them – unless it’s for vital stuff like sending old folks to hospitals, buying groceries, stuff like that.

    Fact is that – over the lifetime of a COE, we pay more in car taxes and COE rather than ERP. This is wrong. People should be paying through their noses for ERP.

    Ironically there is a very interesting piece of human psychology at play here. Charging somebody $20 to use a car for a day, every time he uses it inflicts more psychological pain than getting him to pay tens of thousands for a COE, even though the dollar amount is the same. This might explain the bias towards a COE. But this raises a very interesting question: the point of taxing for private transport is to inflict pain, not alleviate it.

    Unfortunately with public transport being in the state that it is in now, it is difficult for the government to put the squeeze on vehicle ownership.

    The other dimension of the problem is that our urban layout is too similar to American suburbia. The hub and spoke model of transport in Singapore has worsened our public transport system (as you’ve mentioned in an earlier article). Our city planning should be more like Geylang, where every place is within walking distance of a main road, and public transport is very convenient, instead of Clementi, where you have plenty of cul-de-sacs and your only access to the outside world is to wait for a feeder bus which never comes.

    • 4 twasher 2 May 2012 at 01:40

      I’m in complete agreement with octopi. From an economic point of view, owning a car doesn’t have negative externalities. If it sits in your privately owned parking space, the public isn’t paying for it. Driving a car does. The public is paying for the pollution it generates and the space (public roads) it uses.

      Lots of people who own cars then use it to travel even very short distances or routes that are well served by public transport, because they reason that having paid so much for the car, they should use as much of it as they can. This is deleterious for society. Higher usage fees and lower ownership fees can address this issue.

    • 5 incrediblyvexed 3 May 2012 at 02:11

      I agree as well, transportation is not the only reason for buying a car. Some buy cars as a way to show status and others buy cars because of interest or passion. The high ownership/cheap usage model means that once you have bought a car, it makes more financial sense to drive it rather than leave it at home and take the train. If this was reversed, everybody could own a car to satisfy their material needs but on a day to day basis, people would take public transport because it made more financial sense. if I recall correctly, this was what was promised when the ERP system was introduced but I guess someone lost track of this somehow and due to the current COE prices, the ownership/usage cost ratio has never been higher. In fact, our antiquated road tax system also does not penalise for usage, it penalises for the capacity of the engine which has no bearing on how much road resource a car consumes annually. Furthermore, there are no programs for people who may wish to own a car for occassional use, car collectors, motorsports enthusiasts etc. This actually incentivises these groups to use their car on a regular basis because more than 90% of the cost has already been paid to own the car, what’s an additional few percent to drive it?

      However, argue as much as we want, I do not see a day where the government will actually listen to such suggestions. It seems clear to me that they are content to sit in their walled garden and make policy in a vacuum, devoid of intelligent input from the public. In fact, the only input they seem to be taking into consideration is the rumbling of the seething masses asking for more pay, lower home prices and less foreigners. If I’d wanted a government that made policy based on populist sentiment, I could have voted for the WP.

  4. 6 aaaadia 1 May 2012 at 18:16

    Not enough support for feeder transport compared to other cities. The one that makes you lazy is often the journey to the MRT station. Make cycling or other mode easy so that people don’t need to wait for the feeder bus if they want to. This kind of pilot has been done in so many cities before. But then again the willingness to cycle may not be there

  5. 7 JasonWee 1 May 2012 at 18:27

    Thanks for writing this. Transport infrastructure is an aspect of urban design I am interested in.

    I agree that the costs of driving has to be adjusted, with one qualification. Yes, the costs of driving has to be adjusted upwards in order to direct services and design towards other transportation users, which have historically been de-prioritize. The consequence of prioritizing private car transportation over other forms of transportation have been profoundly deleterious to our city. Current transportation design, as you have rightly pointed out, is quite willing to speed driving experience up by minutes through costly yet needless construction projects (see Fort Canning Tunnel) or through the wholesale relocation of significant public (and poorer) estates (see upcoming Rochor Centre project).

