Should Public Transport Grind to a Halt When it Rains?

How proud are you of your country’s public transportation system?

On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate your satisfaction?

It is improbable that, if you are a Singaporean, you would be among nationals that would lock in their satisfaction rate below 5.

“Why?”, you may ask. Let’s have a look at Singapore’s public transport system to understand the foundation of my claim.

Lack of Space

The first thing you should understand about Singapore’s public transport is that, although it is one of the most advanced systems globally, it is constrained by a lack of space.

Singapore's Central Business District on a normal working day. {Image Source: The Office Rental Blog}
Singapore’s Central Business District on a normal working day. {Image Source: The Office Rental Blog}

Researchers Soi Hoi Michael Lam and Trinh Dinh Toan shed more light on this in a report dubbed Land Transport Policy and Public Transport in Singapore observing that the country has put in place a far-reaching set of land transport policies to strike a balance between growth in transport demand and the efficiency and effectiveness of the land transport system.

The research gives an in-depth view of how Singapore has been able to achieve a world-class transportation system. This has been done through;

  • Integration of transport and urban planning.
  • Improvement of transport infrastructure.
  • Harnessing the latest technology in traffic and network management.
  • Expansion of the road network.
  • Managing vehicle ownership and usage.
  • Improvement of public transport regulation.

The same fact is captured in another report titled Improvements and integration of a public transport system: the case of Singapore authored by Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim which observes that faced with limited land supply, encouraging the use of public transport and restraining car usage and ownership have been obvious choices for the city-state.

Among the Fairest

Away from that, Singapore was ranked among the top 10 cities with the best transportation systems in the world by management consulting firm McKinsey & Company in its annual report released in July 2021.

Singapore's technology-driven public transport is designed to be environmentally friendly, efficient, and sustainable. {Image Source: Calvin Chan Wai Meng via Getty Images}
Singapore’s technology-driven public transport is designed to be environmentally friendly, efficient, and sustainable. {Image Source: Calvin Chan Wai Meng via Getty Images}

This year’s edition titled: Urban Transportation Systems of 25 Global Cities saw Singapore feature regularly among the top 10 in different metrics.

The report scrutinized the transportation systems of 25 cities applying more than 80 indicators narrowed down to several main categories: Availability, Convenience, Safety and Sustainability, Affordability, and Efficiency.

Singapore was ranked first on Affordability (85%), followed by Shenzen (79%), Seoul (78.6%), Shanghai (78.5%), Beijing (74.8%), Los Angeles (73.9%), Hong Kong (73.2%), Mexico City (71.0%), Bangkok (70.0%) and Buenos Aires (70.0%)

“Singapore is holding the first place. It has one of the lowest ratios of the cost of a one-kilometer taxi ride to average monthly income, as well as a well-balanced ratio of the cost of a monthly public-transport travel card to average monthly income.”

Mckinsey report

Singapore was ranked first on Safety & Sustainability at (75.9), followed by Sydney (75.5%), Hong Kong (74.5%), Shanghai (68.9%), London (67.3%), Tokyo (67.1%), Beijing (66.1%), Shenzen (64.6%), Berlin (64.5%) and Paris (61.3%).

Singapore was ranked third for Efficiency (52.8%) behind Moscow (58.8) and Shenzen (57.9%), which featured first and second respectively and ahead of Johannesburg (52.8%), Beijing (50.8%), Sao Paulo (44.1%), Chicago (40.8), Los Angeles (40.5%), Madrid (39.1%) and Hong Kong (37.3%)

Singapore was ranked third for Convenience at (76.0%) behind Toronto (81.4%) and Hong Kong (80.6%) and ahead of Milan (73.0%), Istanbul (72.4%), Chicago (72.1%), Beijing (71.8%), Moscow (71.4%), London (69.8%) and Berlin (69.4%).

However, Singapore missed out on the Top 10 Availability Rankings which featured: London (79.6%), Paris (76.9%), Madrid (68.4%), Tokyo (67.1%), New York (67.0%), Moscow (66.5%), Berlin (66.3%), Milan (64.7%), Beijing (63.3%) and Seoul (58.4%).

Tech-Driven

According to a report published by the United Kingdom’s Geographic Association titled Is Singapore’s Transport System Fit for Purpose, one of the aspects that make Singapore’s public transport stand out is that the country has implemented an Intelligent Transport System (ITS) which applies data that keeps road traffic ticking.

The city has been a pioneer in the transport sector, introducing a flurry of technologies, including one of the world’s first Electronic Road Pricing Systems (ERP). The city-state has also rolled out other intelligent systems such as the Expressway Monitoring and Advisory System, which notifies motorists of accidents on major roads.

Singapore's eco-friendly public transport. The country aims to be a car-lite society. {Image Source: Eco- Business}
Singapore’s eco-friendly public transport. The country aims to be a car-lite society. {Image Source: Eco-Business}

Singapore has also successfully installed GPS systems in taxis that report on traffic conditions across the city.

This application of the Intelligent Transport System has resulted in tangible results.

