Forward urban planning not as good as vaunted?

The last few weeks have seen a running battle between commuters and Singapore’s main metro operator SMRT. Commuters have complained in the Straits Times’ Forum pages and online about trains so crowded during peak hours that one simply cannot board at all.

This easily feeds into the ever-present xenophobia among some sections of our population, with the more voluble ones blaming the rush hour crush on Singapore’s immigration policies.

That the trains are crowded is not in dispute. SMRT, in a letter published in the Straits Times on 3 July 2010 provided some numbers:

During peak periods at our busiest sectors, trains are already running at two to three minutes.

This is the highest frequency our network can maintain given the system’s design. At this frequency, train loads range from 1,200 to 1,450 passengers. This averages 3.8 passengers per sq m, lower than that of metros in major cities like London, Shanghai and Tokyo, where it is five to eight passengers per sq m.

At Choa Chu Kang, Bukit Batok, Bedok and Eunos stations, between 7.30am and 8am, train loads range from 850 to 1,350 passengers, which is within peak range.

— Letter from Bernadette Low, SMRT in Straits Times print Forum, 3 July 2010.

There’s no new observation I can bring to this issue, especially since I hardly ever go out during the morning peak and so have no reports of my own to offer. However, what I think commuters should note from this letter is the distinction between the operator (SMRT) and the builder of the rail network — the Land Transport Authority (LTA). What SMRT is saying is that the rail network is now running close to the design limit. Another paragraph in the letter talks of the LTA rushing up a project in Jurong East to ease a structural bottleneck:

In areas like Jurong East, where crowdedness is a problem due to constraints of the system’s design, the average train frequency is 3.5 minutes.

In view of this, the Land Transport Authority is undertaking infrastructural works at Jurong East station, including the construction of an additional station platform and railway track, to be completed next year.

— ibid.

If the trains are already running as frequently as the system allows, directing complaints at SMRT may not therefore be addressing the real “culprit”. For its part however, the LTA has remained mute.

* * * * *

In 2007, the government mooted the idea that Singapore’s population should eventually reach 6.5 million. Many people then thought this was crazy and that the island would be intolerably crowded. Readers might remember that I took a contrarian view. To me, urban space is not totally determined by geography, our built environment multiples land acreage many times over. That is to say, the state of art in building technology is the limiting factor, not land area, a view I still stand by. Whether at 6.5 million this city feels crowded or not depends on how we build; it is not a foregone conclusion that our living space will get smaller and smaller.  It is not a foregone conclusion that we will be packed like sardines in our trains and buses.

If we suffer from unacceptable crowding now, I should think it’s because our urban planners have not been doing their job well enough. That said, “well enough” is relative. To be fair, if you look at other cities, they have some gawd-awful problems too, and it’s not entirely fair to expect perfection of our urban planners when no other city’s has demonstrated the same.

But domestically, it is not hard to recall examples when our much-vaunted civil service totally failed to anticipate things reaching capacity limits. Off the top of my head, let me list a few:

1. In the 1990s, the waiting list for Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats stretched up to five years. Their building program was insufficient. It wasn’t as if Singapore’s population was then exploding; rather, it was a case of aspirations changing rapidly. Newly-married couples no longer wanted to stay with parents, household sizes were shrinking. The HDB was doing straight line projections for housing demand, failing to consider social changes.

2. In the mid-2000s, there were horror stories of critically-ill patients turned away from emergency departments of hospitals, especially Tan Tock Seng Hospital. Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan subsequently conceded that the hospital building program under his predecessor had been very tardy, resulting in wards and clinics bursting at their seams, even as Singapore’s population aged and demand for medical services increased rapidly.

3. More recently, Transport Minister Raymond Lim admitted that one reason why congestion on our roads has worsened considerably was because LTA miscalculated the growth in car numbers year after year.

I suspect that despite the propaganda about our superlative public transport system, the planners have been relatively slow in anticipating demand and building for it.