    Prioritizing private car transportation isn’t forwarding thinking transport planning at all, especially when other means of public transport have proven to be both affordable to the state as well as more economically and environmentally sustainable. Take pedestrian movement. New York City for example has rapidly increased the square footage of pedestrian-only retail neighbourhoods. Once thought to be the death-knell of the retail economy (traditional thinking dictates that consumers will flee if there is no swift roads as well as available parking), these areas have turned out to be more profitable than ever, through creative public and street programming. I am thinking of Times Square, as well as parts of the Lower East Side.

    Bike access schemes and bike transport networks should also be considered, and these have proven to be useful in a number of other cities. exemplary bike access and design need not be be a city-center privilege, as it is in these cities. Encouraging road sharing, designing bike lanes, providing sheltered bike paths, lockers and parking in public housing estates can be one of the ways to feed transport users to the rail networks. Road design should also be re-thought, because in Singapore sustained private usage, widened and speedier roads have not correspondingly lead to better road safety. Perhaps it is time to be counterintuitive and re-consider old transportation thinking. Perhaps it is time to consider traffic islands, intentionally slower streets, and to give bikers and pedestrians greater access and priority to the design of roadways.

    Back to the costs of driving. The COE system can be reformed without giving it up completely. There is definitely a need for change. According to data released by Land Transport Authority and the Registry of Vehicles, car population grew faster in the past twenty years than in the twenty years before that (see Chris Tan’s article ST 30 April 2012).

    Category A can be further sub-divided into at least two categories for example. COEs could also be updated to reflect the ways in which luxury car makers are making smaller cars faster. Car ownership can be priced not just by number of cars per capita, but also by number of cars per household. Taxi COEs can be subsidized if the subsidies have direct impact on lowering the costs of taxi driving (thereby encouraging more taxi drivers to take to the roads more often) and on meter rates.

    Which leads me to ways to improve our taxi systems, which is another important component of public transport, especially considering that we have fewer safe and available after-hours transportation options. Our rail system do not run 24-hours, and neither do most of our buses. Here’s my one qualification. My concern with Chris Tan’s proposal of eliminating COEs completely and increasing gantry prices by as much as four times is that this would be a way of transferring the costs of transportation from private car owners to public transport providers (taxis and buses), which will in turn drive up meter and ticket prices. When this happens, it will function as a kind of regressive tax on a basic and essential service. With all the current talk about increasing productivity to the masses, let’s not forget that improving transportation is one way of doing that (by eliminating hours lost to traffic and travel).

    • 8 kermit 1 May 2012 at 21:25

      when fixed cost of owning car is high (eg. $90,000 coe) driving more is only logical to amortize sunk money. $20/litre petrol tax solves the problem much better and accounts more truly for environmental damage

  6. 9 random 1 May 2012 at 21:15

    To simply ramp up bus frequency is not an ideal answer. Higher frequency without a justified passenger load will give ammunition for SBS and SMRT to raise fares in light of ‘higher operating costs’.

    Moreover, higher bus frequencies cannot solve the problem of ‘bus bunching’ – buses getting delayed due to a bottleneck in traffic thus causing them to ‘bunch’ together at a chokepoint. This is the reason why commuters sometimes wait extremely long for a bus, only to have 2-3 come in rapid succession.

    My take on what should be done:

    - The development of a system that disseminates accurate and real-time info on bus movements and arrival times. Such a system will greatly eliminate the anxiety of waiting and not knowing when the bus will arrive. This also allows commuters to make better use of their time (e.g leaving the house earlier/later or planning alternative routes based on bus arrival information). The system MUST be updated in real-time and user friendly, or else it would be practically of no value to the commuters.

    • 10 octopi 1 May 2012 at 23:58

      The bus bunching problem cannot be solved as long as traffic is heavy. When traffic is light, then it can only be solved by forcing all the drivers to drive at the same speed, which is not easy to do.