Despite its small space, Singapore is one of the least congested cities, a statement entrenched by the statistic that Singapore posts an average car speed on main roads of 27 km/h. This is impressive compared to other cities – 16 km/h in London, 11 km/h in Tokyo, and 5 km/h in Jakarta.

This is also phenomenal considering that Singapore’s population has grown by more than 100% since 1990.

The Ring Concept

In 1971, with the help of the United Nations, Singapore developed an idea that is now popularly known as The Ring Concept.

The idea involved the development of high-density satellite towns on three sides of the Central Water Catchment Area.

The plan also involved the construction of a southern development belt from Jurong to Changi.

The main activity areas were connected by a mass rapid transit system and a network of expressways to serve the Central Business District (CBD) specifically.

Singapore's Ring Concept. The city-state with the help of the United Nations was built to be sustainable. {Google Sites}
Singapore’s Ring Concept. The city-state with the help of the United Nations was built to be sustainable. {Google Sites}

In the plan:

  • Jurong was earmarked for industrial use
  • The government adopted a proposal to relocate the airport to Changi from Paya Lebar
  • The plan factored in the future growth of industrial areas in Seletar and Sembawang

The government also rolled out a program to clear slums and invested heavily in public housing projects.

The ring concept has aged well and proved to be a brilliant concept helping Singapore maintain an efficient, sustainable, and environmentally friendly public transport system.

How to Move Around Singapore

As established during this article, Singapore’s public transport is well-planned and efficient, making it cost-efficient to travel via public means.

The costs of owning and maintaining a car in Singapore are pretty steep, incentivizing more citizens to choose public transport.

There are multiple modes of public transport, including buses, taxis, trains, and cars, but the most common means of transportation in the city-state is the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT).

In this piece, we will look at these modes of transport more closely.

Mass Rapid Transit & Light Rail

As mentioned above, Mass Rapid Transit is the most reliable means of getting around Singapore because it is cost-efficient.

A Singapore Mass Rapid Transit (SMRT) train plies along a line at the Jurong East interchange in Singapore on July 18, 2016. {Image Source: Roslan Rahman AFP via Getty Images}
A Singapore Mass Rapid Transit (SMRT) train plies along a line at the Jurong East interchange in Singapore on July 18, 2016. {Image Source: Roslan Rahman AFP via Getty Images}

The Singaporean MRT is supplemented by Light Rail Transit (LRT), which plays the supporting role of a feeder service enabling commuters to board and alight the MRT much closer to home.

The majority of these trains operate between 5:30 am, and 12:00 am daily. Those hours are only extended during holiday seasons when traveling swings into full gear.

The trains average a frequency of 2-3 minutes during peak hours and 5-7 minutes during off-peak hours.

Singaporean trains have been designed to be inclusive. They are wheelchair accessible and accommodate women with strollers for their babies.

The staff has also been trained to help the visually impaired once they board, during their trip, and when they seek to alight.

Commuters buy regular tickets for short-term use (single/return) at ticketing machines or transit authority offices in MRT stations.

Long-term tickets or smartcards (EZ Link cards) can be acquired at Passenger Service Centres in MRT stations or from ticket offices.

The EZ link cards can be topped up at various places, including ticket offices and ticketing machines.

Since we have already established that the MRT and the Light Rail are reliable, the obvious question becomes whether this can be improved to optimal performance.

Interesting Fact About Singapore’s MRT

A project mooted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Department of Urban Planning & Studies helps us understand how Big Data could be applied to improve Singapore’s rapid transit systems.

As per a report published by Singaporean publication Today Online in June 2017, multiple papers published under this project show that one of the most significant ways that the Singaporean trains could operate optimally is when every critical element of public transport is inter-connected, which will then provide critical data in real-time to counter anomalies.

In this model, Big Data will be used for predictive maintenance to help expect and avert potential disruptions and breakdowns before they occur.

Bus Transport

Since Singapore has a vast network of city routes, buses are also an economical way to get around. However, because they make numerous stops to drop and pick passengers, this is not always the most time-efficient mode of transport.

The country’s tropical weather also means that all buses that ferry the public are air-conditioned.

A bus at a terminal in Singapore. Buses in the country are air-conditioned due to tropical weather. {Image Source: Sustainable Bus}
A bus at a terminal in Singapore. Buses in the country are air-conditioned due to tropical weather. {Image Source: Sustainable Bus}

The Land Transport Authority in Singapore is adamant about the need for inclusivity. Consequently, the majority of the buses are fitted with ramps that make it seamless for wheelchair accessibility

The Authority has managed to enforce this. Beginning December 2020, 99% of all buses in Singapore were wheelchair accessible.

On the other hand, public bus transport companies offer much more extensive services to commuters.

Premium bus companies in Singapore capitalize on comfort, convenience, direct routes between the Central Business District (CBD), industrial parks, and major housing estates during peak hours to attract customers who have to fork out more to fit in this club.

Bus schedules vary depending on the route, but most buses operate between 5:00 am and 12:00 am.

Commuters can use EZ Links cards for bus services across Singapore.

