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  1. ST_Opinion

    Tomorrow's world is already here - in Japan

    Housewife Mayumi Hareguchi, 38, lives with her husband and six-year-old son in Shioashiya, Japan's Hyogo Prefecture. Sandwiched between the picturesque Mount Rokko and Osaka Bay, her neighbourhood looks quintessentially Japanese, with one added feature - a sea of rooftop solar panels. Inside, her home is kitted out with smart technologies, including a lithium-ion battery that stores solar power, a fuel cell in the backyard that generates electricity and heat for immediate consumption, and a smart home energy management system (HEMS) that displays on the television screen the family's energy generation and consumption at any given time. Mayumi-san's home is zero energy or rather positive energy, meaning it generates more power than it consumes. Not only does her family save 20,000 yen (S$230) in average monthly power bills, they also make about 15,000 yen from selling excess energy generated every month, which pays for the estate's monthly management fees. With the touch of a button, whether she's at home or outside, she can check the energy usage of each room and appliance on her TV set or smartphone, turn them on or off, and set the home's indoor temperature. When the family hit their monthly energy target, a burst of confetti along with dancing cartoon penguins on the TV screen celebrates the achievement with a little ditty. Her home also comes with an outdoor outlet for electric vehicle charging. Contrary to what you might think, her humble four-bedroom abode of 130 sq m is not Japan's latest pilot in cutting-edge technologies depicting life in the future. It is one of thousands of smart homes that have sprouted all over Japan in recent years and redefined mainstream modern living for its citizens today. Mayumi-san has been enjoying smart living since she first moved into the estate one-and-a-half years ago. By her own admission, her awareness of smart technologies was almost non-existent then. It was her husband who chanced upon the property in Shioashiya smart city - a residential project of 400 homes and an 83-unit condominium developed by PanaHome Corporation, the housing arm of Japanese electronics giant Panasonic - while fishing in the area some years ago. Today, she cannot imagine living otherwise. The convenience, comfort and cost savings did not come at an initial higher price either. They paid 55 million yen for their home, about the average cost of a property of that size in the area. Next year, when Japan's electricity market is fully liberalised, PanaHome says Shioashiya will become the country's first zero-energy town, self sufficient in its energy needs and complete with its own micro-grid system. It was only after a recent week-long visit to Japan to study its housing solutions that I realised how far Singapore is lagging behind in its smart nation ambitions. A year ago, it declared a grand masterplan to be the world's leading smart nation, to tap into a growing global smart cities market valued at US$1.6 trillion (S$2.3 trillion) by 2020, according to global research firm Frost & Sullivan. Against a backdrop of growing urban populations, dwindling natural resources and worsening climate change, smart cities have been billed as the answer for governments trying to mitigate these challenges while improving the lives of citizens. In this area, the Japanese are the front runners. Many of the technologies Singapore is still piloting are in mainstream homes in Japan today. Let me give you some examples. Singapore's electric vehicle test-bed was launched in 2011 but the country is still nowhere close to having a large-scale electric vehicle infrastructure in place, despite the perfect conditions for it. A home energy management system trial was led by the Housing Board, Energy Market Authority and Panasonic in Punggol Eco Town in 2013, and despite good results - it achieved more than 20 per cent reduction in average household energy consumption - such solutions are still not present in homes today. A micro-grid test-bed on Pulau Ubin announced in 2013 to test the integration of renewable energy sources into the grid infrastructure still remains, well, in pilot mode. If Singapore is serious about being a leader in all things smart, it needs to make a concerted effort to move from perpetual pilot testing to mainstream application. To be fair, the HDB did, in May, announce Singapore's first new smart public housing project, Punggol Northshore, which - when built in 2020 - will come fitted with infrastructure such as additional power and data points to support the easy installation of smart systems. It will also feature energy-efficient lighting, environmental modelling for urban planning, a smart carpark management system as well as a pneumatic waste conveyance system. In July, Yuhua became the first estate to get smart living features, such as elderly monitoring systems and mobile apps to track real-time energy and water usage by 2018. The problem is, it seems that Singapore is implementing 2015 technology only by 2020. By then, would these same technologies be obsolete? Will Singapore still be competitive if it is exporting outdated solutions? In Japan, Panasonic, for instance, is already looking into HEMS that can support electric vehicle charging facilities and cloud computing services to make their HEMS even more responsive. Other solutions include intelligent security that offers facial recognition at the entrances of homes, and voice-enabled digital assistants (like Apple's Siri) that can do everything from tracking the freshness of food in the refrigerator to minimise waste, to estimating the arrival time of family members back home. It is clear that in order to effectively compete in this fast-changing competitive market - and also to meet its climate change target of peak carbon emissions by 2030 - Singapore needs to take bolder policy decisions that enable the speedy adoption of efficient technologies available today. The Japanese government seems to have hit on a winning formula of the right regulatory environment and policies, such as providing incentives for fuel cells in homes, thus paving the way for the private sector to participate in and profit from creating smart homes. In this respect, for a glimpse of what's possible in the near future, Singapore will benefit from taking a closer look at Japan now. By Jessica Cheam from The Straits Times
  2. ST_Opinion

    The drive to be driverless