      The system that disseminates real time info on bus movements is already in place. All you have to do is to find it and use it.

      • 11 ok 2 May 2012 at 13:12

        The free Android app that I use covers only SBS buses, it does not include trans island bus information.

      • 12 yawningbread 2 May 2012 at 13:47

        Nor do I think telling you when the bus comes totally substitutes for the bus coming. Is it a good enough equivalent for a system to tell you that the bus will come in 25 minutes, compared to the bus actually coming in 5? Is it satisfactory enough if we have a system that tells us the metro has broken down and will restart in 3 hours, compared to the metro not breaking down?

      • 13 octopi 2 May 2012 at 17:25

        Obviously not. But at least we should acknowledge that fixing those problems are really expensive, involve a massive upgrade in infrastructure, rather than just telling the bus drivers to adopt better practices. And trying to change the behaviour of our bus drivers is difficult enough!

  7. 14 recruit ong 1 May 2012 at 21:43

    About human psychology at play, I like to add that paying $20 a day to use the car is hard cash out of the pocket. Whereas a $90k COE is covered by loan. The loan allows the later to feel a lot less painful… lol

  8. 15 Sgcynic 1 May 2012 at 22:24

    Cap the number of parking lots, at least in the HDB estates. Tax (charge ownership costs) the parking lots and impose punitive fines for illegal parking. Remove COE on cars. Without a parking lot, one cannot own a car without illegal parking and paying summons. Prices of private condominiums will probably see a corresponding increase in prices in view of the ‘free’ parking. Those who aspire private homes should pay market rates for them.

  9. 16 NC 1 May 2012 at 22:39

    This is a rather expansive post covering many subtopics – COE, ERP, car parking arrangement, under-investment in public transport, over-investment/government subsidies on road building (which by the way I do not agree as I view the extensive network of roads as an important public good that benefits all citizens directly and indirectly), all related to the land transport system in Singapore.

    My comment however is on something far more fundamental but only obliquely discussed in the post (the hub and spoke model) – the failure in urban planning.

    Any person who is currently working in downtown (Raffles, City Hall, Marina, Tanjong Pagar) will testify to the large increase of working population in these areas in the last few years, and that more buildings seem to be sprouting up by the day. While the government has been paying lip service to decentralization, it has in effect been doubling down on increasing the density of central/downtown area.

    The planners clearly understand the importance of decentralization: see URA’s website, which shows a few regional centers and even has the correct idea “URA adopted a long-term strategy to decentralise commercial activities to commercial centers outside the city. Distributing commercial activities throughout the island and bringing jobs closer to homes would reduce travel into the city, in turn reducing both peak-hour congestion as well as vehicular emissions. Decentralisation would also offer businesses alternative and more affordable business locations.” But one would struggle to find a major financial institution (other than back office functions) outside of the CBD area. And it is understandable for financial institutions to locate itself in the CBD with their peers, while paying rental through the nose, as it simply has no viable alternative (an international bank in Woodlands? You are joking me). I am using Finance as an example as it has been one of the fastest growing industries in Singapore that clearly has capacity problem and could benefit enormously from successful decentralization planning.

    We do not need regional centers. Simply, we need a new CBD.

    Unfortunately a look at the public transport map shows the planners intent clearly – all major existing or upcoming train lines criss-crossing the CBD. With the imminent Singapore Port relocation proposal we can confirm that the urban planners will not be changing their minds anytime soon, and Singapore will continue to have congestion problems.

    This will perhaps provide ample material for future debate but a tweak here on COE bidding and a band-aid there on taxi-booking system would surely be overwhelmed by such a fundamental design flaw in the long run.

