Minister for Transport Lui Tuck Yew has told Singaporeans that regular temporary closures of the metro system will be the new norm. Shutdowns will occur on weekends for maintenance and reconstruction.
As Singapore’s metro system ages, such work will become inescapable.
Lui has promised that careful planning will go into these planned shutdowns, yet something tells me they are going to go about it with tunnel vision (double entendre intended). They are likely to focus mainly on providing signs and bridging shuttle bus services to move passengers through the disrupted sections. Your typical Sunday outing will soon look like this:
You will get annoyed. Nobody likes to make a five-segment journey, even if you have been notified in advance.
The government will say that passenger load is lower during weekends and the inconvenience will thus not be too great. Firstly, I do not know whether they have seen how crowded the trains are, especially on Sunday evenings (packed till 11 p.m.) , and secondly, anytime mode-switching is required, there is going to be confusion (since not everyone will be fully informed) and path conflict as people rush to and from boarding points. The complex language landscape we have (Singapore largely operates on six or seven languages) will further confound the problem.
I am not going to say that temporary closures should not happen. Experience in other cities shows us they are essential. Nor am I saying that bridging services aren’t part of the solution: they certainly must be. However, I am cautioning against an over-reliance on bridging services because it is user-unfriendly, and will still not be able to cope with heavy passenger loads.
Yet I am pessimistic, because a more holistic solution is hard for the government to promote since it runs up against vested interests and the government’s own profit-driven ideology. This is explained below.
I argue that a more holistic solution is needed, but what is that?
Let me begin by describing the transport knowledge map in a typical person’s mind. It looks like the diagram below. He is aware of the route of his local feeder bus, and partly aware of the routes of the trunk services that pass through his locality – if one doesn’t, there will be family members who do.
When a metro disruption occurs, even if it is a planned one, huge parts of the city become hard to reach. This is especially when the guiding philosophy for bus route planning through the last few decades has been to avoid duplication of bus routes and MRT routes. In the diagram below, the pale blue parts of the train network are those that have become largely inaccessible once there is a shutdown, planned or otherwise.
It would be much less disruptive if in normal times, the typical Singaporean has, and has become familiar with, trunk bus routes that pass through his locality. Particularly useful would be to have bus routes that would take him to largely the same places that the metro goes to. In the diagram below, the lighter green represent the additional bus routes that give the commuter better choices.
The presence of bus alternatives in turn reduces the load on bridging shuttle buses at the points of disruption, creating spillover benefits for other commuters who have no choice but to use the MRT and its bridging services despite a shutdown.
The problem with this scenario is that our transport planners would immediately throw up their arms in horror, saying that the additional bus routes will sap profitability from the entire transport system. While the additional routes may prove useful during disruptions, in normal times, by duplicating (at least in part) the metro network, they will cannibalise each other.
This is where I think our obsession with profitability and the high utilisation it demands, works against us. Just as reliance on just-in-time manufacturing meant ripples of disruption to supply chains post-Sendai tsunami (March 2011) and post-Thai floods (second half 2011), so likewise, we need to put some value to built-in redundancy.
As an aside, let me also suggest that the most natural way to obtain such redundancy, yet balanced with reasonable attention to cost and profitability, would be to have different companies run bus and train services. Let the bus company judge how much to duplicate the train routes, and therefore compete for the same traffic. The worst outcome would be for the same company to run both the train and bus routes through the same corridor. The result will tend to be a determination to maintain high load levels on the train by cutting away bus services. This may increase the company’s profitability, but it also increases social vulnerability.
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Redundancy and parallel systems should not be seen as wasteful, but if provided for in moderation, is valuable insurance.
Speaking more generally, the need to take down the gods of high utilisation and profitability from our collective altar applies in many other areas too.
Various measures have indicated for example, that Singaporeans work among the longest hours (see for instance, this report by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics). This must surely have had deleterious effects on our social and family lives. Our low birthrate may be another unintended consequence. Certainly the low participation in charity endeavours and civil society (activities that give society much resilience and ballast — witness again the response of Japanese society post-tsunami) is related to our lack of free time.
The lack of fallback capacity goes beyond stressed-out family or starved-thin civil society. A similar history of putting all eggs in one basket — in the name of efficiency — is all too obvious in our politics. The argument that Singapore cannot afford two or three political parties rotating in power, or independent media setting its own agenda, because we need to put all “talent” into the same team to maximise economic growth, is just another way of praying to the same gods.
The government keeps reminding us that Singapore is a highly vulnerable place; our survival is always in peril. One crack in our carefully-constructed world and we will fall to pieces, they say. How much of that is of their own making, from worshipping before the feet of false gods?