Seniors and students prefer cheaper transportation fares; working adults opt for reliability, says NUS study on public transport

According to a study done by the National University of Singapore (NUS) on how Singaporeans use public transport, it found that seniors, students and children tend to prioritise the cost of fares whereas working adults focus more on the reliability of travel time.
The study, titled “Travel Time Uncertainties and Commuter Behaviour: Evidence from Smart Data in Singapore”, was published in January and looked through a large number of public transport data.
It checked all ez-link card holders in Singapore in the entire month of August 2013 – that’s a total of 3.9 million cards, involving 175 million trips. In addition, it also vetted an individual’s trip time (from tap in until tap out), their general identity (child, senior, student or adult), as well as transport mode (bus or train).
The study found that working individuals prefer to take MRT because they deem it more reliable in terms of travel time, as opposed to buses. This is because buses are often affected by other external issues like weather or traffic conditions – even if buses are faster, on average, on a particular route.
Additionally, it also found that working adults tend to switch travel modes more as compared to other users.
Based on the findings, the authors of the study stated that these findings have “useful implications” for policy makers, precisely on the creation of dedicated bus lanes that make bus services more reliable.
If that’s not all, they also questioned the value of “early bird” discount fares for working adults in the study, since this group are not motivated by saving money.

Buses are less reliable and slower

Out of all the 3.9 million cards examined, the study found that only one in 10 trips by working adults (10.6%) were by bus, while almost three in 10 trips by senior citizens (29.4%) were by bus.
The study also revealed that bus travel tends to be slower and less reliable. On average, across all journeys, bus trips for the same route that also has rails were about nine minutes slower than rails.
However, the biggest advantage of travelling via bus is that the fare is cheaper – in fact  S$0.16 lower than rail charges, the study noted.
“(Adults will) take a train because (they) don’t care if it’s expensive or cheap,” said Professor Sumit Agarwal of the NUS Business School, who led the study.
Speaking to TODAY, he added, “(They) care about reliability of reaching where (they) have to reach on time…especially when there are work related issues.”
Prof Agarwal explained that children, who has lesser money than adults, and seniors, who may have retired and relying on Central Provident Fund funds, are less conscious time. They prefer to save money on transport wherever they can, he said.
Pointing out about kids and elderly citizens, he said they “really don’t care about time..they don’t have these firm commitments where (they) need to meet somebody at this time or otherwise lose (their) business”.

Working adults focus more on certainty

On the other hand, he highlighted that adults prefer to opt for consistent, reliable travel modes as opposed to those who may be faster, but less reliable.
“For instance, there could be a (destination) where it takes a shorter time to go by bus than by train. But if the reliability of that bus to reach there on time is not there, you’ll still take the train..It’s not just the time, it’s the accuracy of that time,” Prof Agarwal noted.
He continued that working adults have this expectation that public transport should bring them to their destination on time.
“In Singapore, when people say I’ll meet you at eight, that really means at eight..(for example, they know that) it will take 17 minutes (on public transport), and three minutes (to walk) and (they’ll) meet that person precisely at that time,” he stated.

Efforts to shape policy

Based on the findings, the study concluded that efforts to promote reliability of bus travel could encourage working adults to take bus instead of trains. This then reduces “overloaded” trains during peak hours.
One of the efforts highlighted in the study was the Land Transport Authority (LTA’s) Bus Services Enhancement Programme (BSEP), which was rolled out in 2012 and completed in 2017.
A total of 1,000 buses were added to the existing fleet, and raised the capacity of 218 services. Additionally, LTA also increased the bus lanes in conjunction with BSEP.
Since 2007, LTA has also introduced Real-Time Bus Arrival Information System and the information was displayed on panels fitted at some bus stops. These efforts helped to further reduce the uncertainty of bus travel time, the report asserted.
The report also mentioned that LTA has expanded the capacity for rail travel, and has plans to “double the rail transit track length by year 2030”.
It also suggested that rail operators could opt to create “peak-hour express rail services” to further bring down travel time and increase reliability as the trains only stop at major subway stations.
Separately, the study also questioned the effectiveness of certain policies like “early bird” MRT fares, which was introduced to persuade people to use the train earlier than the peak time.
It stated that the Free Pre-Peak Travel scheme, which gave commuters free rides if they are at any of the 18 MRT stations in the city area before 7.45am, was “limited” in its effectiveness. This is because working adults were not bothered much about the cost of travel, said the study. The scheme ran from 2013 to 2017.
Prof Agarwal explained that adults pay more attention to productivity at the workplace as compared to the cost of travelling. “If they know other people are also going to be early and then they can organise meetings and be more effective then it’s okay. (But) if I just go early and nobody else shows up, then what’s the point?”
Separately, in response to these findings, LTA told TODAY that the scheme’s results were tallies with their aims, which were to “better distribute travel demand on the rail network and optimise overall rail capacity in the mornings”.
It appears that the scheme caused a 7% shift in rail trips during the morning peak hours, LTA said.
“(LTA) will continue to monitor the effectiveness of the scheme, taking into account rail network enhancements and commuter’s travel patterns, and make adjustments if necessary.”

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