  10. 17 shawn 2 May 2012 at 00:13

    excellent article. there is some truth in what you said i.e the rich-poor divide, that the rich will find means to drive to work anyway, and that the poor suffer since the public transportation system is not adequate enough to handle the population.

    my experiences from travelling to bangkok and to london are apposite. in bangkok, there are plenty of jams, because there are so many parking lots in each building and, coupled with bad public transport [the taxis and tuk-tuks don't count], it means that people would naturally want to drive. in london, however, the scarcity of parking lots and the convenience of the metro [not to mention buses that travel 24hours for some routes] means that people take public transport most of the time. when i was in london, i didn’t feel that it was a chore taking public transport since it was really very convenient. you could go to anywhere via a variety of train routes, etc.

    frankly speaking, i would continue to drive in singapore unless the congestion’s so bad that it forces me to switch to public transport. if not, i would simply seek the alternative hangouts that are freer from congestion in order to avoid the same.

    • 18 Nick 2 May 2012 at 04:28

      I don’t think it is right to say that London’s public transport system is excellent. While I do admit that multiple routes are available for travelling from point A to point B, I cannot stress how often trains and train lines break down – yes, far more than Singapore does these days. Congestion in trains during peak hours are far worse than those in SG today still. As for buses, bus services in London can and do have a propensity to terminate even before reaching their destination. I remember once having to run to my exam because the bus driver simply stopped driving at a particular point.

      I don’t mean to say that Londoners don’t prefer public transport over private transport. Just simply that London isn’t the best example to use for a good public transportation system. I think the key is to make public transport desirable by virtue of the fact that it is good, and not solely because driving sucks (as you’ve pointed out in the Bangkok example).

  11. 19 TW 2 May 2012 at 00:37

    Wait for it – we’ll hear something about not taxing the job creators etc. We have to make sure these rich buggers get to their office as cheaply as possible to make more jobs or they might just laze around in their bungalows.

  12. 20 slippery slope 2 May 2012 at 00:44

    Please write more concisely and shorter articles, it would help you avoid such far-fetched linkages. Anyway the one good reason Singaporeans like our cars so much is, as you mentioned, the humid weather. The demand elasticity for cars is pretty low.

    • 21 Poker Player 2 May 2012 at 11:13

      “Please write more concisely and shorter articles”

      Emperor Joseph II:
      My dear young man, don’t take it too hard. Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.

      Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?

  13. 22 anon 2 May 2012 at 01:54

    The govt is caught between the devil and the deep blue see and it is entirely of its own doing. There is no planning foresight for mass transportation.

    The highly paid civil servants very typically solve problems only after they have arisen. No foresight, no initiative, no preemption policy, just plain old ‘solving problem only AFTER it has emerged’. And very often, the problems arise precisely because of this deliberate reluctance to forecast or act ahead of what can actually be seen in the horizon.

    The Civil Servants ‘love’ their jobs so much that they would ensure that this dependency on them of the part of the govt and the public continues to the end of time. Like a dog chasing after its own tail. This happens across the board whether it be the LTA, HDB, police, MRT, you name it. Planning is always shortsighted – preferring to be led by issues after they come to pass.

    The govt is prepared to allow this as long as the CS continue to come up with ‘clever’ ‘solutions’ that fatten its coffers at the expence of the public, hence, the continual rocketing upwards of HDB ‘affordable’ housing and the stratospheric COE and the proliferation of ERP gantries and completely arbitrary upping of entry prices.

    The govt continues to do this because it is treating the people as a captive population with few choices and alternatives to turn to.

  14. 23 cgy 2 May 2012 at 04:29

    sorry if my question is somewhat off the mark, but haven’t you kind of left out the middle classes in this analysis?

    How high would be sufficiently high to deter the rich? If it’s too high we’ll just end up hurting the middle class car owners (it’s possible to own an inexpensive car, with a lower COE), and if it’s neither here nor there there won’t be sufficient deterrence anyway.

    • 24 yawningbread 2 May 2012 at 10:44

      You assume that “middle classes” should be owning and driving cars. I don’t.

