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

Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015 | 21:11:47 PM

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).

Price to pay

Before buying a car in Singapore, it is mandatory to first buy a right to own a car. The "Certificate of Entitlement" system introduced in 1994 requires would-be car owners to bid for the right to buy a vehicle. The prospective owner will first have to buy the certificate. The price varies, but in early 1994 it was as high as US. This is paid over and above the price of the car.

The certificate is valid for 10 years from the date of registration of the vehicle, which fall under the appropriate category of small, medium-sized or large cars. Upon expiration of the certificate, it can be revalidated for another 10 years by paying a fee. Otherwise, the vehicle will have to be de-registered.

The certificate is given to each engine category for every car de-registered from that category in the previous year. A quarter of these "replacement" certificates fall in the open category, which can be used to register any car. This helps in maintaining a constant number of vehicles. A buyer submits the bid application during an open period and is required to remit 50 per cent of the bid amount as deposit. If the application is successful, the buyer only needs to pay the lowest successful bid price or the quota premium. Bids for specified number of cars is conducted monthly.

There is provision for an extra Certificate of Entitlement. This is calculated at about 3 per cent of the car population at the end of the previous year. The percentage is based on the planned growth of car population and other factors such as unused motorcycle certificates. This allows about 3 per cent annual growth in the vehicles number. Some concession is given to the taxis as they are considered part of public transport, but no kind of unrestricted growth is allowed.

The list of penalties for owning a car is endless. Car owners wishing to register must pay a 45 per cent import duty on the car's open market value; a registration fee of US $1,000 for a private car and US $5,000 for a company registered car; and, an additional fee of 150 per cent of the open market value. In addition, they pay annual road taxes based on the engine capacity of their vehicles. The road tax of company registered cars is twice as high as for private cars. For diesel vehicles, the tax is six times the road tax of equivalent petrol vehicles.

Further, to encourage people to replace their old cars with new and more efficient models, a Preferential Additional Registration Fee system was introduced as early as 1975. This scheme serves as an incentive to car owners to scrap their cars before they are 10 years old. This system was introduced when car owners, facing the prospect of paying high prices for new cars, tended to keep cars on the roads as long as possible. This was viewed as pushing old cars beyond their safety limits, leading to increased pollution levels and traffic congestion due to car breakdowns. The scheme is used to offset the additional registration fee of a new car. If a person does not wish to register a new car, the benefit can be transferred on payment of US $10.

Private car owners who replace their cars within 10 years are given these benefits so that they can use to offset the registration fees they have to pay for new cars. For cars registered on or after November 1, 1990, this benefit varies according to the age and time of de-registration of the vehicle.

The additional registration fee serves as a deterrent to car buyers by making a new car more expensive to purchase. The import duty, registration fees and additional registration fee put together amount to 200 per cent of a vehicle's open market value. The additional fee can be eliminated if the owner has an old car that he will replace. Road tax is also very high and is paid according to the engine size. No wonder, buying a car is seen as a very "painful" one-time investment in Singapore.

To be a little soft, the government in 1991 decided to allow more people to own private cars without adding to the traffic congestion during peak hours. Called the Weekend Car scheme, cars registered under the scheme enjoyed substantial tax concessions, including a 70 per cent reduction in road tax and a tax rebate up to a maximum of US $15,000 on registration. Weekend cars could only be driven between 7 pm to 7 am during the week, after 3 pm on Saturdays, and all day long on Sundays and public holidays. They can also be driven outside those hours but owners have to display a Special Day License. Each "weekend car" owner is given five "free day" licenses per year and can buy additional ones at US $20 each.

A Road Pricing Scheme was introduced in June 1995 as another experiment to control traffic jams on expressways. Motorists on a stretch of an expressway pay US $1 to use it between 7.30 am and 8.30 am on weekdays. It was expected that some motorists would change their travel times, use other routes or give up using the expressway. But a study found that after the pilot pricing scheme began, traffic was lighter than usual and moving more smoothly than before. It also cut traffic during operation hours by 10-15 per cent.

Then there is the Park-and-Ride scheme introduced in August 1990. Motorists leave their cars at a carpark, then ride the mrt to work. They pay US $72 for a set, which includes US $30 for the season parking ticket and US $42 for a transit link fare card (can be used for mrt and buses). This made better economic sense. Then to prevent illegal parking, certificates were introduced in 1994 to control overnight parking of heavy vehicles such as trucks and tankers. Their owners are required to obtain a certificate. This forces factory owners to park heavy vehicles on their own premises rather than a public place.

Seamless transport

There is now a growing recognition that cities can become sustainable only if auto dependence can be reduced. Says Newman, "Rapidly developing cities that have not put in place any physical or economic restraints on traffic, have not built high quality transit system, and have not protected their traditional forms of non-motorised mobility from the onslaught of motorised traffic, now have huge traffic problems as well as associated environmental and social problems."

The key problem for transit systems in developing cities is the lack of a politically powerful and well-coordinated city planning system that could approve and implement the building of quality, fixed-transit infrastructure. But Singapore has been able to overcome this problem. A White Paper on land transport in Singapore was prepared and debated in the country's Parliament in 1996 and approved in 1999. It states that Singapore will build a "seamless" public transport system. When the system is achieved, every Singaporean, including car owners, should have easy access to a wide selection of public transport choices to suit each individual's preference and pocket. The debate also brought out the people's representatives' commitment to building a world-class public transport system while keeping it affordable and accessible.

The Singapore transport system shows that the number of private cars can effectively be kept low if a good public transport is made available and traffic restraint policies are followed. It also shows that such a system can be set up only through long-term planning and constant monitoring in order to meet the growing transport needs. But Singapore's transit system did not come without its battle. When it decided to develop MRT system in the 1970s, the World Bank had opposed this move on the ground that it would be wrong to invest in an expensive and fixed rail facility and all that was needed was to upgrade their bus facilities. But Singapore officials, with support from United Nations Development Programme, chose to go ahead with their plans. They were convinced of their plan in view of the limited availability of land area and road space. Buses alone would not offer competitive services to the car and they would not be able to implement their transit-oriented city plan without a high capacity rail service. Today, Singapore's MRT service and integrated bus system has been highly successful in both economic and environmental problems.

A city like Delhi will surely become unsustainable if car dependence in not reduced. Vehicles in Delhi are increasing by almost 8 per cent annually. Between 1990 and 1998, the total number of vehicles increased by about a whopping 85.21 per cent. Total number of vehicles on Delhi's road is a staggering three million. Delhi, with one per cent of the total population in India, has 10 per cent of the total vehicles registered in India. Without an integrated transportation system and car restraint policies, Delhi is already heading towards disaster. A headstart has to be made in Delhi to curb the menace of air pollution. The sooner the government begins the job, the better it will be for its burgeoning population.

With inputs from an article by
Avijit Gupta of University of Leeds, United Kingdom, specially prepared for Down To Earth. Written by Anumita Roychoudhury, coordinator, Right to Clean Air Campaign, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi

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