* * * * *

It may not look that way, considering how many holes we currently have in the ground as the Circle Line and Downtown Lines are being built. We’re always having to put up with traffic diversions and noise as construction proceeds.

But let me show you a schematic map of the rail services to the Marina Bay area, when completed in a few years’ time. This district is going to be the new financial centre. When the skyscrapers under construction are completed and occupied, the numbers of office workers commuting there every day will probably equal or even exceed the numbers in the existing financial centre of the Raffles Place and Shenton Way areas.

Two metro stations are being built — Downtown station and Bayfront station. The Downtown Line will serve both, while the Circle Line will serve Bayfront, connecting to Marina Bay station. Sounds sufficient, right?

Let me tell you this: The Circle Line is a 3-car line, unlike the 6-car lines of the East-west and North-south lines. And guess what? It appears that the Downtown Line, which will eventually serve Bukit Panjang, Bukit Timah, Bendemeer, Bedok Reservoir Road and Tampines — all high density suburbs — will also be a 3-car line. (I am not 100-percent sure, because I can’t find the specification on the LTA’s website, but instead saw it here.)

If it is correct, then I think the new financial district will be underserved. If the 6-car lines at Raffles Place and Tanjong Pagar are already jam-packed, what more the 3-car lines in the new downtown? Crowded trains today? I suspect we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

23 Responses to “Forward urban planning not as good as vaunted?”

  1. 1 Desmond 5 July 2010 at 16:58

    Mention about the 3 car circle line and a lot of people would say that LTA did a stupid thing. As you have stated very clearly (not saying that you said LTA did a stupid thing) that even with a 6 car line, it isn’t enough let alone a 3 car one.

    Let me be devil’s advocate, can it be possible that with the type of buildings on top and around the construction areas, it might be difficult (impossible?) to build a larger station to house a 6 car train? So if even 1 station can only house a 3 car train, then all stations on that line would have to follow suite.

    I might be wrong and if I am, then I’ll totally agree with everyone that LTA really made a very stupid decision.

    • 2 KiWeTO 8 July 2010 at 23:13

      Given the way London, Paris and other larger cities with much more historical ‘land ownership’ than Singapore have built up huge subway transports systems that run many more cars, and definitely move much more people in a day than SMRT/SBS, I’m sorry to say that yes, they made theirs work, and they had to negotiate much more with property holders then, compared to this Government and it’s administrative fiat approach to governance.

      Why don’t we just concede the fact that we haven’t exactly bought the best talent in the world towards public planning, despite having paid top-dollar for what was proclaimed top-talent?

      Afterall, what kind of logic is a knee-jerk reaction to wanting 6.5m from 4 without the prior planned infrastructural growth to support the increase?

      Or travel against the flow, or during off-peak (if it exists!) hours.


  2. 3 ST 5 July 2010 at 18:02

    Assuming these numbers are correct: “This averages 3.8 passengers per sq m, lower than that of metros in major cities like London, Shanghai and Tokyo, where it is five to eight passengers per sq m.”

    If you take a ride during the morning peak hours passing through Choa Chu Kang, Bukit Batok, Bedok and Eunos stations, it’s obvious that it’s NOT 3.8 passengers per sq m. I can assure you would be humping your fellow passengers.

    Perhaps the bus companies should reintroduce bus routes that were cancelled when train services were launched (in order not to canabalise each other on the same routes). These bus services would be helpful to those who have to board or alight in between MRT stations and would reduce the load on the trains

  3. 4 Chris 5 July 2010 at 19:05

    I agree with ST’s analysis above. When the MRT was smaller (very much smaller when I first visited Singapore in 1995), there were a large number of feeder bus routes along the way, and also a number of long-distance bus routes that brought people into downtown.

