Our mainstream media has a habit of trumpeting country or city rankings that show Singapore in good light. It’s part of their mission to publicise the supreme achievements of the People’s Action Party government.
This ranking below would not make the cut:
I showed this graph to a few persons, and saw some interesting reactions. Generally, they couldn’t guess whether the top or bottom of the list was “good”. If the bottom was “good”, then Singapore would be worse than London or New York City. But that cannot be, because haven’t we heard all our lives from our mainstream media that transport in London and New York City is hell? The Tube breaks down all the time. The New York subway is decrepit. London’s and New York’s streets are in perpetual gridlock.
On the other hand, if the top of the graph represents “good”, how can Singapore be worse than Nairobi or New Delhi. Impossible! Don’t we have good government?
These results are from the IBM global commuter pain survey, which ranks (by means of an index) “the emotional and economic toll of commuting in 20 international cities”.
The index is comprised of 10 issues: 1) commuting time, 2) time stuck in traffic, agreement that: 3) price of gas is already too high, 4) traffic has gotten worse, 5) start-stop traffic is a problem, 6) driving causes stress, 7) driving causes anger, 8) traffic affects work, 9) traffic so bad driving stopped, and 10) decided not to make trip due to traffic.
Although the title of the study contains the word “commuter”, it seems to be a survey of people who drive — although it doesn’t explicitly say so. The lower the index, the less pain commuters experience in that city. By this measure then, Singapore compares poorly with most of the developed cities — not something that our mainstream media would be keen to publicise.
Like it or not, what the results seem to suggest is that for all the boasts about forward planning and determined investment in widened roads, flyovers and tunnels, our government’s performance is only middling. For all the ruthlessness in implementing Electronic Road Pricing and auctions for Certificates of Entitlements, the daily commute is still more nightmarish here than in New York, Toronto or London.
For decades, we’ve been implicitly asked to sacrifice democracy for effective government and excellent delivery of public goods. And this is all we get?
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A recent study threw up an interesting finding. The shortage of taxis during heavy rainstorms was not only due to higher demand.
When [Oliver] Senn was first given his assignment to compare two months of weather satellite data with 830 million GPS records of 80 million taxi trips, he was a little disappointed. “Everyone in Singapore knows it’s impossible to get a taxi in a rainstorm,” says Senn, “so I expected the data to basically confirm that assumption.” As he sifted through the data related to a vast fleet of more than 16,000 taxicabs, a strange pattern emerged: it appeared that many taxis weren’t moving during rainstorms. In fact, the GPS records showed that when it rained (a frequent occurrence in this tropical island state), many drivers pulled over and didn’t pick up passengers at all.
He learned that the company owning most of the island’s taxis would withhold S$1,000 (about US$800) from a driver’s salary immediately after an accident until it was determined who was at fault. The process could take months, and the drivers had independently decided that it simply wasn’t worth the risk of having their livelihood tangled up in bureaucracy for that long. So when it started raining, they simply pulled over and waited out the storm.
— Computer World, 3 October 2012, Why you don’t get taxis in Singapore when it rains?, by Zafar Anjum
Reporters spoke to twenty cab drivers, and heard likewise:
The Straits Times spoke to 20 cabbies, and a majority said it is common for drivers to pull over if visibility is low in heavy rain.
Some cited safety concerns, noting that braking conditions are also poorer. Others felt it was not worth risking an accident, which could cost them up to $2,000 in excess and repair fees.
— Straits Times, 6 October 2012, Do cabbies just stop driving when it rains?, by Royston Sim
The taxi hire company “owning most of the island’s taxis”, Comfort DelGro, denied this. In the Straits Times, 6 October 2012, spokesman Tammy Tan was quoted: “Contrary to the findings… our records have shown that there is no significant drop in the number of taxis that ply the roads on rainy days.” The company’s kneejerk denial is symptomatic of Singapore. We cannot possibly be less than best. But at least this story was a criticism of a commercial (albeit government-linked) company, and it wasn’t dangerous for the newspaper to do its own soundings and report what it found. Criticising the government’s performance in transport planning however, is a different matter.
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It might be argued that Singapore is a particularly dense city, and it is always going to be harder to have uncongested streets in such a place compared to cities that are more spread out. There may be some truth in that. What it then suggests is that we should be more concerned about delivering effective public transport, but even here, after sifting out government spin, it isn’t particularly convincing.
In the Straits Times today, Gopinath Menon from the Nanyang Technological University, expressed his view that:
It will be hard for the land transport system to cope with six million people as MRT trains are already bursting at the seams at rush hours, says Prof Menon.
While he recognises current efforts to add capacity to trains and buses, he believes that “some deterioration in the quality of living” can be expected if the population grows further.
Based on an average annual growth rate of 6.1 per cent in the last five years, public transport ridership, which was at 6.7 million last year, will cross the eight million mark by 2017.
Planners face some constraints in raising public transport capacity: MRT station platforms here are long enough to handle only three to six train cars, unlike Hong Kong’s eight, notes the adjunct associate professor at Nanyang Technological University.
— Straits Times Saturday Insight, 6 October 2012, Some constraints in raising public transport capacity, by Gopinath Menon
We have not planned or built ahead for longer trains. This should not by itself be a problem if we are aggressive about building additional lines; people then take different routes rather than bunching into the same route. But are we aggressive enough in building more?
If what’s about to happen in Jurong East is any indication, it’s a big, big No.
Work has already begun to develop relatively sleepy Jurong East town centre into a small city. See the webpage by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). Even as more and more information technology centres pack into the International Business Park, the following projects are in progress:
- Jem, a huge shopping centre
- Westgate — seven levels of shopping and 20 floors of office space
- Ng Teng Fong General Hospital
- Big Box — eight floors of warehouse/retail space
Plus condominiums, hotels and other office projects.
Any sign of additional transport networks into the area? None. Is there no coordination between the URA and the Land Transport Authority (LTA)?
It was only two years ago that Jurong East metro station earned the distinction of being the most congested station in the whole of Singapore. During peak hours, escalators had to be stopped so people wouldn’t crowd onto the platforms. Has anyone even thought about what might happen when all these projects are completed? Where’s the forward planning?
This ambitious scheme looks like one that needs a local light rail to relieve local congestion and another main metro line to give it connectivity to other parts of Singapore. In fact, the western suburbs are very poorly served by rail. I find it particularly painful to travel to Nanyang Technological University (NTU); I don’t know how the students cope. Other areas with dense housing, yet no rail connections, include Jurong West Avenues 4 and 5, Teban Gardens, and Clementi West.
Here’s a suggested route for a new main line starting from NTU through the above-mentioned areas via Jurong East. It also goes on through the Bukit Merah corridor, which is also not currently served by rail, to Keppel and Marina South.
(Click to enlarge)
It might be good to add two spurs to the line, one towards Telok Blangah and the other towards Orchard. Currently, the western suburbs have poor connectivity to the Orchard corridor too.
But even if the LTA starts planning now, it may be 15 years before such a transport network is ready. By then, Jurong East may be making headlines for congestion hell.