      • 25 dZus (@dzus77) 2 May 2012 at 12:31

        I disagree. Personally, I don’t have children or old and frail parents and a maid in tow. But it is not hard to imagine how a car is essential to a family nucleus with such composition (which are quite a number of middle-class families). Yes, it is a luxury, but the alternative for these families is transport hell (in view of the public transport system now)

      • 26 yawningbread 2 May 2012 at 13:51

        > (in view of the public transport system now)

        But I am not talking about the public transport system now. I would want Singaporeans to reimagine a better world. Your argument is that the present world is flawed so allow me to be selfish within it. If your starting point is that the present flaws are here to stay and will never change, then there’s really no discussion to be had. We’re talking at cross purposes.

      • 27 Poker Player 2 May 2012 at 14:04

        “But it is not hard to imagine how a car is essential to a family nucleus with such composition (which are quite a number of middle-class families). ”

        Is there something special about the needs of the middle class? Compared to say “working” class people?

      • 28 octopi 2 May 2012 at 17:54

        I’ve already made the point that I believe that the “middle classes” should be owning cars and not driving them – this is a situation which exists in midtown Manhattan, that I more or less agree with.

        Since Yawningbread mentioned imagining a better world, it reminds me that there are people out there who are looking at that right now. A friend of mine was telling me about these bunch of guys. There is not much harm in reaching out to talk to them.

        The usual caveats apply:
        1. it is very likely that you will be talking to foreign talent.

        2. you probably need a very good technical education to be joining their team.

        3. just because somebody is “looking at the problem”, it doesn’t mean that it will be solved. What I do know about the way that the bureaucracy in Singapore does things is that they enjoy getting a lot of talented scientists to look at the problem, and then they will ignore their findings totally because it is “unrealistic”. Our civil servants enjoy protecting their turf so much that it is often difficult for different parts of the bureaucracy to co-operate. The truth behind a lot of Singapore’s problems is not that the government doesn’t care, but because they don’t know how to get together to solve big problems.

        4. this discussion about “imagining a better world” is unlikely to be carried out in public, or an internet forum.

        These transport problems are big problems which require dedicated people to put in great amounts of time and effort to solve. People should not merely be interested in talking about it on an internet forum, but should writing to these people about their concerns. Remember: don’t ask what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country!

    • 29 CY 4 May 2012 at 15:54

      Singapore is too small to cater to everyone’s aspirations to own a car.

      Coupled with improvements in train and bus services, improve the availabilty of taxi services such that it is able to meet demand (getting a cab today can be a pain).

      Sick kid? Elderly parent? Call a cab. Owning car is not necessary.

  15. 30 Anonymous 2 May 2012 at 09:01

    Hopefully we can look to other means of transport. E.g. Making it for bicycle friendly.

  16. 31 lobo76 2 May 2012 at 09:12

    There is one more problem not mentioned in the article. That the COEs apply equally to other category types. Yes, even public transport is linked to COEs. (A brief check shows the COE for March 2009 for the Goods Vehicle & Bus category is about $5k. The corresponding value in April 2012 is about $50k. A 10-fold increase in just 3 years).

    Now, I get that COE limits the car population and should be high, but why are BUSES similarly affected? They should be cheap so that bus operators (include private ones) can buy more buses and serve more people, so that people do not want to use their cars.

    So now, actually, everything is increasing in price (costs), including public transport. Generating revenue for the govt WITHOUT solving anything.

  17. 32 Chanel 2 May 2012 at 11:25

    Former transport minister Raymond Lim introduced the “Hub and Spoke” system of public transport several years ago. This idea was copied from commercial airline services and stupidly applied to road transportation here. The result is that bus service routes don’t duplicate metro lines. It was promoted by the govt as being “efficient”, but the real objective is to maximise profits for the public transport operators.

    Therefore, today, commuters have very little option but to take a bus shuttle to a metro station and then take the train to complete his journey. This is very time consuming and leave commuters stranded when metro service breaks down.