    Now that the MRT is vastly larger (and thank goodness for that–it’s changed the way people get around Singapore in some very good ways) many of the parallel and long-distance bus routes and some of the feeders have been cancelled in favour of the new lines. Thus, those who were taking the buses have gotten onto the MRT.

    In 1995, I never had a problem securing a seat, no matter what time I boarded or which line or station I used. In 2008 (my last visit) I had a good deal of difficulty securing a seat from Bishan (my base of operations). Now that there is a feeder into Bishan from the Circle Line, I’ll bet it’s even more difficult.

    The solution is not pretty. If the design constraint is one of signalling, then that can be dealt with, but it will take years, perhaps most of a decade, to upgrade it. Take London, where the Jubilee Line has a theoretical capacity of one train every 90 seconds. The signalling system that was supposed to enable that is still being tested and bugs shaken out of it, 11 years after the new portions of the line began being put into service. This has resulted in the Crackberry Express from Westminster to Canary Wharf, where every commuter who can is checking his/her email on the way to working at Canary Wharf, and most being constrained to stand. At Canary Wharf nearly everyone on the train departs. The way this situation was “dealt with” is by placing an extra carriage on each train about 5 years ago. This extra carriage was instantly full and no real alleviation of the situation happened.

    The design constraint of shorter trains, therefore, isn’t easily broken, especially where you have platform doors. Are there extra doors or space for them at either end of the Circle Line platforms? If so, then an additional carriage is probably planned at some point in the future. If not, then lengthening trains is not an option.

    Constructing more lines and axing more bus routes will not alleviate this problem. At all. If the government presents it as a solution to the problem, their transit planners should be challenged on it. The only practical solution is to re-establish some of the long-distance bus routes (perhaps marketing them as “luxury” buses to attract passengers) and make it more difficult to transfer from such buses to MRT lines so that the buses keep their passengers rather than decanting them directly into the trains. A feeder bus system that coordinates with the long-distance bus routes would establish a parallel system to the MRT that would relieve some of the pressure. Dedicated bus lanes on the highways would help as well. Making the buses “green” (some electric buses, some natural gas buses, some hybrids) would be a marketing plus as well.

    Transport planning needs to be “holistic” in order to succeed. So other measures could include: encouraging firms and government departments to relocate outside the central business district; encouraging firms to permit home working of staff where that is practical, at least part of the time; pricing bus passes lower than MRT passes for companies willing to encourage their workers to travel to work by bus rather than by train. All of these would be cheaper than upgrading the signalling system or lengthening the stations and trains.

    • 5 yawningbread 5 July 2010 at 22:44

      You wrote: Are there extra doors or space for them at either end of the Circle Line platforms?

      No. I’ve only been into a few of the Circle Line stations, but their platform lengths are exactly for three cars, not six.

  4. 6 quzy 5 July 2010 at 19:10

    Actually there’s nothing wrong with the plans. Look at the public info Concept Plan 2001. (click on image to download pdf map file).

    It’s based on the scnenario of a population of 5.5 mil. Today we’re 5.0 mil. Look at the rail lines and reclaimed land that are not yet implemented today. This island can take 5.5 mil (or more) if the planned infrastructure is fully implemented.

    The question is: who allowed and why did population to grow so fast, when infrastructure is not ready yet?

  5. 7 Charles 5 July 2010 at 19:36

    I think URA is to blame: ALL the traffic in Singapore goes toward a single point and that single point is not even central; that single point is encased in the south between river loops, so alternative routes are limited.

    Not enough by far is done to decentralise: I even suspect it is on purpose: beautiful expats Singapore on one side and few axes, locals’ quarters and manufacturing as far as possible from visitors.

  6. 8 Mat Alamak 5 July 2010 at 22:00

    “Crowded trains today? I suspect we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” – Yawning bread

    I agree with the above statement.

    I would add further to it.

    Expensive HDB flats today? I suspect we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

    High cost of living today? I suspect we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

    Too many foreign talents today? I suspect we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

    7% GST is high? I suspect we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

    The list goes on.