Apart from the general overview of bus transport in Singapore, is there anything else worth noting?

Interesting Fact About Singapore’s Buses

According to a research report titled Singapore in Motion: insights on public transport service level through farecard and mobile data analytics, Big Data is being used by bus transit authorities to study the demand for routes.

The idea behind that is to understand why commuters pick specific routes and how pressure on prevalent routes can be eased by redirecting traffic to other viable options.

“First and last mile analysis is of importance to transport authorities to aid in defining services to and from train stations, including feeder bus routes and on-demand minibus service. The route choice of train passengers in a train network such as Singapore’s is not directly available from the farecard data and so must be deduced from other sources.

It is valuable for transport authorities to understand route crowding within the network and adjust route dissemination systems accordingly. Additionally, the understanding of explanatory factors for route choice (travel-time, fare, etc.) is fundamental for planning.”

REPORT: Singapore in Motion: insights on public transport service level through farecard and mobile data analytics

Taxis

Taxis are another convenient way to get around Singapore, especially to areas that are not well served by buses and trains.

Taxis in Singapore are known to charge more affordable fares compared to other developed countries.

A Singaporean taxi parked at a stand. Finding a taxi in Singapore when it rains is very difficult. {Image Source: Ethoz Group}
A Singaporean taxi parked at a stand. Finding a taxi in Singapore when it rains is very difficult. {Image Source: Ethoz Group}

However, one disadvantage about this mode of transport is that it is scarce during peak hours and even more scarce when it rains.

Taxis are also metered, making prices much more affordable, but it also depends on where a commuter hails a taxi from and whether they used a booking agent.

Taxis can be hailed by simply raising your hand to the direction of the driver. Alternatively, a passenger can walk to a taxi stand mostly found within the CBD and next to shopping malls and hotels.

Digital taxi apps like Grab and Uber have brought competitiveness to this sector. Gojek is another e-hailing app used in Singapore although it originated in Indonesia.

At certain times of the day, they charge less than traditional taxis.

Interesting Fact About Singapore’s Taxis

According to a report published in Challenge, a Singapore Government Agency Website, Big Data has been applied to understand why getting a taxi in Singapore on rainy days is so hard.

The report observes that the Singapore- MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) analyzed weather data and compared it to 830 million GPS records of 80 million riders to help solve this puzzle.

“The findings: cab drivers pull to the side of the road when it rains for fear of getting into accidents – they could have to pay about $1,000 because of a taxi company policy. This insight could shape policy and make a difference to public transport here.”

ARTICLE: MAKING USE OF BIG DATA

Car Transport

One of the perks of using a personal car or hiring one is that it offers you flexibility and the freedom to tweak your plans as you wish.

However, as observed earlier, cars are not easy to acquire or maintain in Singapore. The government has already banned additional cars from accessing the roads as a means to control traffic which the government views as a potential time bomb.

Cars caught in traffic in Singapore. The country's government has already banned additional cars from hitting the road as a means to ensure sustainability. {Image Source: Scientific American}
Cars caught in traffic in Singapore. The country’s government has already banned additional cars from hitting the road as a means to ensure sustainability. {Image Source: Scientific American}

For short-term stays, a valid foreign license and an International Driving Permit (IDP) are required in order to drive.

In the absence of an IDP, a translation of the foreign license in English is mandatory.

Foreigners who stay in the country for more than 12 months must obtain a Singaporean driving license.

Interesting Fact About Driving in Singapore        

Because of how small Singapore is, the government sees continuous road construction as unsustainable.

Vehicle acquisition and maintenance in Singapore are costly. Car ownership is highly regulated through policies such as the Vehicle Quota System (VQS).

The country also aims to achieve a public transport mode share of 75% by 2030.

Authorities in the country hope to achieve this through tapping Big Data.

According to a media report by Suburna Jurong, Big Data is currently at the centre of Singapore’s urban planning. The country is convinced that to achieve this “car-lite” model, a balance between demand & supply in the city must be struck.

“The use of big data is vital in the planning stage to help city planners understand and target the drivers for such changes in human behaviour in Singapore’s context, and to optimize the city structure accordingly.

For example, Uber has already published point-to-point real-time travel time information which is aggregated from its huge database. As such information and data trends build up; it will be more and more useful for planning ahead over various time horizons.”

Suburna Jurong report

Why Avoid Business?

The fear by Singaporean taxi drivers to serve customers when it rains is very genuine.

They are already putting out all stops to make ends meet. The fear of having to pay $1,000 to the taxi company when an accident occurs is a tale of better safe than sorry.

Now, who is dropping the ball here?

Is it the regulator, the taxi company, or the driver, and in that case, what happens to the hundreds of potential customers who have to contend with being rained on simply because taxis are difficult to get hold of in such moments?

There is a better way of looking at it: This is an opportunity for someone and a solution for everyone else.

If big data is applied to study the routes and demand, then it is very likely that the possibility of an accident happening will be very low.

With that, all parties can emerge from the problem satisfied.

It’s the right thing to do.

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