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Virtual bus lanes

In terms of Singapore transport history, Lorong Ah Soo has hardly made a mark.


It began life as a nondescript track off Upper Paya Lebar Road, possibly sometime in the 1930s - it first appeared in the newspaper archives in 1938. It fortuitously survived urban renewal in the early 1980s. When Hougang New Town came up in the area, it was not expunged; instead, it was lengthened to meet newly-built Hougang Avenue 3 and serve the flats of the southern part of the town. Today, it remains a relatively humble two-lane dual carriageway.

Lorong Ah Soo in 1954, highlighted blue.
Lorong Ah Soo today. Credit: Google Maps.

Now, however, it may make transport history, by becoming the first road in Singapore to trial virtual bus lanes:


When a road is too narrow to accommodate an actual bus lane, how can traffic planners give priority to buses?


Answer: By implementing virtual bus lanes.


This is being considered in Lorong Ah Soo, a two-lane road in Upper Paya Lebar which sees a relatively high volume of buses.


In response to a query from The Straits Times (ST), the Land Transport Authority (LTA) said: “This is a potential research collaboration between LTA and TUMCreate to explore the use of sensor technology as a way to improve use of the bus lanes, while giving priority to public transport when needed.”


The LTA said details of the collaboration are being finalised.


TUMCreate is a public transport research platform manned by researchers from the Technical University of Munich and Nanyang Technological University.


It is funded by Singapore’s National Research Foundation as part of the Campus for Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise. According to researchers, Lorong Ah Soo sees up to 35 buses per hour heading towards Hougang Avenue 3.


At an online symposium on Dec 1, TUMCreate researcher Andreas Rau said that a 900m stretch of Lorong Ah Soo is being considered for the virtual bus lane trial.


ST understands that the system will flash a “Clear Left Lane” sign when it senses a bus approaching to persuade motorists to filter to the right and allow the bus to pass.

Credit: The Straits Times.

The idea is not completely new.


Variations of virtual bus lanes have been proposed or trialled in cities in Britain and Switzerland in recent years.


Earlier this year, transport researcher Meng Xie spoke about a dynamic bus priority system in a TUMCreate journal.


She said the virtual right of way “aims at improving bus operation while minimising potential negative impacts on private vehicles”.


There are 211km of bus lanes in Singapore, which give buses right of way from 7.30am to 9.30am, and from 5pm to 8pm on weekdays. Of these, 23km are full-day bus lanes, which operate from 7.30am to 11pm from Mondays to Saturdays.


The upcoming North-South Corridor, a highway linking Woodlands to the city, will have bus lanes along its entire 21.5km length in both directions.


Asked if virtual bus lanes would work, lawyer Sarjeet Singh, 54, said: “Like most things, this will work if one is fined for ignoring them.”


But he added: “Bus lane restrictions are generally observed here.”


Singapore University of Social Sciences transport economist Walter Theseira said: “Giving way to emergency vehicles and priority vehicles is the responsibility of all motorists in the area - not just the ones directly in front. We have to get motorists into that mindset.”


It will be interesting to see how virtual bus lanes turn out. Like the lawyer quoted above, I believe it will work only if one is fined for ignoring them. And it might work better for suburban town roads that see lower traffic volumes, as compared to busier city roads.


Ultimately, virtual bus lanes should not be an easy way out, detracting from Singapore’s car-lite goals. Going car-lite should still mean striving to reduce the city-state’s private car population and reliance on private cars, not finding ways to accommodate private transport alongside public transport. Virtual bus lanes should be a means to an end, not the end itself.