    In Hong Kong, the bus and mini-bus services duplicate metro service. Thus, commuters can easily take one of the 3 services to most destinations. IN Tokyo, the subway duplicates the JR service (surface trains) in many places. It is common to find a JR station within a few hundred metres of a subway station.

    S’pore govt has great inertia in changing the “Hub & Spoke” system because the public transport operators are GLCs. These GLCs provide high-paying jobs for cronies of the men in white. In short, nothign is going to change. The current COI being conducted on the major MRT breakdowns is a just an expensive public relations exercise (aka wayang).

  18. 33 Dennis 2 May 2012 at 11:38

    just a question on the definition of “public transport”. Does the public transport statistics cited in the article (both overseas and S’pore) include “taxis” which I suppose in Singapore’s context is considered public transport all along?

  19. 34 Chow 2 May 2012 at 11:42

    I would like to point out a possibly different perspective after looking at the data available from LTA (link at the end of text).

    Let’s first take 2000 as our base year. We note that at that point in time, it’s been 11 years since the COE was implemented (if I got my facts right). Another milestone is 2010 where the COE was changed from the quota system to the bidding system. Now let’s look at the data.

    From years 2000 to 2011, the total number of cars went from ~400,000 to ~600,000. A jump of 50%. This seems at odd with the target ‘car inflation rate’ of 1.5% p.a by LTA. The graph (sorry, but charts can’t be inserted in a comment but I’ll be glad to share it) shows an increasing rate of number of cars on the road between the period 2004 to 2007/8, after which it increases at a decreasing rate. The percentage change from year-to-year shows wilder swings with the percentage growth dropping to -0.2% at one point and peaking at 10.5% in 2007 thereafter dropping as sharply as it rose over the period 2003 to 2007.

    Let us now look into the demographics of the cars on the roads. Concerning the ‘modal age’ of cars on the road. In general in 1998 10.5% of cars were 5 to 6 years old (I abbreviate this format to Year:pct:age-group), {2000:14.8:<2}, {2001:16.6:<3}, {2002:16.6:1to2},{2003:20:<1}, {2004:23.2:<2}, {2005:24.9:<3}, {2006:24.7:<4}, {2007:22.7:1to2}, {2008:21.2:2to3}, {2009:20.1:3to4}, {2010:19.4:4to5}, and {2011:19.1:5to6}.

    If we did a population pyramid type of comparison we note that in 2000, the population pyramid concerning the demographics of the cars on the roads we note that it's very much like a developing/developed nation type of demographics where it's pretty much evenly spread over the range of 'cars less than one year' all the way to 'cars between 9 to 10 years'. By 20005 this has shifted to a predominance of cars less than a year old being seen on the roads (so the base of the pyramid gets heavier). By 2009 this starts changing and the modal age of cars is 3 to 4 years (i.e the pyramid gets broader in the middle age groups) and by 2011, it starts getting top heavy with more cars being in the 5 to 6 years old. It may be due to the financial crisis but I think the crisis only deepened the trend of using a car longer than one initially planned (it is a very expensive habit at any rate!).

    I would argue from the data that the overall rate of new cars hitting the roads seems to be on the downward trend. What we see is primarily the bulk of cars from the 2004 to 2007 period- where a whopping 100,000 cars entered the system- which are now 6+ years old and, at the end of their 10-year COE validity, will be taken off the roads thereby easing road congestion due to cars. I am inclined to think that going by the trends in the data, the number of cars on the roads should ease/decline in around 4 years from now. So perhaps the excessive price of COE does have it's use in deterring people from buying cars. (see below for sample figures)

    Of course the point is also about equity and efficiency, in the sense of whether or not car ownership is based on need rather than purchasing power or whether private cars are being 'subsidized'. I don't have answers to that, but I will hope that with the building of the new DOwntown Line 3 (?) and the possibility of road congestion easing in 4 years or so, they will implement more public transport options that does not meander all over the neighbourhood and thereby get us to where we want to faster and more efficiently.