    The Government is all electrified about autonomous vehicles. Like governments elsewhere, it sees huge and vast potential in this new technology. And it has little to do with revenue for it. Last month, it launched a request for information (RFI) for mobility- on-demand and autonomous buses trials at One-North business park. If successful, autonomous buses could improve commuter service without the perennial constraints of labour cost or labour shortage. Mobility-on-demand services could involve driverless pod-like vehicles zipping about to make first-last mile connections. Commuters could book a ride via the Internet or a smartphone app. Besides One-North, trials could be extended to low-traffic but high-visibility spots such as Gardens by the Bay and Sentosa. If successful, these pods may replace electric bicycles and other motorised devices which are increasingly hogging the pavement today. Studies are also being conducted on new fare collection systems using "near-field communication" technology. This means no more having to tap on a farecard reader. The advantage of this is speed. Today, buses are held up at bus stops because of all the tapping. The downside is that there might be a rise in fare cheats since it will be difficult for the bus driver to detect commuters who do not have a farecard on them. And when buses are driverless, the propensity to cheat rises further, as people are likely to feel far less guilty about hoodwinking a machine. That is something to be ironed out at the trials, I'm sure. But it would be shortsighted to limit autonomous technology to buses and pods. Think of the potential for freeing up road space if goods vehicles were autonomous. Vans and trucks could make deliveries in the wee hours, when roads have the least traffic. Goods vehicles, despite being smaller in numbers than passenger cars, clock twice the mileage of cars. Of course, autonomous vans and trucks work best if loading and unloading can be automated too. But why stop at commercial vehicles? If autonomous technology works, why shouldn't cars be driverless too? A research paper by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Smart Future Mobility team shows that Singapore's mobility needs can be met with just 30 per cent of its existing vehicles. Imagine that. That assumption is based on a fleet of shared automomous vehicles which are able to optimise vehicle occupancy by infinitesimally matching origins and destinations. The algorithm required for this will be a marvel. But if we get it right, there will be no more need for taxis. No more Uber charging $100 for a ride during an MRT breakdown, either. In fact, the island's entire fleet of driverless vehicles can be mobilised to ferry passengers stranded by a rail incident. Happiness, right? In such a utopian state, will car brands matter as much as they do today? Will sales ranking matter? This week, Volvo proudly announced that it made it to the top 10 bestsellers list here for the first half of the year. The Swedish brand ranked 10th, behind South Korea's Kia. Toyota retained its pole position, followed, at a distance, by Mercedes-Benz, Honda and Mazda. Volkswagen, which used to be among the top three, fell to seventh place. BMW, which used to be neck and neck with Merc, was in sixth. Would autonomous technology blur the line between privately owned cars and shared vehicles such as taxis? If so, do we care what brand our taxis are? Going off on a tangent, will pump prices be as contentious as they are today? If you are an end-user of a fleet of autonomous vehicles, your monthly fee will probably consist of a mix of trips made, distance clocked, time of travel (peak or off-peak) and number of seats occupied. Fuel cost will be part of the mix. And any pump price increase will be harder to detect. Unlike today, when motorists may question why pump prices are still largely unchanged from two months ago - after crude oil prices have fallen by more than 20 per cent. Life asked a couple of oil companies why this was so. One American major muttered something about the US dollar having appreciated, but was far from specific. Others could not even come up with an excuse, however lame. Hopefully, autonomous vehicles will be electric. So we can finally break free from the tyranny of the pump. If the MIT study is correct and we can get by with just one-third of the vehicle population, and if goods vehicles ply only between 1am and 5am, there will be no need for road-pricing. In fact, there will be no need for COEs. (See? I told you all this had nothing to do with revenue for the Government.) But what will happen to our long love affair with the car, then? I reckon the desire to drive will still be there. Because there is nothing quite like being behind the wheel of a powerful and graceful car. In the future, such cars might exist beyond the autonomous sphere. They will exist purely for driving pleasure. Wasn't it Porsche which once predicted that the last car (as we know it) to be made will be a sports car? by Christopher Tan
  3. Last weekend, as I dusted off my bicycle from the basement of my apartment block and took my first ride in years to the neighbourhood mall and back, the English rock band Queen's song "Bicycle Race" popped into my head. The catchy chorus goes: "I want to ride my bicycle / I want to ride my bike / I want to ride my bicycle / I want to ride it where I like". The international hit, released in 1978, was inspired by the Tour de France and its official video featuring a bicycle race with nude women at Wimbledon Stadium caused a hullabaloo at the time. Throughout its history, the humble bicycle has oft been associated with notions of liberty, freedom, and an accompanying sense of carefree happiness. Perhaps it is these qualities, and the imagination it inspires, that led American novelist Christopher Morley to write: "The bicycle surely, should always be the vehicle of novelists and poets." I would love to ride my bike more, including to work and back. Unfortunately, Singapore remains far from being a city where I can "ride it where I like". First popularised in Europe in the 1800s, the bicycle was a permanent fixture in the early transport systems of cities all across the world, including Singapore. Singapore in 1960, with an established cycling culture, had 268,000 bicycles, compared to 63,000 cars and 19,000 motorcycles. Several major roads even had bicycle tracks next to footpaths, according to a 2012 NTU paper that tracked the evolution of cycling. But as Singapore enjoyed rapid economic development from the 1970s, growing affluence and the popularity of cars and motorcycles soon saw the bicycle fall out of favour. It was seen as an inferior form of travel and cycling paths were removed to widen roads. Transport planning began to focus on motorised vehicles, and the Government Registry of Vehicles stopped registering bicycles in 1981. This trend was reflected in developing cities worldwide. After decades of neglect, however, the bicycle is making a comeback. Taipei already boasts a famous bike-sharing scheme YouBike that has successfully integrated cycling into the daily commute. Thailand has just announced Asia's longest bicycle lane, a $60-million track spanning 184.8km across five provinces. As for Singapore, it could be the perfect cycling city. It is compact and densely built on relatively flat land. But why has it been so slow to embrace cycling as a serious complementary mode of transport and to support it with the necessary infrastructure? Its hot, humid weather is oft cited as an obstacle. Safety is also an issue. But these are not insurmountable obstacles. To some extent, the Government has recognised the benefits of cycling and has addressed these issues with various measures. Under the