Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Gearing up for public transport challenge

Straits Times: Mon, Aug 20

POSTING its eighth consecutive year of growth, public transport ridership rose by 5.2 per cent in the first six months of this year to reach yet another high of 6.1 million trips per day.

Going by conservative estimates, it will breach the 7 million mark by 2015, and 10 million by 2020.

Clearly, more MRT lines will have to be built and more buses added to the current fleet. The first steps are already being taken. For instance, $1.1 billion has been budgeted to boost the public bus fleet by 20 per cent to around 4,800 over the next five years.

And $60 billion or more has been set aside to double the rail network to 280km by 2020. Even more beyond 2020.

But relying on capacity expansion alone to meet demand is not sustainable. In simple terms, the system will have to be big enough to cater for peak hours; and therefore will have the propensity for wastage during off-peak periods.

As such, two other plans have to be put in place. One, the staggering of work and school hours; and two, the decentralisation of the central business district.

These plans are neither new nor radical. But both need to be executed with will and discipline if they are to be effective.

For instance, a plan to stagger work hours in the civil service to alleviate road congestion has been in place since the early 1970s, allowing employees to start their workday from as early as 7.30am to as late as 9.30am.

The private sector followed suit, allowing employees more flexibility in their start and end times.

The so-called "Stagatime" campaign was well publicised. Schools joined in, with Anderson Secondary being one of the first to introduce staggered hours in 1977.

But for one reason or another, the plan has not quite worked. A good number of schools have gone single-session, exacerbating the morning crunch.

And while flexible start times are still officially allowed in government departments, anecdotal evidence suggests that the majority of workplaces do not subscribe to the practice.

This is clear at MRT stations in the morning. If you are on the platform before 8am, chances are you will be able to get on the first or second train that stops at the platform. But between 8am and 8.30am, there is practically no chance. The crunch dissipates suddenly from 9am.

The government is giving "Stagatime" another go; an inter-ministerial work group has been formed to study ways to do this. Minister of State (Transport) Josephine Teo and Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin are chairing the group, which will hold its first meeting soon.

The success of this second push will depend on how much backing the work group gets from the rest of the public and private sectors.

Besides staggered hours, the group might want to look at ways to encourage tele-commuting. Technology allows many workers to operate beyond the confines of the workplace. If 10 per cent to 20 per cent of employees can work from home one day of the week, it will be a significant start.

Likewise, monetary incentives to encourage people to travel outside morning peaks should be studied further.

Next, decentralisation. The Urban Redevelopment Authority has seen the need to put jobs nearer homes since the 1991 Concept Plan.

But so far, Tampines is about the only sizeable mixed-use regional centre. Plans are afoot to transform the Jurong Lake District into the largest business hub outside the CBD. There are similar plans for Paya Lebar, Kallang, Woodlands and Serangoon.

These plans will take 15 to 20 years to materialise, but it is better late than never.

Today, the spatial spread of satellite towns and the gravitational pull of the CBD have resulted in long commutes. The Department of Statistics reveals that the majority of workers in Singapore spend more than 80 minutes commuting each working day.

Not only that, it has also resulted in peakish, one-directional travel demand that requires heavy infrastructural investment.

Besides congestion, the current trend also fuels energy consumption and enlarges Singapore's carbon footprint.

Hence the way the city is planned has huge implications on its transport needs. Planners have to understand that accessibility is the goal, not mobility. Put simply, the latter requires us to build ever more rail lines to bring people living in far-flung estates into the city for work. The former increases the opportunity for people to work nearer or at home.

But even as plans are underway to set up regional centres outside the CBD, there must be a concerted effort to put life back into the CBD after work hours.

This means encouraging more residential, commercial and recreational developments in the city. In this respect, the new downtown in Marina Bay is shaping up nicely: Gardens by the Bay is just a stone's throw from the Marina Bay Financial Centre, for instance.

It remains to be seen if planners are bold enough to build schools, hospitals and perhaps even a car-free housing project in the area.

Martin Koh | 86666 944 | R020968Z
Sherry Tang | 9844 4400 | R020241C
Senior Sales Director
Email: marshe_inc@yahoo.com.sg
DTZ Debenham Tie Leung (SEA) Pte Ltd (L3006301G)

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