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Does current transportation system in S'pore serve the needs of youths?

YouthQuake: Public transport the key to a less congested Singapore

Selene Cheng

The Workers’ Party Youth Wing (YPYW) held its second YouthQuake forum June 7 titled Moving with the times -A Transportation Road Map by Youths in Singapore”.

Chaired by WPYW executive committee member and chairperson Bernard Chen, the public forum, with an audience of about 30 people, took place at the party’s headquarters in Syed Alwi Road.

Three youths were invited to speak — 20-year old Republic Polytechnic graduate Jamilah Lim, Nanyang Technological University final-year accountancy student and entrepreneur Kelvin Quee, and 21-year old Alvinder Singh, who recently completed his National Service.

Speakers gave their views on whether the current transportation system in Singapore serves the needs of youths. First speaker Jamilah Lim advocated a common national public transportation concession card for Singaporean students; second speaker Kelvin Quee suggested that privatisation of the transport system was the way to go, and last speaker Alvinder Singh called for a one-car-per-household cap.

Be fair with fares: treat all full-time students equally

First speaker Jamilah Lim spoke on the current fare structure and concessions for students. She explained that while primary to junior college (JC) or centralised institute (CI) students pay a flat fare of S$0.50 on public transport, polytechnic (poly) students pay full adult fare if they do not buy, or travel more than, what the tertiary student concession passes for them allow.

Lim argued that it was very unfair to make poly students pay adult fares, as like their JC and CI counterparts, they were also full-time students. Lim shared with the audience the results of a survey of 100 people she conducted, of which 35 were tertiary students. Lim revealed that 40% of the poly students among the 100 felt that the fares were fair, while 50% of this group felt that they were unfair, that is, that their JC and CI counterparts received subsidised fares while they had to pay adult prices. 30% of the 100 felt that the fares were fair, while 20% did not care. Lim quoted one survey respondent as saying “we don’t actually complain with [sic] low prices”.

“What is the purpose of having a concession pass as a student of an institution of learning in Singapore when the benefits of those wearing a school uniform are not extended to you?” Lim said.

Lim advocated a common national public transport concession card for all full-time Singaporean students, that is, the same level of concessionary fares.

Forum attendee Alex Au asked her how one decided what was “fair”, and gave an example of a 45 year old full-time student studying in a polytechnic. He asked if giving such a student concessionary fare rights would be fair. Lim replied in the affirmative. She confirmed that concessions should be given to all full-time students, that is, the educational status of the individual should be the decisive factor in whether or not to grant concessions. She clarified, though, that most full-time polytechnic students were of the same age as their JC and CI counterparts and that she was referring more to this group rather than the mature full-time student.

To a question posed by forum attendee Gerald Giam as to whether full-time private school students also deserved concessionary fares, Lim also argued that yes, they ought to enjoy the concession as they were not earning an income but studying full time.

Allow privatisation of part of the public transport sector to improve service quality

Second speaker Kelvin Quee gave a summary of Singapore’s land transport initiatives and papers, studies ranking the transport systems and expenditure of different countries, as well as statistics on the profit margins of public transport companies. Quee also shared his personal experience with the bus service that serves the routes in his university campus.

“Our country seems to have this obsession with the hub-and-spokes [transport] model…I think it’s good for flights or for large scale [transport flows], but what about direct point-to-point [transport services]? There are many routes that are unserved, or underserved,” said Quee.

Quee argued that for such routes, the Government ought to allow smaller private operators to compete with the existing public transport operators, as while it might not be profitable for the latter, it could be for the former.

Alex Au asked him to clarify his position, whether he was advocating a fully-centralised public transport system, or a laissez-faire one. Quee replied that he had no fixed position as the two had their merits and drawbacks. Instead, Quee emphasised that the only thing he thought was necessary was the need to introduce competition for un-served, or under-served routes.

Audience member Goh Meng Seng felt that the public transport problem needed to be looked at in a more holistic light, saying that the way housing was built in Singapore contributed to the current public transport problems. He noted that Singapore had to consider the pros and cons of structured central planning (housing is spread out so that you have average population density across areas), or business-centric planning (concentrate housing so that you have high population density, making it easier to provide public transport services to these areas).

Agreeing with Goh, Quee added that there was currently a “capacity-management problem”. He said that while the population was spread out through housing planning, Singapore’s industries are concentrated in the city centre, with the city centre being made a transport hub. This invariably meant that the public transport system would be taxed to the limits at peak hours in the mornings and evenings, as there would be a large flow of people in the same direction at those times.

