Improving Sustainability in Transport Systems for Singapore

Improving Sustainability in Transport Systems for Singapore

Presented by:

Professor Lee Der-Horng


SAEng Expert Group on Land Transportation

The ultimate aim of any urban transport system is to make travel and transporting easier, quicker, economical and safer in and around the urban area. The list of such defining qualities can only grow when more elements are added, such as comfort, security, efficiency, stack-holder benefits, inclusiveness, elderly-friendly, disabled-friendly, environment-friendly, and resilience to attacks and emergencies, among others. Singapore provides such a well-managed land transport infrastructure for private vehicle owners and commercial entities. It is a city-state nation with high patronage towards public transport when compared to similar cities of rich countries. Singapore is globally known for its success in hosting multinational businesses and services for several decades. As a top city-state nation in the world, a growth in population, especially immigration, is inevitable. It is apparent that this happens on a limited living space. Hence, a challenge always prevails in keeping the transportation system sustainable.

Tax payers’ and other stakeholders’ concerns on traffic congestion are being timely addressed and responded by decision makers with the use of state-of-the-art technologies, as and when applicable. Nevertheless, it is necessary to cope up with the rapid evolution of plethora of technologies in the following domains: information, computing, sensor and automobiles.

Everyday life of a citizen is now influenced significantly by how technology vendors shape the world in and around a city. Such influences arise from Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, Amazon, eBay, and other such giants who are natively popular in countries where English is not the main language (for instance, China having its own social media networks and shopping bases). As this situation seems to last for several years to come, Singapore can and should be ready with methods that can allow leveraging on advances that would keep its transport system sustainable on the long run. We need smart ways to make use of tools produced by vendors mentioned above, in the favour of our citizens. Such methods can be proposed, formulated, tested and validated in academic institutions, especially universities.

It is also important not to overlook the fact that technological advancements themselves are not as sustainable as they should be. We witness how fast they advance or change. A transport system should be ready to adopt and adapt to rapid changes in technologies. Any adaptation of new technology should be as seamless as possible. Inclusion of a new technology should only enhance but not hold the system performance. Any plan based on a technological advancement must be carefully investigated before implementation, as the deployed technology would itself become obsolete soon. With this uncertainty, mobility solutions must be carefully scrutinized for their sustainability. 

There are around 550,000 cars owned in Singapore. In a population of 5.5 million, this forms a fraction of 10%. The remaining 90% is in need of some form of alternative transportation. This means, around 9 in 10 persons are in need of non-car modes of transportation. The mobility level for this population needs to be addressed to provide them with a sense of satisfaction in day-to-day travel, without worrying about owning a car.

There is also a significant fraction of population, who cannot drive any vehicle. Children cannot drive. People who are too old or those who are unable to drive do also belong to this group. Policies and strategies should give special attention to the travel needs of this population group. This is particularly relevant considering Singapore houses an ageing population.

Transport policies that are currently in successful operation need to continue as such. Intelligent transport systems related plans that are set forth for the future must be realized as planned. A decade ago, smart phone and wearable technologies were never conceived enough to play a role in transportation domain. Such opportunities should be leveraged in providing a better and sustainable transport options for the long run. This should happen in both the supply side and the demand side of transport problems.

Singapore’s GDP is reliant on not only people movement but also freight movement. Manufacturing and distribution sectors rely heavily on land transportation. Container truck traffic on roads takes up significant space-time from other forms of traffic. Therefore, new possibilities should be envisaged to minimize the interference and capacity reduction that cargo traffic imposes on people travel.

Some of the areas where Singapore can excel further are:

  • Demand aspects:
    – Means of reducing travel demand
    – Collection of critical big data
  • Private transportation:
    – Smart cycling and smart walking
    – Short distance shopping trips using traceable trolleys
  • Public transportation:
    – First-or-last mile connectivity
    – Demand-responsive transport (DRT)
    – Personal rapid transport (PRT)
  • Paratransit operations:
    – Careful regulatory measures

  • Freight transportation:
    – Use of rail systems in freight transport (during late nights)

The above aspects are discussed in detail as follows.

Demand aspects:

Means of reducing travel demand:

Singapore had been successful in implementing demand control policies. Controlling vehicle ownership was a major milestone (using COE as a tool). Controlling vehicle usage in central business district during peak hours was another milestone (using ERP as a tool). Although these two can indirectly be branded as travel demand management strategies, they very well control the demand for road space. A significant (and often ignored) reduction in demand for travel is achieved because of online purchases and transactions. Thanks to Singapore’s reliable internet infrastructure, citizens can engage in online purchases and transactions securely, resulting in reduction of trips. Being an ideal place to test more such models, methods like work-at-home and study-at-home are yet to be tested on large scale. With high speed internet infrastructure, Singapore can demonstrate how travel demand can be reduced by companies and educational institutions using such methods.

Collection of critical big data

Transport planning, management and engineering efforts can be improved if mobility behaviour data are collected via sensors (like smart phones, smart cards and so on) at a personal level but at a large scale. Currently, the paradigm of big data is to collect and store whatever data are possible to collect. In addition, Internet of Things (IoT) can result in generation of unprecedented amounts of data. Research and studies, and hence suitable funding, are necessary in this aspect to devise smart data acquisition methods. This will prevent collection of junk data and hence save resources in not digging them for finding any useful information. Further, the data collection process must be executed in a manner that not only secures the users’ privacy but also gives them the same satisfaction. Many a time, survey acceptance and agreement turns out to be more important than the survey itself.

