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LTA’s newest anti-congestion plan may work with a few adjustments made to it, says analysts

Analysts revealed that providing incentives for commuters to opt different transport options could work if people see genuine benefits in being flexible. This came up as a plan to bring down the congestion at crowded choke-points on the rail network during peak hours.

Their thoughts was said following the announcement of the Land Transport Authority (LTA) on Thursday (9 May) of the new public transport incentive which will be launched in the second half of 2019. Called Travel Smart Journeys (TSJ), the motive of this incentive is to spread out peak hour crowds more evenly by rewarding and encouraging commuters along congested areas to opt for alternative transport modes and routes.

“Generally, public transport has a lot of uniform pricing. But this is not efficient, because of the peak capacity problem – most people want to travel at certain times of the day, and the investments required to provide enough capacity for all of them comfortable are incredibly expensive because those extra trains and buses will sit idle the rest of the time,” said Dr Walter Theseira, transport economist at the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) to Channel NewsAsia (CNA).

He added, “So, differentiated pricing (off-peak lower fares, etc) is used to try and spread out demand so that the capacity investment can be more efficient. Of course, this cannot be carried out unless people are actually flexible in their travel demand. They won’t be, if all employers require that all workers show up at the same time, for example”.

The economist also pointed out that this scheme is a part of LTA’s “fine-tuning” of its Travel Smart Programme to improve efficiency.

Consider walking or cycling more

On the other hand, Dr Park Byung Joon, who is a transport analyst at SUSS, opined that although the LTA may not exactly be advocating the use of taxis or buses as alternative modes of transportation, but they could probably encourage people to opt for walking, cycling or using of Personal Mobility Devices (PMDs).

Speaking to CNA, he said that, “The train network will still remain the backbone of (Singapore’s) public transport (network), but the buses are seen as complementary. If I alight one stop earlier, I can still walk or use PMDs”.

Details on TSJ will be made public at a later date, but LTA said that this scheme will be replacing the existing Travel Smart Rewards, and will be implemented along with the current network-wide lower morning pre-peak fares scheme. TSJ will give commuters up to 50 cent cut off their fare if they board the train station nationwide before 7.45am on weekdays, excluding public holidays.

However, Dr Park said this discount would not be much of a benefit to individual commuter, but it will immensely help train operators as it shift the crowds away during the peak period.

In 2018, there’s a 12 per cent increase in people travelling during morning pre-peak timing, quite a hike from the overall ridership growth of only two per cent.

“If they can reduce the load factor just by a little bit, it really improves the quality of ride experience. Any figure (in increasing pre-peak period travel) that hits two digit is a success,” said Dr Park.

Last year, the Public Transport Council (PTC) discontinued the S$40 off-peak monthly travel pass scheme, which allowed senior citizens who own the pass to make unlimited bus and train rides during off-peak hours on weekdays.

However, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said that the scheme was a two-year trial done to encourage users to shift their travel to off-peak periods, but it “failed miserably”.

PTC stated, “The Off-Peak Pass (OPP) was introduced in July 2015 as a two-year trial to encourage more commuters to travel during the off-peak period. Fewer than 200 rail commuters shifted to travel at off-peak hours”, and this resulted to the Government pulling the plug for this scheme.

Difficult to take different routes and modes of transport

Besides that, Dr Theseira also highlighted that giving commuters rewards for taking alternative routes and modes of transport to bypass congested areas “is more and more practical”, but “challenging” as the country’s rail network expands.

“For example, with the building of the Circle Line, passengers have a choice of going through the city centre or through the Circle Line if they are traveling, say, from the North to the West. So the choice they make could reduce congestion, if part of the line is overcrowded. Likewise, there may be cases where one service (e.g. bus) is overcrowded compared to a parallel service (MRT). However, targeting these specific choices with incentives could be challenging as the system relies on automatically identifying travel routes from tap-in and tap-out data, so on the MRT network, your route choice for a given trip is not detected automatically,” he said.

But, the economist pointed out that it’s crucial for LTA to educate commuters the trade-offs for the entire public transportation system like informing them the expected travel time and type of congestion.

“I think they generally do a good job of planning, provided that they have the necessary lead time. The challenges we’ve faced in the last decade or so have come largely because the increase in demand from population and economic growth was faster than expected, and of course maintenance also was deferred for too long,” said Dr Theseira.

Despite that, Dr Park also highlighted that the government should not forgot on constructing the country’s rail infrastructure are Singapore is looking at building a larger population. He added that, at the moment, the authority have not announced any news on the development of new direct lines that connect the Northern part of Singapore with the East and West areas.