National Cycling Plan, the Urban Redevelopment Authority aims to increase Singapore's cycling network to more than 700km by 2030, with design features to increase shade along cycling paths. The Land Transport Authority (LTA) has invested $43 million to design and construct dedicated off-road cycling paths in seven Housing Board towns, and is due to launch a bicycle-sharing pilot scheme by the end of the year. At a recent lunch hosted by Danish Ambassador to Singapore Berit Basse for a group of editors, I took the chance to ask her what enabled Copenhagen to successfully become a cycling city. It came down to this, she said: Mindset shift and public support. When the growth of cars started to seriously encroach on public spaces in Copenhagen in the 1970s, residents started staging protests to demand that their spaces be preserved. Public demand drove policymakers to adopt measures that support the bicycle as a viable mode of transport . These included the gradual removal of car parking space in the city centre by 2 to 3 per cent a year, increasing the cost of parking in the city, and gradually narrowing roads to create space for more bicycle lanes. For something similar to happen in Singapore, we need mass support to compel planners to make space for dedicated cycling lanes. If these lanes can't be carved out of existing roads, we should allow cycling on footpaths, and make adjustments for both pedestrians and cyclists. As the saying goes, if you build it, they will come. Making cycling safe and convenient is the first step towards mass adoption. The Danes, noted Ms Basse, also came to disregard the car as a status symbol. More people own bicycles than cars in Copenhagen, and those who own cars definitely also own bicycles. When it snows in the winter, bicycle lanes are cleared first before car lanes. Ministers, CEOs and citizens alike cycle to work, she said, making it the ultimate social equaliser. Copenhagen is on track to become carbon neutral by 2025 and is regarded as Europe's greenest capital, which manages to enjoy economic growth without growing its emissions. For Singapore to get there, we will need to find a way to dilute that link between cars and status, and move people's car-owning aspirations towards a larger one that views the bicycle, not as an inferior form of transport but, as the ultimate vehicle of freedom. It is my hope that Singapore will become the world's first tropical cycling city within the next decade. We have nothing to lose and all to gain. As English writer Herbert George Wells puts it: "Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race." By Jessica Cheam from The Straits Times
  4. ST_Opinion

    COE cycles of boom and bust

    Since its inception in 1990, the vehicle quota system has followed a 10-year peak-and-trough cycle, where the annual supply of certificates of entitlement (COEs) could vary from 20,000 to 100,000. Even if this fluctuation does not impair the effectiveness of the COE system in controlling Singapore's vehicle population, it is highly disruptive. For consumers, the price swings cause discontent, and trigger wasteful outcomes such as cars barely three years old being scrapped. This is because when COE supply is on an upswing, the price of a new car could fall below the residual value of one bought two years earlier. This negative equity has an impact on banks and financial institutions. In the case of defaults, these lenders cannot recoup their loans. The recent curb on car loans mitigates this risk, but not fully. The biggest disruption, however, is to the motor industry. When COEs are bountiful, companies raise their headcount to cope with the surge in sales - only to lay off people when the next dry spell hits. This hire-and-fire pattern makes the sector a highly volatile one. This, in turn, makes skills development that much more challenging, not to mention the ripple effect that disrupted employment has on families and the economy at large. The industry is by no means insignificant. At last count, authorised agents accounted for 4,000 jobs. This could swell to 6,000 in the next two to three years, when COE supply peaks. The figures exclude parallel importers and supporting businesses such as leather upholsterers, accessory shops, and logistics providers like car transporters and warehousing firms. Industry players and advocates have appealed for a more stable and predictable COE supply pattern for some 20 years now. The Government has stood its ground, even when it was presented with the ideal environment a decade ago to make a change. That was when an oversupply brought COE prices down to $3,000 or less. by Christopher Tan
  5. HERE’S a note of caution about highspeed rail (HSR) projects. The one planned for Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, and estimated to cost $14.9 billion, has been hailed by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and his Singapore counterpart Lee Hsien Loong as a “game-changer”. The two prime ministers gave the green light to South-east Asia’s first HSR project two years ago. Once operational, the 300kmh train service will significantly reduce travelling time between the two capitals to 90 minutes, shorter than that of even low-cost air carriers. The tender process is expected to take one year, the design another year and the construction five years, with completion beyond 2020. Experts foresee that the track will be mostly elevated in Malaysia, and potentially built underground in Singapore. The bidding will inevitably be political, with Japanese and Chinese consortiums among those vying for the project. Japan wants to make it the first successful export of a full Shinkansen, or highspeed rail network, following its partial involvement in Taiwan’s HSR. Japan’s main selling point is safety, which has been underscored by the country’s “no fatal accident” record for more than half a century. Japan additionally stresses that the train operation should be frequent and punctual to maximise the convenience of an HSR. According to people familiar with the project, Japan is not ready to make as many concessions financially as China. It has been estimated that China will build the HSR not only at half the cost but also faster. Meanwhile, China has maintained a low-key stance following its failed bid for Mexico’s HSR project. Last November, Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto abruptly cancelled a contract awarded to a Chinese consortium to build the HSR to avoid “any doubts about the legitimacy and transparency”. China, however, has successfully extended its HSR across the country, connecting all the populous cities despite the 2011 fatal Wenzhou accident. China views this project and other initiatives from a wider geopolitical perspective. In 2013, China’s leading railway manufacturer, China South Locomotive and Rolling Stock Corporation, started to build a manufacturing and maintenance centre for the Asean market in Batu Gajah, Malaysia. The Kuala Lumpur-Singapore link is part of a wider rail blueprint, which stretches from Kunming, China, all the way to Singapore via Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia. Financing the HSR project will be the largest challenge. Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand gave up HSRs mainly over financial concerns, and even the United States is divided over its necessity. Currently there is scant information about how the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore HSR will be financed, but observers expect a form of public-private partnership (PPP), which aims to reduce the governments’ fiscal burden and enhance efficiency with private- sector participation. An example would be the Taiwan HSR, one of the largest build-operate-transfer projects involving a PPP to date. The operating company almost went bankrupt recently, even though it has constantly yielded operational profits. Prior to the opening of the Taiwan HSR in 2007, the local authority estimated 300,000 passengers per day, assuming the gross domestic product would continue to grow at 6 per cent annually. Financial arrangements were made accordingly, with an interest rate higher than the market rate. The actual number turned out to be 42,000, and stands at 130,000 today. Given the 7.1 million population of Kuala Lumpur and Singapore combined, which is roughly 40 per cent of the population of cities along the Taiwan HSR, Malaysia’s Land Public Transport Commission’s claim of 66,000 passengers daily (24 million annually) may be reasonable but needs to be treated with caution. Most of the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore transit stations, based on the current masterplan, are located away from the city centre. Moreover, the terminal in Kuala Lumpur will not be KL Sentral, and at the Singapore end, the terminal will be in Jurong East and not downtown. A cross-border mega infrastructure project such as the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore HSR will succeed only if it successfully integrates two countries. Therefore, it must serve the people and requires their strong support, especially when local taxpayers are increasingly becoming more cost-sensitive. A potential bottleneck is political risk. For example, Manila airport has delayed the opening of its Terminal 3 several times while the government is bogged down in legal battles, red tape and arbitration cases. Even in Malaysia and Singapore, political uncertainty is rising as the long-time ruling parties, the United Malays National Organisation and the People’s Action Party, face greater challenges from the opposition. The two governments must do everything to ensure that the project does not just generate a windfall benefit for construction firms and developers, and that the people ultimately share both the benefits and costs of the project. Since its independence in 1965, Singapore has sought to become “a hub of everything” so as to thrive economically. Perhaps it is fitting at this juncture to envision Malaysia as its integrative partner, for as PM Lee pointed out in Kuala Lumpur last month: “If Malaysia does well, then both Singapore and Malaysia will prosper.” The Kuala Lumpur-Singapore HSR is not just a railway project; it must be a role model for transforming Asean into a region with free movement of skilled labour and people. -- PHOTO : BLOOMBERG by Tomoo Kikuchi And Takehiro Masutomo For The Straits Times Tomoo Kikuchi is Senior Research Fellow and Takehiro Masutomo is Research Associate at the Centre on Asia and Globalisation, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
  6. THERE was a public uproar last year when former Public Transport Council chairman Gerard Ee said in an interview with The Straits Times that if commuters wanted better service, they should just pay for it. But Mr Ee was right, even if what he really meant was "somebody had to pay for it". Two weeks ago, Anglo-Austra-lian transport group Tower Transit emerged the winner in Singapore's first bus contracting tender. Its bid of $556 million to run 26 services out of a depot in Jurong West for a five-year period starts from the second quarter of next year. It will begin with 380 buses (up from 290 plying the area today), and ramp up to 500 by the time its contract ends. From back-of-envelope calculations based on an average annual fleet of 440 buses, Tower's bid works out to $252,727 per bus per year - assuming $556 million is split equally over the five years. That compares with around $154,500 per bus per year under the current regime, based on the combined bus revenue of SBS Transit (financial year 2013) and SMRT (FY2014) divided by their combined fleet. The estimated cost of the tax-funded Bus Service Enhancement Programme (BSEP) is around $185,000 per bus per year, after factoring in the resale value of the first 550 buses after the 10-year programme runs out. Of course, that is not a precise apple-to-apple comparison because, in bus contracting, the Government buys and owns all operating assets and infrastructure. An operator, such as Tower, bids to operate a package of services in a competitive tender. The successful operator is then paid the sum it bid for, while the Government collects and keeps fare revenue. Even so, using Tower's operating fee of $556 million as a proxy to the fare revenue of the two incumbents gives us a rough gauge of what it takes to create a sustainable bus operating model. In both cases, an operator makes money by controlling its operating expenses, which include paying the Government to lease its fleet of buses. In the current regime, neither SBS Transit nor SMRT has been able to cover bus operating expenses with fare revenue alone. In principle, the new contracting model allows an operator to focus on meeting service standards without having to worry about capital expenditures and fare revenue. Managing all three objectives, it seems, has been a juggling act made impossible by the fact that fares are controlled by the Public Transport Council. Clearly, if fares remain unchanged, the Government will end up subsidising bus operations in a big way. That, however, has been the premise of bus contracting. London, which started bus contracting more than 30 years ago (when the late prime minister Margaret Thatcher began privatising nationalised institutions), has seen its bus subsidies climbing year on year. According to a 2013 government report, bus subsidies have risen from £24 million or 2p per passenger trip in 2001 to £393 million (about S$814 million) or 17p per passenger trip in 2012. But supporters of the system point out that service standards have risen, too. And that many commuters travel for free. These include those over 60 years, the disabled, and children up to 15. Those between 16 and 18 pay concessionary rates. That is what Singapore is trying to achieve. In the bus contracting model, at least half of all buses will arrive within 10 minutes, up from 30 per cent today. And intervals between buses will not exceed 15 minutes on any route, down from 30 minutes now. While that may not sound like much, the standards are a feat that requires a disciplined and motivated staff to pull off. At the same time, an operator has to be efficient, as that affects how much profit it makes at the end of the day. But to start off, an operator like