    Those who are not part of the ruling and elite (rich) classes, please be mentally prepared. Things will only worsen and you will have to use your own wits to survive.

  7. 9 yawningbread 5 July 2010 at 22:51

    Regarding the suggestion contained in more than one comment above, that we should be using more long-distance bus routes, there are two “structural” problems why even if it is a good idea, it will be hard to implement it:

    1. The train operating companies also run bus services. These companies aren’t eager to add costs (run extra bus services) while reducing traffic on the trains.

    [The solution should have been SMRT as sole train operator, but also running its own feeder buses to its train stations. SBS Transit should be a pure bus operator, running trunk routes, plus whatever feeder routes it needs to feed into its own trunk routes. Let them both compete for the passenger. And by the way, neither should run taxis.]

    2. Running more buses on roads will often mean reserving more bus lanes (otherwise there won’t be smooth flow for buses). The elite class will not stomach the idea of reducing lanes for their Mercedes Benz, BMWs and Lexus. So, no extra buses are likely.

    • 10 Chris 5 July 2010 at 23:44

      As the government lets the contracts for the bus and train services, it should threaten to let them to different companies to encourage the train operating company to put on more buses.

      As for the elite class being unhappy about more buses and bus lanes on the roads, well, as people abandon the MRT and the buses for cars, the roads will get more congested anyway.

      As the PAP knows, and has practiced in the past, government actions in various areas lead to social engineering changes. The government could drive those changes by changing the way transport is delivered in Singapore. Do they really really want people to blame the PAP for the congestion on the MRT and on the roads? I doubt that. So the government should be seen to do something to alleviate that congestion. My suggestions (only that, as I am not Singaporean and am not a transport planner) are some of the ways they can do that.

  8. 11 rem 5 July 2010 at 23:16

    i think the whole system reeks of an over centralized transport planning system in which the system is slow to adapt to market demands. bus services are arguably much more flexible but are still subject to LTA’s approval and planning. if we had a system similar to HK’s private mini bus system, this could quickly fill in the inadequacies of the existing public transport infrastructure. yet the system is probably maintained the way it is as the authorities have vested interests in the operators’ profitability since they r afterall indirectly linked to the government, though in name separate entities.

    • 12 Ponder Stibbons 5 July 2010 at 23:27

      It’s ironic that the rationale behind having privatized transport companies is that the ‘free market’ is the most efficient way to allocate resources, yet new bus services have to be approved by LTA.

  9. 13 Ponder Stibbons 5 July 2010 at 23:39

    I’m not sure what SMRT has been doing with regards to rush hour train frequencies since 2007, but back in 2008 it was pointed out that total car kilometres operated actually decreased between 2002 and 2007 despite sharp rises in number of passengers:
    So between 2002 and 2007, no plans were made to accommodate increases in passengers; in fact quite the opposite was done.

    Furthermore, although the crush during rush hours may be attributed to technical limitations, I had noticed that even on weekends, the trains would be really crowded. Not as crowded as during weekday rush hours, but crowded enough to be really uncomfortable. SMRT would run trains only at 5-7 minute frequencies, so that there would be hordes of passengers waiting by the time the trains arrived. Now, you might think that it’s just not efficient to run trains that are not crowded. But has anyone tried to find out to what extent the crowds and the long waiting times put people off public transport? I’m sure they are a contributing factor. I know that I was often deterred from going out on weekends because of the discomfort the travelling would involve. And if more people get fed up with public transport and opt for cars instead, that would contradict the government’s policy of encouraging use of public transport. It’s no use saying that theoretically it’s still possible to fit more people in — if that possibility is thought to be too uncomfortable, people will continue to stay away no matter how possible it is! If you really want greater use of public transport, you have to decrease the disparity in discomfort between private and public transport.