    *In order not to clutter the text, here are sample figures of the percentage decrease in number of cars, from the previous year, by age:
    <1 year old in 2000: 109.5 (%change from 1998)
    <1 y.o in 2001: 15.7% (%change from previous year)
    <1 y.o in 2002: -6.3% (ditto)
    <1 y.o in 2003: 28.5%
    <1 y.o in 2004: 16%
    <1 y.o in 2005: 16%
    <1 y.o in 2006: 6.9%
    <1 y.o in 2007: -28.1%
    <1 y.o in 2008: 15.5%
    <1 y.o in 2009: -29.1%
    <1 y.o in 2010: -39.3
    <1 y.o in 2011: -33.3

  20. 35 gadogado 2 May 2012 at 19:53

    I agree ERP rates are too low, but I disagree that expanding road capacity is a privilege to the rich. The latter point is too myopic a view.

    Private cars are not the only vehicles on the road.
    We also want to reduce congestion so that other vehicles like ambulances, fire engines, police cars, goods-carrying vehicles and private buses can also move smoothly without gridlock. There is a real cost to society if congestion prevents such other vehicles from moving.
    Only buses benefit from bus lanes, and not every road has bus lanes.

  21. 36 Elaine 2 May 2012 at 21:37

    I’m rather disappointed that you dwell entirely on private cars, as if they are the only road users and that car owner=filthy rich person. On any given week day, at least half the road users are commercial vehicles of various types. Smooth roads for them aren’t merely a convenience for one individual sitting in aircon comfort to the disadvantage of everyone else. By all means, dissuade pte car usage, but not at the expense of businesses that need to transport goods and people.

    The problem with using COE to curb usage is that it doesn’t; as the govt has said before too, they should up ERPs so that people can own cars but are more judicious in their use of them. Once we have the satellite tracking system in every car that charges for every single journey, then it will reduce the number of single driver trips and encourage more efficient use of space on the roads, i.e. when the whole family is going out. Then technically, everyone can own a car. Just imagine, if every trip to the supermarket costs $8 (not so different fm taking a taxi two-ways), drivers would plan their trips more carefully and consider perhaps more taking the bus for small purchases. It would indeed be as if everyone were their own taxi.

  22. 37 Francis 2 May 2012 at 22:43

    Thanks for the insightful article. I believe a comprehensive bike share scheme (Public Bicycle) like Paris or central London can help to tip the favor towards train and bus. In Paris, 10% of regular Velib users (bike share program) previously drove a car.
    According to LTA statistic, average door-to-door for car is 25 minutes, while the same for public transport (train & bus) is ~50 minutes. When public transport take twice as long as car driving, it is easy to see the attractiveness of private car.
    Another piece of statistic shown that from any MRT station, within a radius of 4-500m (10 minutes walking distance) 70% of people takes MRT. Which is illustrated in the map of this article ( For those living within this radius, the incentive to drive is low, because their door-to-door trip by train is similar to car. But beyond this “circle of capture zone” people have to spend twice as long (waiting for bus connection) therefore the motivation to drive is high. Bicycle can extend this 400 meter to 1.6 km, because cycling is 4 times as fast as walking. The entire map area will be within 10 minutes from Clementi MRT if you ride a bicycle. Bike-share will make bicycle available to everyone, without the worry of bike theft or maintenance. This means everyone have a practical option to shorten the time of their door-to-door (public transport) trips by half. This applies to both poor and rich.

  23. 38 malcolm tham 2 May 2012 at 23:38

    We can examine the car situation in Singapore from the demand and supply perspective. We should look at the number of people who own more than 1 car and more than 2 cars. Demand can be artificially jacked up by those who are fans of cars. The COE system should be adjusted to cater to those who really need them and those who don’t.

