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.
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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.