    • 14 KiWeTO 8 July 2010 at 23:19

      One vote, shifted to private transport (or off hours, off circuit travel).

      I had enough of being squeezed and being treated as a transport digit.

      Now I can’t read about goings-on in Ankh-Morpork when I travel around this island. 😉

      Costs and consequences.


  10. 15 rem 6 July 2010 at 00:01

    just wanna point out that only a portion of the marina area will be financial area. a large portion of it is actually the gardens by the bay currently under construction. reason being the land use demand for singapore was probably being grossly overestimated when the land was reclaimed – which sane government would reclaim land specially to build gardens on it?

  11. 16 Rat 6 July 2010 at 22:04

    Things aren’t that simple I guess. Take for example adding buses. Currently we already have huge issues with bus piling up at stops. How to add more buses when there is an endless stream of buses waiting to get to the bus stop. AMK area has streets serviced by almost 20 different bus lines. The system can’t cope and the authorities are unwilling to put the advantage back to buses. cars will hardly ever give way and add further to the problem.
    They only say that they want people to take public transport but at the same time value the quick bucks they make with private cars. Otherwise far more drastic measures would have been taken to make faster bus travel possible.

    The whole system is completely inadequate and poor planning stems mainly from the fact that government agencies seem to have a compete disconnect. And transport is only one small facet in this.

    I think meritocracy and the resulting scholars in key positions have led to a total decoupling of policy makers and reality.

    • 17 Shawn Lim 7 July 2010 at 21:14

      ‘The whole system is completely inadequate and poor planning stems mainly from the fact that government agencies seem to have a compete disconnect.’

      I totally agree with Rat on this. Remember the MRT graffiti scandal? And how the Law Minister wanted nothing to do with SMRT?

      That is a perfect example that government agencies are not working together.

  12. 18 Russell 7 July 2010 at 13:26

    How come nobody has pointed out that Circle Line does not (and is not likely to) go from Promenade to Bayfront. It has to head northwards to Esplanade – Bras Basah – Dhoby Ghaut.


  13. 19 yawningbread 7 July 2010 at 17:44

    Russell — currently, the Circle Line does go from Promenade to Dhoby Ghuat via Esplanade and Bras Basah, but a spur is planned to reach into Marina Bay. See this map at LTA website.

    You may have to magnify it to 100 percent to see clearly.

  14. 20 Ronald Lim 9 July 2010 at 12:16

    It seems that everyone has focussed excessively on what is wrong with the public transport system while ignoring the bigger contextual paradigm shift.

    Much of Singapore’s planning is based on the mid 20th Century modernist precept of division of zones, ideal cities as friction-free environments with smooth transport accessibility – and a large part of the urban thinking behind present-day Singapore was based on a 1963 UNDP report of 3 urban experts.

    The verdict then was that Singapore (inner city) would be congested if it only grew along traditional corridors to its periphery. (Queenstown, being relatively ulu in those days). Hence congestion would be alleviated if we had expressways linking new towns out in the suburbs into the city centre. (Which if you remember, in the 1980s, Singapore’s CBD was pretty lifeless at night).

    Most of us who have travelled to other cities would note that such a modernist ideal of separation of zones, planning, strict land-use, does not exist in such stark terms because they depend very much on a pedestrian city block. People walk as a means of transports along busy streets with retail life to their nearest metro or even to their workplace. If you lived at CLementi Ave 6, think of how many shops and fellow pedestrians you would walk past on your way to Clementi MRT. (answer = none, because of trees, because you have to take a bus to the MRT station)

    To give another analogy, metropolitan Paris within the peripherique is equivalent in area to Raffles Place extended out to Toa Payoh. (or not much further beyond) and it is humanly possible to walk through most of Paris in an entire day. My point is that as a result of decisions and choices made in the early days of Singapore’s physical development, the scale of Singapore’s planning and where most Singaporeans live, almost everyone who cannot afford a car needs to rely on public transportation (over long distances) to get to where they need to get to.

