PTW Week: The private public transport

TOC thanks Isaac for contributing the following write-up. If you wish to share your views or experiences in using public transport, please email us at [email protected] .

Isaac Tan / Guest Contributor

After spending 5 months in Europe, my return to Singapore has brought me to one very certain conclusion. We really need to rethink the notion that we are in possession of a world class public transport system.

I went overseas under the impression that transport anywhere else would pale in comparison to Singapore, only to find myself severely misguided. Time and time again, cities such as Paris, Berlin and even Amsterdam showed that they were just as capable of providing cheap, efficient and effective public transportation as we are.

I believe that many of our public transportation woes stem from the unsatisfactory privatisation of the industry. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that public transport companies should be nationalised and returned to the folds of the government. That just sounds a tad communist. What I am saying is that essential services such as public buses and trains should be run with a focus on more than just maximisation of profit. Look where the profit-centric attitude of our public transport companies have gotten us thus far.

The North-East Line’s low ridership made it the subject of various attempts at passing the buck, and a row over who should have to pay for its continued operation. The same motivations presided over the building of MRT stations along said line…and then leaving them unopened, the proverbial white elephants; at least until a gutsy citizen decided to make that fact painfully obvious. Even the decision to reduce the cost of transfers was tempered by the proposed increase in direct routes; a measure undoubtedly taken so public transport companies will see no slump in profits. One can only speculate the reasons behind the introduction of a ridiculous bus service that runs parallel to the MRT line (and takes almost thrice the time for the journey into the City) as opposed to simply increasing train frequency. The answer, however, probably requires no stretch of the imagination.

On a more personal level, I have watched feeder service 173 rerouted any number of times until the trip to Bukit Batok MRT now takes more than 20 minutes when it used to take 10. In addition, trips to the Rail Mall are now affairs between my bicycle and I, the stop having been eliminated from the bus route altogether. Other services such as 963 and 970 are among the most infrequent of buses I have ever seen, with half hour waits not uncommon. In the case of 963, the bus is often packed tooth by jowl by the time it reaches my bus stop – a stop, I might add, that is only mid-way through its route – and simply drives on by, leaving commuters resigned to hunkering down for another 20+ minute wait, taking a cab, or being late for work or school.

Other measures allegedly taken to better convenience commuters seem nothing more than giant publicity stunts. For example, the new IRIS system has been given much publicity for finally allowing commuters to know how long their buses will take to arrive. Yet most of the people I know have had minimal contact with the system; not least from the fact that the bulk of these electronic signboards are situated in the Orchard Road and town area with only a scattered few in the heartland areas. It seems then that IRIS was constructed with the benefit of the tourists and foreigners plying the town area in mind and not us Singaporeans, mere mortals that we are. After all, why do we need an expensive electronic system when in many countries such as France and the Netherlands, a sheet of A4 paper with the bus schedule printed on more than suffices? In fact, it seems to be our much-vaunted IRIS that is proving rather less than satisfactory.

Each time that I’ve come across the system it has never failed to count down the minutes to a bus, display an “Arr” sign…and then reset the countdown with neither hide nor hair of the bus in question appearing. By contrast, in 5 months in Amsterdam I hardly ever saw bus arrivals deviate more than a minute or so from the timings printed on said sheet of A4 paper.

In the face of increasing pressure to use public transport, and now the impending price hikes, these are issues that we the public – the very people this system has allegedly been put in place for – must afford some consideration. Just who is benefiting from public transport? The public? Or the ‘private’ companies that run it?


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