Tower will have to offer competitive wages to build up its pool of drivers. This is not just because drivers are always in such short supply, but SBS Transit and SMRT - which will lose a number of routes to Tower from next year - are also likely to retain as many of the good ones as possible, so that they can be redeployed to other routes. So, this competition for drivers will be positive for the profession - just like the liberalisation of the taxi industry some 10 years ago has proven to be beneficial to cabbies. From a policy perspective, the contracting model is a more transparent and elegant way of doling out subsidies than the multi-billion-dollar BSEP, which is often misconstrued as financial assistance for bus companies. But will bus contracting be better for commuters, and will it be worth the substantially higher cost it entails? Well, that really depends on whether the new service standards will be met. If commuters need not wait more than 15 minutes at a bus stop, it will be money well spent (even if frequencies of 10 minutes and less are common in London). Because today, bus intervals here are often long or erratic. And if service frequency increases, the level of crowdedness will naturally decrease. Hence, bus travel will also become more comfortable with the new operating model, if all goes according to plan. To make this happen, the regulator has to be watchful. Otherwise, we may end up with an operating model that merely enriches transport companies. Right now, the only missing piece in this grand ambition is a bus timetable. Several cities publish bus timetables, which allow commuters to plan their day with precision. They provide more certainty than online or smartphone apps, which, even if they are accessible to everybody, merely alert commuters to when the next bus will arrive. As it stands, government subsidies for buses are set to rise with the contracting model. While future contracts may be less costly as competition hots up, it is clear buses will eventually get nearly as much state support as trains have been getting. And, in all likelihood, fares will rise too, to reflect the improved service. As Mr Ee put it, there is no free lunch. -- ST ILLUSTRATION : MIEL by Christopher Tan
  7. ST_Opinion

    Analysing train breakdowns, line by line

    WHEN the relatively new car you drive keeps breaking down, you can look to only two possible reasons. One, you have not been maintaining it well; two, it was not made well. You do not have to be an engineer to understand that but, just for the record, a senior engineer dispensed that truism when I asked him recently why our rail system keeps breaking down. Ever since the two massive breakdowns in 2011 on the North-South Line that led to a costly and time-consuming public inquiry, the spotlight has shone blindingly on the operator - on how it has fallen short on maintenance. The $10 million inquiry found operator SMRT to be mostly at fault for the pre-Christmas breakdowns that affected more than 200,000 commuters, although it also said the Land Transport Authority was somewhat lacking in its regulatory role. The 2011 breakdowns resulted in an overhaul of the older North-South and East-West lines, which will take up to 2019 to be completed. Maintenance has been ramped up and replacements are being planned. In time, the two older lines should be much more reliable than they are today. But in the meantime, commuters may have to bear with the frequency of major breakdowns (those lasting more than 30 minutes each) that has not changed much since 2011. Last year, the two older lines had six major breakdowns (or an average of one every two months), down from seven in 2011. The MRT network on the whole has 12 such breakdowns - up from 11 in 2011. As you can see from those numbers, MRT breakdowns in Singapore are not confined to the older lines. Even the freshly minted Downtown Line Stage 1, which started running in December 2013, broke down more frequently than other lines for every 100,000km clocked by its trains. The North-East Line, which turns 12 in June, had three major breakdowns last year - up from one in 2011 - even though it showed an improvement in tackling shorter incidents. What is happening to the train system, and what is being done? First, it may be necessary to break down the problems by line. NORTH-SOUTH, EAST-WEST MRT LINES - 28 years old PROBLEMS range from trains to tracks to power supply. Since 2011, several steps have been taken to make these two oldest lines more reliable. These include replacing major components on both trains and infrastructure. In short, almost everything that can be fixed in the North-South and East-West lines is being fixed. Older trains are being revamped, with new electronic, pneumatic and propulsion systems installed. Flat spots on wheels have been eradicated, and the trains are moving more smoothly and more quietly now as a result. Backup batteries are checked and charged more regularly now. The power-supplying third rail - which was the main cause of the 2011 failures - is being replaced. Meanwhile, precision monitoring machines ply the tracks each night to make sure the third rail is perfectly aligned. Another system that measures track vibration was put in place. Yet another that monitors the alignment of the trains' current collector shoes - which make contact with the third rail - has been put in place. Rail sleepers are being replaced. The signalling system is being replaced. The air-conditioning system of some trains and stations is also being replaced. At one point, replacing the running rail - the metal tracks that trains run on - was also being considered. Essentially, almost everything besides tunnels and viaducts has been or is being refurbished or replaced. Granted, all the works will take a few more years to be completed, but with so much effort already expended since 2012, shouldn't the system be more reliable by now? Actually, the number of glitches pertaining to trains has fallen. The number of train withdrawals - trains withdrawn from service midway because of flaws - has come down from 2.6 per 100,000km operated in 2011 to 0.9 last year. Other minor flaws have also eased. The number of delays lasting over five minutes has also come down, from 1.75 per 100,000km to 1.17 last year. But the number of major breakdowns - those lasting more than 30 minutes and which cause the most inconvenience - rose last year to 12, the highest in at least four years. Also, the faults that caused a spate of breakdowns in the first months of this year seem to be train-related. So, what gives? According to SMRT, the train upgrading programme had just started, and will take up till 2018 to be completed. To lend some historical perspective, the two lines won international accolades in the early years for being reliable. So, it would appear that the host of problems they have been facing are less to do with build quality than maintenance. NORTH-EAST, CIRCLE AND DOWNTOWN LINES - 12, 6 and 1.25 years old respectively THESE newer MRT lines have also had their problems - in fact, more than their fair share. Last year, the Downtown Line Stage 1, which started