    The infrastructure for pedestrians is purely utilitarian – in terms of covered walkways, air-conditioned underpasses in the shopping district – is purely a means of accessing the main stations. As such, walking as a means of transport is not enabled. (Because we do not have tight streets and blocks lined with shops, sidewalk interactions, etc…that used to characterise our now sanitised five-foot-ways.) By contrast, for example, New Yorkers walk a lot… and many walk long distances. (arguing about our climate is a different matter)

    So in a sense, Singapore’s scale is such that it relies so much on either the expressway or the MRT (or the bus through very circuitous routes) to get from one place to another. When its population faces a sudden spurt in away that was not planned for, it becomes obvious that the entire transportation system comes under duress.

    While our climate is foreboding, I find that we rely too much on transportation itself as a way of life. That it is close to impossible (maybe except for those lucky few who live in Tiong Bahru, chinatown or Outram) to walk and easily access different places and amenities sans public transport. Nor is there any cycling infrastructure or dedicated (and shaded, since our weather needs it) cycling paths..

    We seem weirdly proud of our urbanism and ready to export our ‘solutions’ to places like Rwanda or China when really, without understanding the inherent humanism in cities in a more down to earth way. (read Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities) We have so much more to learn from other more human cities that are not only in Europe, but in more ‘backward’ places like Bogota in Colombia (which has an extensive network of cycling paths connected to transit) or Mexico City.

    • 21 twasher 9 July 2010 at 21:00

      Good point about urban planning. Yes, I’d noticed that Singapore was planned more like a collection of suburbs (in the American sense) than a city. Cities like NYC have short blocks and frequent intersections. These relieve monotony for pedestrians and allow for frequent road crossings (whereas on many roads in Singapore you have to walk a few hundred meters to find an overhead bridge crossing; the combined effort just to cross a road can be very offputting). Frequent intersections also means slower traffic which also enhances walkability.

      I think that climate is used too often as an excuse. NYC is having a scorching summer right now (39C temperatures lately), and winter is not nice either. There are only a few months of the year where one can definitively say that the weather in NYC is more suitable for walking.

      I’ve also read Jane Jacobs’ book. Singapore is the antithesis of everything she recommends. Sadly, I don’t see the government wanting to create the kind of vibrant neighborhoods she likes. A certain amount of disorder and bottom-up organicism is required for what she recommends, but our government wants to control everything. It’s much easier to exercise top-down control in faceless HDB estates than in the Greenwich Village she describes. In addition, Singaporeans get really impatient with anything that holds back ‘efficiency’. Expressways, large blocks, stopping pedestrians from getting in the way of cars, and so on are always going to seem more ‘efficient’, especially to the car-owning ruling class. (Cyclists are ‘inefficient’ too since they slow down traffic on the roads and endanger pedestrians on the sidewalks.)

  15. 22 Kevin 16 July 2010 at 02:28

    Actually the Circle Line was originally intended to be for 5 cars. Then the Asian economic crisis, and the system was downsized to 3 cars midway through the design process. I doubt if it was an LTA decision; probably higher up the food chain. So this wasn’t really the fault of the planners.

    But don’t get me wrong, i certainly would not call our planners visionary. They don’t dream and see what is the best we can achieve. They only look around the world to see what has been successful, then copy it.

    Look at the much vaunted 50 storey HDB building in Tg Pagar. 20 years ago the visionary architect Tay Kheng Soon told them to build 50 storeys, which was much higher than the then current 20 storeys, so that more parkland and green spaces would be left. But HDB did not pay much attention. Now they are boasting about the aforementioned Tg Pagar apts.

    I could go on and on….

  16. 23 PG 10 August 2010 at 15:18

    So much for the much publicised forward planning and urban design that is touted by the government . Only 45 years and its already a mess and not working , wait till you have real history say a few hundred years , I just can’t imagine.

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