Singapore: Breathing Easy

It's all about taming traffic: keeping a tab on the number of vehicles on the road, and promoting public transport. Singapore, one of the smallest but richest Asian cities, has mastered this art. From being one of the most polluted Asian cities three decades ago, its pollution levels are now below World Health Organisation standards. They have remained so for 10 years now. Its citizens breathe air, which is among the cleanest in the world, while people in its South Asian counterpart, India, are choking in exhaust fumes. Indian policymakers need to take a close look at the Singapore model that guarantees its rich citizens the right to clean air. But for this, they have to take the bus, cycle or walk

Published: Thursday 31 August 2000

Singapore: Breathing Easy

-- Peak hour traffic scenario in India is a cartoonist's delight. Hassled motorists, rivers of sweat streaming down their forehead, accusing each other for lack of traffic sense in loud voices toned by the honking of a thousand horns. This is not so in Singapore. It is almost legendary now that one of Asia's wealthiest cities has one of the calmest traffic, too. Air pollution levels have remained below World Health Organisation (WHO) and United States Environmental Protection Agency air quality standards for 10 consecutive years. An official publication of the ministry of the environment, Singapore, shows that the annual average levels of pollutants - particulate matter less than 10 micron size (pm10), nitrogen oxides, and sulphur dioxide - have remained below standards between 1986 and 1996. Not a single pollutant has exceeded an annual average level of 60 microgramme per cum (m3) during this period. The highest recorded annual average level of pm10 is 50 m3 in 1997 and the rest remained below that (see graph: A breath of fresh air).This may seem almost impossible to believe in India where pm10 levels reach levels as high as 820 m3 in New Delhi. Says Avijit Gupta of University of Leeds in UK, who has studied pollution management systems in Singapore, "Most of what is happening in Singapore it is due to an enlightened policy and efficient management practices. The city-state has coped with the existing and potential problems effectively by recognising the seriousness of the problems rather early."

Singapore has followed simple, but firm, rules. One it introduced severe economic restrictions on car ownership and use; two, it improved transit systems dramatically; and, lastly, promoted pedestrian traffic and non-motorised transport.

The state set in its business of planning urban and transportation development as early as 1965 when it became an independent republic. At that time, the city was plagued by traffic congestion (what many Indian metros face today). Bus companies were serving areas of high profitability only. Illegal "pirate" taxis were providing cheap door-to-door service, thus leading to further deterioration of bus services.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a number of major land-use and transportation studies were carried out to chart long-term plans for Singapore's development. It was evident to the planners that traffic congestion had to be addressed first as building more and more roads was not a sustainable option for Singapore due to the constraints on land availability.

Peter Newman, associate professor of city policy, and Jeffrey Kenworthy, senior lecturer, at the Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, point out that Singapore recognised the fact that road space would always be limited in Sustainability and Cities, published by Island Press, California, US, in 1999. With just about 650 sq km land area - less than half of Delhi - the city government thought it inappropriate to allow unrestricted motorisation. With a population of 3.6 million, it has a very densely built urban centre. Compared to Delhi, which had 24,643 km of road length and three million vehicles, Singapore had only 3,056 km of road length but nearly 0.7 million vehicles in 1997. Planning for land transport system in Singapore, therefore, integrated the overall land-use planning with an aim to minimise the need to travel by putting in order the location of residential and commercial areas. "Besides, we developed a comprehensive road network system and harnessed technology to maximise its capacity, managed the vehicle population and demand for road usage; and, improved public transport and provided quality public transport choices," says Mohinder Singh, senior manager, Land Transport Authority, Singapore.

In 1971, a long-range concept plan was prepared to guide Singapore's development. The plan laid down the urbanisation pattern for high density residential areas, industries and urban centres in a ring formation around the central catchment area. Transportation routes comprising an expressway and mass rapid transit (MRT) lines were conceived. Subsequently, in 1991, a revised concept plan was developed. As in earlier studies, the integration of land-use planning with transport planning featured prominently in the concept plan.

Capping motorisation
Singapore's urban structure plan shows a series of radial and circumferential mrt and light rail lines with subcentre modes transport systems. Public transit system caters to 64 per cent of the travel demand and the new concept plan aims at increasing this share to 75 per cent. Nearly, 65 per cent of the passengers walk to and from mrt stations (see table: Mass movement).

The transport policy was set on simple principles: it under-stood that making private vehicle travel more expensive is most effective in reducing automobile use and hence emissions. This is contrary to India, where the cost of owning and driving a car is very low and, therefore, acts as an incentive to increase their numbers. In Singapore, policy action was more focussed on internalising the cost of driving a vehicle in terms of the cost of pollution, infrastructure and road casualties, among other things. It was based on a "polluter pays" principle.

But key to the success of these measures was public acceptability, which means it had to be done in a phased manner. A series of schemes have been introduced since 1975. Area licensing scheme was introduced in 1975 to reduce morning peak traffic coming into the Central Business District followed by a series of steep vehicle taxes. Area licensing scheme means making the use of road space expensive in congested centres. A license has to be bought for travel during restricted periods and in restricted zones. It was aimed at preventing many vehicles taking to the roads and causing congestion. This scheme was later expanded to other areas.

Newman estimates that this reduced the percentage of total commuters driving to the Central Business District from 56 per cent in 1975 to 23 per cent in 1983 and increasing the bus service from 33 per cent to 69 per cent. If the same improvement was to be achieved through investments in building roads, it would have cost the state an additional US $1.5 billion. The Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development, based on a modeling exercise to assess car ownership in relation to wealth, estimates that there would have been 300,000 vehicles in Singapore in 1982. Due to the restraint, the actual number was down to 184,000. The scheme prevented a rise in car population by almost 60 per cent.

Rise in economic wealth means increase in the number of cars, too. But a comparison of per capita city wealth and per capita car use in different cities shows that Singapore, with an annual US $12,939 per capita city wealth, has per capita car use of 1,864 km, while Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, with lower per capita city wealth, have higher per capita car use of 4,032 km and 2,664 km, respectively. Say Newman and Kenworthy, "The Singapore government has been tightening the screws on car ownership in response to the pressure from growing wealth" (see table: Overcoming auto dependence: the Singapore way).

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