running in December 2013, broke down more frequently than any other line, with 3.43 delays lasting more than five minutes for every 100,000km clocked. That is nearly three times as frequently as the overall network. The Land Transport Authority says new lines take six to nine months to "stabilise". Well, assuming that is so, it does not explain why other relatively new lines were also beset with faults. For instance, 120km of the Circle Line's power cables had to be replaced just three years after the new line opened. And 1,600 U-bolts holding up the North-East Line's power cables are being replaced. Some of the bolts started to snap when the line was barely 10 years old. Stainless steel cables of a counter-weight system that kept the power cables taut snapped when the line was nine years old. And a faulty insulator brought the same line to a standstill when it was only three years old. All these have since been replaced. Going by these incidents, it would appear that the newer systems have quality issues right from the start. It would serve us well to understand what these problems are, and why we are having them before we can effectively eradicate them and prevent them from happening again. Simply assigning blame to poor maintenance will not do anyone any good. BUKIT PANJANG LRT - 16 years THEN, there is the LRT network. There has been a string of fresh incidents since February, including a fire that shut down the Bukit Panjang LRT system for nearly a day. The Bukit Panjang LRT system started breaking down practically from the time it opened in 1999. And it has been breaking down regularly ever since. Last year, it had 3.95 delays lasting more than five minutes for every 100,000km clocked - the highest of any transit line here. While that is a significant improvement from 5.08 in 2011, the question we should ask here is whether the monumental effort expended to make it more reliable is worth it. Getting this problematic line in shape may be akin to getting a Lada to perform like a Toyota. You can probably do it with enough willpower, time and finance, but will it be worth it for a line that carries fewer than 100,000 rides a day and which has been incurring losses from year one? Would it be better to cut losses and scrap the Lada? After all, the capacity of the LRT line can be met with fewer than 100 feeder buses, which will in fact serve residents better on a door-to-door basis. Clearly, this was a poorly built system, compounded by less-than-optimal maintenance over the years. Overview LOOKING at the disruption statistics from 2011 to last year, it would seem that train faults have been reduced and are under control (with the exception of those of the new Downtown Line). Much work still needs to be done, though, going by the spate of incidents in the first months of this year. When new trains arrive this year, and when the SMRT train-refurbishment programme gets well under way, our trains should be more reliable. Faults related to systems and infrastructure remain a challenge. The ongoing upgrading works on the older lines will take another three years or so to finish, but we need to have a proper assessment of the newer lines to understand if there are fundamental or innate issues that we need to address to prevent serious failure as the lines age. Rail commuters - who make 2.9 million trips a day and counting - will have no choice but to grit their teeth as the network undergoes various stages of repair and rejuvenation. Granted, it is not the ideal state of affairs, but commuters in some of the best systems in the world also experience occasional hiccups. Hong Kong's MTR, for instance, had a bad spell last year, with 12 major breakdowns (equalling Singapore's figure). Before last year, though, Hong Kong's MTR system had a largely pristine record. In fact, it has been a consistent top performer in the CoMET-Nova reliability ranking of 29 international metro operators. Singapore, on the other hand, has in recent years ranked above average among the 29, but near the bottom among the newer Asian metros. Tokyo's metro system does not belong to this group, but would easily top the rankings if it did. In the bigger scheme of things, Singapore's mass rapid transit system is a system in its infancy, compared with those in Tokyo, New York, London and Paris. We are probably at the steepest stage of our learning curve because our first lines are coming of age and require major overhauls for the first time. But once we go past this steep curve, we should be in a far better position to deal with problems as our newer lines age. It will take time and money on the part of the Government and operators, and lots of patience and understanding on the part of commuters. The worrying part would be for us to dismiss the possibility of inherent flaws that no reasonable maintenance regimen will be able to anticipate and address. -- ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL by Christopher Tan
  8. ST_Opinion

    Why Singapore still needs more cars

    When the COE system was just four years old in 1994, well-respected transport and behavioural economist Anthony Chin predicted that, in time, only top earners in Singapore would be able to afford cars. The Government dismissed his assertion and, in the two decades since, it would seem that Professor Chin - who died last year at the age of 57 after a short illness - got it wrong. Car ownership has been rising, not falling. By 2012, 45 per cent of households owned cars - up from less than 35 per cent when the certificate of entitlement (COE) system was introduced in 1990. But the trend is reversing. After allowing the car population to grow at 3 per cent a year since 1990, the Government halved it to 1.5 per cent in 2009. The cap has been lowered three more times since and is now at 0.25 per cent. And last week, Senior Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo announced in Parliament that it is likely to go to zero per cent some time "in the future". With Singapore's population growing, what this means is that the percentage of car-owning households will start shrinking. In fact, the contraction has already started. Currently, it is estimated that 44 per cent of households own cars - one percentage point lower than in 2012. And when the population grows to, say, 6.9 million, that figure could go down to 35 per cent. That is assuming the number of cars remains constant. But there are signs that the car population has been dipping, even with an allowed 0.25 per cent growth. Last month, there were 597,152 cars on the road, the lowest number in four years. If and when zero growth kicks in some time "in the future", the shrinkage might well accelerate. Then, the late Prof Chin's pronouncement in 1994 might ring true indeed. It is not an unexpected outcome, though. Any pricing mechanism, taken to its logical end, will always mean the less well-to-do making way for the more well-to- do. And in any land-scarce city, it is also logical that the majority relies on public transport. The question is: Why did we allow the car population to grow at 3 per cent per annum for 18 long years before deciding that it was