Private transportation:

Smart cycling and smart walking

Ang Mo Kio being first suburb to test cycling successfully, it is possible to extend such options to other suburbs and neighbourhoods. This should not focus only on building cycle tracks. To make this option interesting and personally useful, cyclists can be allowed to use wearable gadgets. A mechanism should be in place, to equip avid cycle users with free gadgets. Besides using headphones and Bluetooth handsets, a cyclist can be provided with gadgets to monitor personal health. Gadgets like smart glasses can alert cyclists about dangerous situation while riding. Singapore can lead in this direction while rest of the world is not very clear about how such gadgets can add value in transport domain (except for routing and navigation or news). The same principles apply to walking as well.

Short distance shopping trips using traceable trolleys

Shopping trolleys are allowed within a shopping mall or big shopping centre. Similar type of trolleys should be made available for pick up and drop, at several places for public to use. Many shopping trips involve using a taxi or private vehicle because of carrying what is purchased. For short distance shopping trips, public trolleys can be of compelling use to carry the items bought and as well enjoy walking. Users can trace where trolleys are available by means of smart phone apps. Once started using, its location can be hidden from the app for protecting privacy. Such trolleys should also have a cover in case of rain. The cover can also be used not to reveal what is purchased. Simple means like these can easily be tested for their applicability around large shopping malls.

Public transportation:

First-or-last mile connectivity

Earlier studies in Singapore have shown that around 8% of private vehicle trips are made to drop or pick up someone to or from public transport system network. This is in addition to the supply of feeder services connecting neighbourhoods to railway stations or bus terminals already. Comfortable and convenient alternatives are required to eliminate such private vehicle trips made for first-or-last mile connection. The problem might prevail (but on a slightly reduced level), even when a rail station is within ten minutes reach, as stated in mobility plans for 2030. The demand for such short trips should be seen as a demand for comfort, rather than by distance or time. People carrying baggage that makes walking a discomfort will still look for easy travel from home to station or vice versa. Two to three person carrier networks are required to fulfil this need. A complete luxury version of so called ‘share-autos’ seem to be a viable option to test. Low end versions of these shareautos are highly successful in Indian cities to provide first-or-last mile connectivity. If vehicles are provided with sufficient luxury, which is possible in Singapore, it could very well serve the purpose. Share-autos are small vehicles with three to seven person capacities, operated on fixed route networks. The uniqueness is that driver can stop and serve anywhere people want along those routes. There are no fixed stops or stations. Very low pricing enables it a success in Indian cities. We need to use the idea and improvise it with comfortable vehicles coupled with intelligent routing. However, these autos have faced criticism regarding their visual appeal and emission issues.

Demand-responsive transport (DRT)

Fixed route services are suitable when we can determine the demand along a corridor or in a series of neighbourhoods. This is not the case especially during off peak hours. With the possibility of smart phone apps, one can register a call from anywhere anytime. Dedicated small buses can be employed to cater to low flow demands that vary significantly over time. DRT is in operation in selected cities in USA, UK, Australia, and China among others. Singapore looked into the possibilities of using shared autonomous vehicles (AV) for this purpose earlier. Attempts of using self-driving vehicles (SDVs) and electric vehicle carsharing are also undergoing. These should not rule of the traditional human-driven vehicles to check where DRT will be most welcome and suitable. With human in the loop, smart phone apps can be developed to make DRT a successful strategy. In addition, users could monitor the supply and demand (i.e. when users install such apps and their locations are visible to operators and other uses as well). This will give confidence on the usage of DRT system.

DRT can play a significant role in handling demand from elderly now (as well as in the future with an estimate of one in five persons being a senior citizen in few decades). Customizing DRT to our needs in Singapore is the key in making it successful. Customizing is possible with sensor and other technological advancements readily available now.

Personal rapid transport (PRT)

Individual units or pods that carry two to twenty people, operated on fixed guided ways were tested in some cities. 2getthere Singapore along with SMRT unveiled the prototype pods last year. Few of them were dropped due to reasons like increased costs and difficulty in managing interaction with other modes (like pedestrians). It is not a PRT related problem per se but planning and optimizing need to be well executed. PRT should provide the comfort and satisfaction of a family member dropping or picking them near MRT station or bus terminal. However, certain PRT technology like the pod system in Masdar City, Abu Dhabi have rail based operations which are infrastructure heavy and non-flexible. We should aim for a system that can be run on the road much like the Heathrow pods in London.

Innovative construction technique can help PRT to be installed over or below expressways without a need for additional land space. Research and development in this area can create IP that is currently not in conception in any part of the world.

Para-transit operations:

Careful regulatory measures

Taxi operations a vital role in tourism intensive nation like Singapore. Such paratransit system is already sustainably operating, thanks to timely regulatory measures. Internationally well-known operators would wish to be a part of the system in Singapore, especially those who rely on smart phone app-based bookings and do not own any vehicle. Regulatory measures must watch for maintaining the quality of service. Furthermore, ownership of such booking data needs to be subjected to careful consideration, as it creates indirect wealth to the owner.

Freight transportation:

Use of rail systems in freight transport (during late nights)

The possibility of freight transport using existing rail systems needs to be explored. Suitable wagons and ways of transferring vertically from underground to surface need to be explored apparently. Apart from dedicating railway lines for maintenance during off-time hours, feasibility of using them for freight transport should be explored. Two to three hours of freight train services during night time can relieve truck trips on expressways during day time. This will add significant capacity on expressways, which could be further used for bus rapid transit lanes or similar services.

In all the above aspects, basic understanding of sustainability should never be forgotten or overlooked: do what best we can do now, but without jeopardising the welfare of future populations.