With the coronavirus pandemic reducing traffic on the roads and changing commuting patterns, certain under-used road lanes can be converted to cycling and bus lanes, said Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung yesterday.
There may also be scope to pedestrianise certain roads, said Mr Ong, as he set out his ministry’s plans following the President’s Address.
“The lower traffic and new travel patterns brought about by Covid-19 have opened a window of opportunity to re-imagine our road infrastructure,” he said as he sketched out the possibilities.
Other cities abroad, including Athens in Greece, have moved to reclaim road space for pedestrians and cyclists, as the pandemic alters commuting habits.
The minister also noted that Covid-19 has led to increased adoption of telecommuting and staggered working hours.
“This has led to more sustainable travel patterns. We will explore ways to make some of these changes permanent,” he added.
Sounds promising, and I’m pleased. After all, I’ve been calling for the conversion of road lanes into cycling and full-day bus lanes, and the pedestrianisation of entire neighbourhoods in the Central Area north and south of the Singapore River - suggestions sketched out in my book Jalan Singapura.
That said, Singapore has only emerged from the Circuit Breaker for three months, and many people are trying to resume their pre-pandemic routines, in order to claw back a semblance of normality. Some companies have reverted to getting their staff to come to the office for work. Within the first week of Singapore exiting the Circuit Breaker in early June, public transport ridership had doubled as compared to during the Circuit Breaker (even though the figure was still 36 per cent of pre-Circuit Breaker ridership). I’m sure ridership has risen even further from then until now. The same will apply to private transport and road usage. Will travel patterns eventually revert to pre-pandemic times, or will there be a new normal? Perhaps we’ll have a better idea in another three months or so.
Of course, the authorities could strike while the iron is hot, right now, when travel patterns have not fully reverted to pre-pandemic times, to make permanent adjustments to transport systems and roads. But I doubt this is possible, as such top-down changes involving ministries and statutory boards take time - lots of it.
The Government will also carry out its plan to expand the cycling path network from 460km now to 1,320km by 2030.
Mr Ong said these initiatives will help Singapore in its goal to become a car-lite nation, along with other measures such as a zero vehicle growth rate and phasing out private vehicles with internal combustion engines by 2040.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog post, going “car-lite” has to be executed with a significant whittling-down of the motor vehicular population in Singapore. Zero vehicle growth is good, but a reduction of the vehicle population will be far better.
He also outlined other plans for land transport as well as the aviation and maritime sectors.
For land transport, he said Singapore will continue to work towards the vision of a city where 90 per cent of peak-hour journeys can be completed within 45 minutes. Within towns, residents should be able to reach their nearest neighbourhood centre in 20 minutes.
These targets have been outlined before, and they remain lofty ones. The tough nut to crack is something that connects both targets - the feeder bus system, which serves all major HDB towns.
I’ve taken feeder buses before, and they can be a royal pain during the peak period. Imagine living in a town such as Jurong, Yishun, or Tampines, and having to take a feeder bus to the MRT station, and then the train to an office in the Central Business District. Walking from home to the bus stop, waiting for the feeder bus, taking the journey on the bus to the nearest MRT station, walking from the bus stop or interchange to the MRT station, waiting for the train - all these take time, sometimes more than 20 minutes, and they’re only the first stage of the journey, the second stage being the train ride to the city. And if the target of reaching the neighbourhood centre in 20 minutes is not reached, then the target of completing a peak-hour journey in 45 minutes could be in jeopardy.
Complicating the feeder bus system problem is the fact that no two towns are exactly the same in terms of road system and population spread. Hence, optimising travelling times for feeder buses in one town requires solutions unique to that town.
Resources will continue to be invested in the public transport system to maintain reliability, he added, while new MRT stations and lines will be opened almost every year.
The Ministry of Transport (MOT) will also work with the Public Transport Council to improve public transport to help those with mobility challenges, said Mr Ong.
He added that expanding the public transport system to better serve Singaporeans requires major infrastructure and recurrent expenditure. “But this is essential public spending, which has to be carried out with financial prudence.”
Yes. A world-class public transport system for a world-class city-state is not a want, it’s a need.