not sustainable? It is much harder to persuade someone who has been driving to give up his car than to convince him he does not need a car before he went out and bought one. So why 3 per cent? Actually, the growth rate was pegged at just below the historical growth rate of Singapore's car population in the pre-COE days before 1990. And it was pegged well below the foreseeable growth rate that would have resulted from rising income levels. Here's the interesting thing, though. The actual growth rate was more than 3 per cent. Between 1991 and 2010, the car population grew by an average of 4 per cent per annum. This was largely because the Government could not get the COE supply formula right and, for many years, dished out far more certificates than the number of cars taken off the road. It came to a point where people who would normally buy a motorcycle decided to fork out a bit more for a car instead. One could get a new budget car for well under $30,000. The oversupply situation was so serious that even motor traders publicly called for the COE supply to be cut. Well, at first no one listened. Then, in 2008, former transport minister Raymond Lim announced that the allowable growth rate would be halved to 1.5 per cent. The move also came on the back of a continued decline in public-transport ridership. The decline started in 2001 and, by 2004, ridership numbers had fallen to a seven-year low. The blame for the turn of events - which took place despite a rising population - fell squarely on fast-growing car ownership. And, suddenly, the tide turned. COE prices began climbing, car growth slowed and public-transport ridership began to soar (fuelled doubly by Singapore's explosive population growth). From 2005 to last year, public-transport ridership rose by a whopping 60 per cent to 6.65 million trips a day. Here's another question: Was the system ready for that sudden and sizeable growth? Looking back, the obvious answer would be an emphatic "no". But the Government has been working hard since 2012 to set things right - by beefing up the bus fleet with tax revenue, and by improving the reliability and capacity of the rail network. These plans will take time to materialise. Meanwhile, ridership growth could accelerate. The Land Transport Authority expects the number of daily public-transport trips to hit 10 million by 2020 - an additional 3.35 million, or 50 per cent, in just five more years. By then, the operation of the Downtown Line would have been in full swing and the various measures to improve capacity on all the existing rail lines would already be in place. All the 1,000 tax-funded public buses would also have been rolled out. They would cater to 2.5 million to three million more trips a day. Which means that in the best-case scenario - where the system is working optimally and trips across the island are evenly spread out - there would still be a shortfall of 350,000 trips a day. Which is why we will still need cars - more cars than we have today. Some people may say bicycles and car-sharing schemes will cater to some or all of these trips, but that is too idealistic a notion. Private cars here are used more efficiently and intensively than in other cities, going by their inordinately high annual mileage. Car owners have a propensity for trip-chaining, thus accomplishing several mobility tasks in one journey. It is unlikely car-sharing will be a close substitute to ownership, especially when everybody wants to travel at the same time in the same direction. Yes, an island state like Singapore cannot rely on cars for most of its mobility needs. But until its public-transport system is ready to cope, nudging people out of their cars will just cause more unhappiness than the move would ordinarily have caused. In short, timing is everything. There is another reason - quite removed from mobility but just as valid - why a zero car growth policy is ill-conceived: It has a huge stifling effect on ambition and aspirations - perhaps, even foreign investments. Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew himself recognised this when he said just over three years ago that he would not adopt a zero-growth policy. With the notable exception of Hong Kong, most other leading cities have higher car ownership than Singapore's 117 per 1,000 residents. New York City is at 230, Tokyo, 260; London, 345; and Seoul, 210. Yet, drivers in these cities use the car less than Singapore drivers, and take buses and trains far more frequently. Some are top earners, but many others are not. Written by Christopher Tan
  9. ST_Opinion

    Do more to smoothen COE supply

    LATEST figures from the Land Transport Authority (LTA) show that the private car population is at its lowest level since 2011, falling to 598,219 as at the end of January. The shrinkage could continue, with analysts saying it is a sign that the supply of Certificates of Entitlement (COEs) is lagging behind actual replacement demand. But a larger imbalance is on the horizon and could cause COE prices - which have been trending down - to spike by 2020 unless something is done to smoothen the annual COE supply. That is because the supply of COEs in categories A, B and E is likely to shrink by 2020, when fewer cars are likely to be scrapped. The number of cars scrapped decides the number of COEs available in the following year. LTA figures show that at the end of last year, the number of cars aged up to five years ranged from about 22,000 to about 41,000, while those aged six to 10 years ranged from about 68,000 to 114,000. Thanks to the low COE supply since 2011, cars are being scrapped near the 10-year expiry of their COEs. This contrasts with the years of bountiful COE quotas between 2004 and 2008, when the typical scrapped car was six to seven years old. Thus, if most cars continue to be scrapped when their COEs are about to expire, we may expect a feast of COEs in the next five years. But by 2020, low COE quotas are again likely and a painful consequence is high premiums, which have averaged about $64,000 in category A (and about $75,000 and $76,000 in categories B and E) since 2011. In comparison, COE pre-miums in those categories averaged between $16,000 and $17,000 between 2004 and 2008. One way to mitigate the roller-coaster ride in COE pre-miums is to smoothen supply. Back in 2013, anticipating the feast-or-famine cycle in the years ahead, Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew asked the LTA to find "a practical way of putting aside some of the supply from the peak that we expect in the next few years, for the future when COE supply becomes tighter". An analysis of COE figures shows that premiums shot up dramatically whenever the bi-monthly supply slipped below about 800, 700 and 500 in categories A, B and E. One way to reduce volatility is to have at least those amounts of COEs in the three categories in the auctions held twice a month. That would amount to about 48,000 COEs annually. To ensure this minimum supply from 2020 to 2024, when few cars are expected to be scrapped, COE supply from 2015 to 2019 would have to be adjusted. That would help ensure the car population does not