Ways to go on a car diet

Weaning people off automobiles in Singapore requires more than applying taxes and having a catchy buzzword.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Weaning people off automobiles in Singapore requires more than applying taxes and having a catchy buzzword.

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WHAT does it take for Singapore to be “car-lite”? Now, that may seem like a strange topic for a motoring magazine, but think about it: If the roads become as congested as those in some of our neighbouring cities, how much fun will driving be?

Therein lies the nub of the matter: Being “car-lite” does not mean slashing the car population (although some form of population management is necessary). It means reducing car usage, or reducing the need to drive.

Up till now, our politicians have been chanting the “car-lite” mantra, but they have given no concrete game plan on how they are going to achieve this.

It would not be surprising, then, that they will continue to rely heavily on monetary measures to achieve this goal (incidentally, not a word has been said about what the “car-lite” goal is).

Hence COE, ARF, excise duty, road tax, petrol duty, ERP and car loan curbs will continue to be part of our “car-lite” initiative. That would not work. Or if it does work, it will have a high cost – not only to individuals but to the country as a whole.

Because people will want to own cars. It is a fundamental aspiration of growing affluence. To tell people that they cannot or should no t own cars is almost like telling them they should rent instead of buy their own homes.

Seoul’s downtown “car-lite” project removed a highway and restored a river beneath it.
Seoul’s downtown “car-lite” project removed a highway and restored a river beneath it.
Singapore needs to build and sustain a top-class public transport ecosystem for a “car-lite” society.
Singapore needs to build and sustain a top-class public transport ecosystem for a “car-lite” society.
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As the situation is today, people also f eel they need a car. Having infants or old folks at home would be the top reason. And if our Government wants to encourage us to have more babies, and to take care of our ageing parents, it should also recognise that having a car makes catering to these two groups of people a lot easier.

So, piling on taxes, levies and whatnot will only drain a family’s finances. At the end of the day, the state might have to step in, with healthcare and other social safety nets, when many of us retire without sufficient funds.

Yes, people should take responsibility for their own lives. But as we all know, the political, social and economic environment also influences behaviour and values. Rightly or wrongly, Singaporeans believe that the state should take care of them – for almost everything. And if you think the younger generation think otherwise, think again.

So, back to the topic of “car-lite”. First of all, what is “car-lite”? Since no one has ventured a definition, here is one: a vehicle quota system with a growth rate component pegged to human population (and car ownership for a meaningful cohort and not just the super-rich), and an average annual mileage of 10,000km (from 17,000km today).

What must we do to achieve a “car-lite” society? First, build and sustain a top-class public transport system. Much has been said about focusing on an engineering core to do this. Alas, we need more than engineers. We need strong policymakers across all ministries with a vision, bold city planners and imaginative architects. We need an ecosystem that aligns the interests of the infrastructure builder, operator and end-user.

Two, we must no t build more roads, and certainly not more expressways.

Renaming the planned North-South Expressway does not hide the fact that it is still a highway. Several cities have, in fact, torn or pared down highways, to great effect. These include Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon, San Francisco’s Embarcadero, Portland’s Harbor Drive and Madrid’s M30.

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The desire/ demand for cars in Singapore is driven by rising affluence.
The desire/ demand for cars in Singapore is driven by rising affluence.

Instead of building more roads, Singapore should focus on optimising existing road capacity through engineering (design) and technology (even more intelligent signalling systems), and reducing or coordinating roadworks. Cracking down on illegal parking would also have a great impact.

Three, relook parking. In most major cities, downtown parking is no t only very expensive, it is scarce. In Singapore, parking is plentiful, and relatively inexpensive everywhere. We have applied all forms of demand management measures but ignored the parking component almost completely.

Four, apply distance-charging. When ERP 2.0 rolls out in 2020, the satellite-based system has the ability to charge motorists not only for the location and time they drive, it can also char ge for the distance they clock.

So far, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) seems reticent when asked about distance-charging. This probably reflects the nervousness within the Government, as this charging method is likely to rile motorists (including the rich and powerful). We must not shy away from unpopular policies if they are right for the country.

Five, speed up the urban decentralisation drive. Since colonial days, policymakers have recognised the need to decentralise the city. One objective is to reduce the need for citizens to traverse the island for work and back. But more than 50 years on, Singapore’s Central Business District (both new and old) still accounts for the bulk of jobs. And major (and growing) residential towns are in far-flung corners such as Punggol, Woodlands, Choa Chu Kang and Pasir Ris.

Six, lead by example. In 2003, Seoul’s then mayor, Lee Myung Bak, went on a “car-lite” strategy to rejuvenate the city. He drove the Cheonggyecheon project (by removing a major elevated highway to restore a river beneath it) – a highly unpopular move back then, but which turned out to be a brilliant venture. He also overhauled the public bus system to make it one of the best in the world.

A lesser known decision he took was to slash City Hall parking by 90 percent. Parking spaces went from 400 to just 50. Now, this must have meant great inconvenience to many South Korean government officials and civil servants. But he did it anyway.

In Singapore, the LTA headquarters is served by two MRT lines and several bus services. Yet it boasts a massive multi-storey carpark (above and beyond surface parking spaces). The authority is now setting up satellite offices elsewhere because there is no spac e at the HQ. Would the LTA lead by example by converting its multi-storey carpark into an office block?

The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), at least, has a chief planner who cycles to work regularly. What about the LTA? What about the Ministry of Transport, whose office is now served by the Circle Line?

Of all the six points, the first one is intuitively the most important. But, actually, the last one is just as crucial.

Singaporeans will accept the “car-lite” philosophy if it was more than just empty rhetoric. Policymakers will have a bigger buy-in if they led by example.

As former Bogota mayor Enrique Penalosa once said: “An advanced city is not a place where the poor move about in cars; rather it’s where even the rich use public transportation.”