  24. 39 Anonymous 3 May 2012 at 00:15

    Rocketing COE level is partially caused by record low interest, 10 years loan tenure and quantum of up to 100% of car price.

    Imagine property prices if the quantum is 100%. If the government is genuinely concerned about COE level, MAS would have stepped in long ago.

  25. 40 Gabriel 3 May 2012 at 00:31

    I think we can all agree that the COE system is not allocating resources based on need, but based on ability to pay. This is very capitalistic of the govt and in a sense distorts the market. Left to the status quo, we can expect that by 2020, all cars on SG roads will be luxury marques driven by owners who can afford the $250k COE.

    We need a system to allocate resources based on need, not the ability to pay. A middle class family with 3 kids needs a car more than a bohemian mid-life crisis balding single man needs a sports car. A family with a disabled or elderly member needs an affordable serviceable vehicle.

    I would suggest that the COE categories be classified by Open Market Value (OMV). For cars with an OMV of say over $40,000 (This will include most Mercedes and better cars) shall be Category Gold. The number of COE per month will be… 5. Or some other more realistic but small numbers. This will allow the rich to bid up the price to $1m if they like.

    The next Category Silver will be for cheaper cars (OMV of $20k – $40k, and finally Category Bronze will be for really cheap cars (OMV below $20k).

    There should be lower quota (say 10% of available COE) for the Gold Category, with more for the Silver and Bronze categories (say total of 60%)

    Category Green will be for vehicles that meet fuel efficiency standards or are powered by alternative energy.

    The above will NOT magically convert the COE scheme from a market-based to a needs-based system, but it should lower the COE premium for lower value vehicles which will make it more affordable for those who need vehicles – people who need private transport for the nature of their work, families with very young children, elderly, or disabled members. Meanwhile those who need expensive marques to compensate for their shortcomings, can shell out $100k+ COE in competition with other men trying to over-compensate for their shortcomings.

  26. 41 Atheist 4 May 2012 at 00:30

    Thanks yawning bread, for writing this article. Another point I want to make is that the numerous highways, overpasses, tunnels and 4 lane fast moving roads makes most of Singapore very unfriendly to pedestrians and street life. Instead of expanding road capacity, just stop right now, let the roads become congested and slow moving and rich or poor will all take the train or better still, work and play nearer home. I see that many HDB dwellers who live near MRT still wanting to fork out tens of thousands to own a car. It’s true, it is far too convenient for the car owner and that is really the wrong policy and it makes Singapore so ugly with more and more highways. Bring back the narrow streets teeming with pedestrians, street life, and fewer vehicles zooming along at 80km per hour. right now, it’s so convenient that car owners are driving across the country just to have dinner. In the end, is our multi billion dollar road infrastructure really that important or is it mainly so that rich car owners can zoom here and there to satisfy their little whims.
    Instead of spending on roads and expressways, spend more on public transportation, to plant trees so that the walk to the MRT or bus stop is cool and shady etc.

    • 42 Francis 7 May 2012 at 16:42

      Atheist, agree with you 100%. As an example of this unfair investment in road infrastructure (mainly benefit private car drivers) : the 20km NSE (North South Exp) cost 8 billion to built, that’s is the total sum of 10 years COE from all the private cars. If car owner really PAY for the roads they use in Singapore, then they should all squeeze into this 20km of NSE, To be fair to all tax payers, open the rest of the roads for everyone – pedestrians and cyclists, elderly and children. Because these roads have to be paid by all Singaporeans in one way or another through tax.

  27. 43 WinkingDoll 8 May 2012 at 14:32

    When it comes to investment and government on a tight budget, there are other creative ways to generate the funds needed.

    City of Richmond, B.C., Canada, has a novel idea on how to generate funds needed for additional rail station.

    Quote from the above webpage: “One revolutionary way to create density will see condo developers pay for the Capstan Station, which wasn’t funded when the original Canada Line map was drawn.”

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For an update of the case against me, please see AGC versus me, the 2013 round.




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