Singapore: Managing Car Use


Matthew Burke

The closest we have come to urban transport utopia, most sustainable transport advocates will say, is Singapore. There, administrators have had to tackle the same problem transport problem as elsewhere, namely, growth in car ownership and increasing traffic congestion. And they have been overwhelmingly successful. But has their success been complete? And what does the future hold for the city-state's car control policies?

As their primarily tool, the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) government in the 1970s introduced measures to 'fine' the use of the car. Indeed, by implementing repressive taxation, registration fees, and expensive Certificates of Entitlement (COE), they managed to put the up-front cost of the most moderately-priced cars well beyond the average citizen's reach. In total, all these charges combined to add more than US$60,000 to the price of most vehicles in 1995. An Area Licence Scheme (ALS) further added to costs by charging drivers for entry into inner-city areas.

Of course, in addition to these very big sticks, one big juicy carrot was offered to the population - the construction of a superb integrated public transport system. It is now possible to quickly go almost anywhere on the island, in air-conditioned comfort, by either bus or train. Most business and residential areas are well clustered around transport services, thanks to strict land use planning, a mechanism left in the hands of the one-party government by the former colonial power.

But the aspirations of the city-state's residents to owning their own piece of automotive 'freedom' are still high, despite the fact that they now live in a city serviced by high-quality public transport. Further, studies have found desire for personal motoring to be strongest among young people. Despite, or perhaps because of, the government's efforts, the car is still a highly desirable commodity. It has been galling for those without cars - often the poor and the young - to see a smaller number of car owners able to use their vehicles seemingly limitlessly, while they are excluded from the roads.

As a concession to the demands of the population, in 1997 the number of COEs was released, to allow greater numbers of cars to be registered, and to decrease the up-front cost of a vehicle. But usage-based costs were increased, and new technology, Electronic Road Pricing, was introduced, replacing the old ALS. This new system allows 'fines' for road travel to be applied almost anywhere, and to be graded according to time, day, or even traffic conditions. Whether the technology will be so widely applied, though, is another matter.

The momentum for change has been building for some time and the PAP must tread a fine line in handling the population's aspirations. Should there be a breakdown in social compliance, particularly as it relates to car restraint policies, it may not be long before more cars take to the streets of Singapore, ruining the utopian dream it represents for transport planners today.

WATCHPOINT: It is becoming easier to question whether Singapore's repression of the car will continue indefinitely


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