Restrict car ownership to one car per household only

Last speaker Alvinder Singh gave a summary of Singapore’s transport situation. He noted that currently, roads take up 12% of our total land area in a country that is already land scarce and densely populated. Singh also highlighted statistics on the increasing number of highly-educated, affluent young people, the increase in the car population, especially of large-capacity cars, and the more intensive usage of cars, and suggested that this group of people were likely contributing to the congestion problem on the roads.

Singh gave an overview of the Ministry of Transport’s (MOT’s) policy strategies, elaborating in detail on integrated land-use planning and the making of public transport a choice option. For the former, he highlighted four initiatives in particular: 1) the Government’s buying of land around the rail transit system and then later selling it at a profit, 2) bike, pedestrian and car park facilities around MRT stations, and 3) the decentralising of commercial and other economic activities through the development of regional, sub-regional and fringe MRT stations.

For the latter, he highlighted the Government’s efforts in building new rail lines, running more train trips during peak hours, new bus service frequency rules to take place by August 2009, and the expansion of the bus lane network, as well as extension of the full-day bus lanes.

Coming back to restriction of car ownership to one per household, Singh said that for such a policy to work, there was a need to “integrate public transport into the daily living of Singaporeans”. He identified the Government’s efforts to move in this direction, through the building of more air-conditioned bus interchanges at MRT stations, and LTA and Transitlink’s promise of an Integrated Public Transport Planner to be made available on the Internet by July 2008.

Bicycle lanes, carpooling, and the perceived need for cars

Forum attendees were then given the floor in the open question-and-answer session. Questions relating to the viability of alternative forms/models of transport through a dedicated bicycle lane on all roads or a national carpooling scheme were asked. There was also a robust discussion on the vehicle-ownership aspirations of Singaporeans, and whether Singaporeans could do without cars altogether and rely on public transport, given the small land area.

Bicycle lanes

To the first issue on the viability of having a bicycle lane on all roads, Lim felt that it was a good idea, but would not be adopted as widely as hoped. She felt that while students might consider the idea seriously, those working in the Central Business District (CBD) would also not bite the idea as they would not want to get their work clothes dirty. The latter group would also find it a hassle to handle their work bags and ride at the same time.

Quee felt that having a bicycle lane would come at “great cost” to Singapore. He felt the idea was not viable as there was already congestion on the roads, and having a dedicated lane for bicycles would reduce already-precious road space.

Singh supported the idea and said that it was “the way to go”. Singh highlighted the example of Amsterdam, which has a “very strong cycling culture”. Additionally, Singh noted that it was a green and clean form of travel, and would have the added benefit of reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Car ownership and the need for cars

The issue of people’s aspirations of car ownership versus the need for cars as a form of transport drew spirited debate amongst the speakers and forum attendees. All more or less agreed that the growth of cars, if left unchecked, would cause a problem, but there was no consensus as to what extent the Government should regulate car ownership. Quee in particular disagreed strongly with Singh’s suggestion of restricting car ownership to one per household (i.e. if a household chooses to buy a car, they can only buy one), as he felt that this would be excessive Government encroachment into his personal life.

On the same vein of personal choices versus the public good, there was also a philosophical discussion on whether one would actually leave one’s car at home in favour of public transport after spending so much money to buy a car.

In general, though, everyone agreed that people were buying cars because they felt that the current public transport system was not good enough and not meeting their needs.

Carpooling

Quee felt that a national carpooling system would not be viable. He argued that a lot of people considered their cars as a “personal item” and that a car was about “ownership”. Not many people would want to carpool as they would want to have exclusive usage of their car, he argued.

Singh was in favour of carpooling. He suggested that the upcoming Integrated Public Transport Planner could be merged with a national carpooling match-making database, providing a one-stop shop for people to plan seamless journeys.

Private operators will plug the gap between public and private transport

The forum closed with each speaker being presented the WP’s anniversary publication as a token of appreciation.

In a summary of the forum’s discussion on the most immediate and viable solution to the public transport situation in Singapore, forum attendee Gerald Giam said that there was currently “[a] gulf between public transport [and private transport]” in pricing and quality. Private operators could be the key to bridging this gulf, as it would not only introduce more competition in the transport system, but it [would also] provide a more convenient way for people to get from point A to B.

“If [we] pay a bit more, so be it, but…at least [we] do not need to pay taxi fares to get to those places,” he said.

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