exceed the longterm target of 620,000. There are several ways to "bank" COEs in years of plenty. One consists of setting a fixed cap, for example, no more than 72,000 COEs per year across categories A, B and E. Another is to set a variable cap by "banking" a constant fraction - say one-fifth - whenever the annual number of COEs in these categories exceeds 57,600. These caps were arrived at assuming zero growth in the car population and the 2014 scrapping pattern. How the caps would work UNDER the fixed-cap scenario, if the combined annual quota for COEs in categories A, B and E is below 48,000, it will be adjusted upwards to 48,000. If the combined quota is between 48,000 and 72,000, no adjustment will be made. But above that, the quota of COEs will be capped at 72,000. This strategy will result in total savings peaking at about 88,000 COEs by 2019, but these will be more or less used up by the end of 2024. A disadvantage of a fixed cap on COE supply is that in some years, it can lead to a mad rush to buy. For example, about 114,000 cars will reach 10 years in 2016. Supplying only 72,000 COEs then could lead to a scramble for them by owners who want to buy new cars to replace the ones they scrapped. A variable cap is a way of sharing the "pain" more equally. Based on simulations, it would seem that only about 20 per cent of COEs need to be banked when total annual supply in categories A, B and E exceeds 57,600 between this year and 2019. That will guarantee at least 48,000 COEs in these categories and it will also result in total savings peaking at about 88,000 COEs, which will be more or less disbursed by the end of 2024. The option of a flat supply of COEs has often been mentioned. It turns out that under the same assumptions as above, the annual flat quota works out to about 59,000 COEs across categories A, B and E from this year. That, however, would result in total savings peaking at about 143,800 COEs by 2019, implying that only about 77 per cent of the 620,000 target car population will be on the road then. Hence, this option is the least practical. In the 25-year history of the COE, there have been two roller-coaster cycles in the premiums. Another peak in premiums is expected in about five years and that can be avoided by a bold management of COE supply. The earlier that is implemented, the less painful it will be for all stakeholders. --ST PHOTO: Kevin Lim by Chu Singfat The writer is Associate Professor of Analytics at the NUS Business School.
  10. ST_Opinion

    Ask not if it's a good time to buy a car

    Is it a good time to buy a car? I get that question a lot but, in recent months, it has almost become a de facto greeting. Instead of "hello", "how are you?" or "it's a hot day, isn't it?", I get: "Is it a good time to buy a car?" I will try my best to answer the question which has obviously been keeping many Singaporeans awake at night. I will start by saying it is an irrelevant question - for the vast majority, anyway. Today, your decision to buy a car depends much less on where certificate of entitlement (COE) prices are at, than how old your current vehicle is. More than half of Singapore's private car population is currently more than seven years old. That is quite a phenomenon, especially when you consider that we had one of the youngest car populations in the world merely a decade ago. The state of affairs has to do with how COE supplies are determined here, but more on that later. So, with so many old cars on the road, the pertinent question is: How many more months do you have before you need to scrap your current ride? Got it? Now, just before the end of that period would be a good time to buy. Going by anecdotal evidence, this is how motorists have been behaving. Because COE prices are so high, most people are keeping their cars until the last possible day of the vehicle's 10-year statutory lifespan. I say most people because there are those with means who will buy regardless of price. These folks do not ask "is it a good time to buy a car?" Rather, their de facto greeting tends to be "what is a good car to buy?" If you belong to that group, you can stop reading now and go to Life! Motoring to check out this week's suggestions. For the rest of you, and I count myself among you, I stand by my earlier recommendation: Use your car to the fullest - it not only makes good economic sense, but it is also environmentally sound. That is exactly what I am doing with my Toyota Wish, which is 91/4 years old now. I bought it in 2006, with a $9,000 COE. COE premiums are highly unlikely to ever go back to that level. Singapore's human population has grown by 23 per cent - or one million people - since 2006. So, demand for cars has gone up significantly. The way COE supply is formulated has also changed. Today, supply - determined every three months - hinges on the number of vehicles scrapped in the preceding three months. Thus, supply tends to lag behind real demand. In the past, the allowable annual growth of 3 per cent might have masked this lag. But now, with the allowable growth rate at 0.25 per cent, any new injection of COEs is too minuscule. To illustrate, this rate translates to merely 134 fresh car COEs per month in the current quota period. Or 3.5 per cent of the total number of COEs available to car buyers. It is not a pretty picture. Nevertheless, the quota is poised for a dramatic growth between now and 2017, before it starts to taper again from mid-2018. With this supply explosion, prices will be on a downward trend. They could be as low as $30,000 for Category A (cars up to 1,600cc and 130bhp) and $40,000 for Category B (cars above 1,600cc or 130bhp). When? Sometime between 2016 and 2017. But that is irrelevant if your car is due to expire earlier. If your car has a couple more years before its time is up, you are in a good position because the ensuing COE bonanza is likely to translate to prices substantially lower than at present. This will happen provided the Government does not hold back some certificates for the next "dry spell", which is due to start in late 2019. Even though Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew first mooted this three years ago, there has been no word yet on whether he will do it. There has been much speculation. One recurring theory is that the Government will not do anything that is as unpopular as this before elections. And indeed it will be unpopular even though, over the long term, it will lead to more stability for car buyers and sellers. Unpopular because it will lead to tens of thousands of car-owning households not being able to own a car, at least in the medium term. And it will lead to COE prices heading for the moon in the near term. This implies that any decision to hold back COEs will be made after the polls. I know what you are thinking now. Better buy soon, before the election is called. But that would be foolish. One, very few people know when elections will be called. Two, a pre-election rush to the showroom will lead to only one thing: higher prices. Barring systemic changes, I stick to my original advice: Buy only when your car is near expiry. And if prices are still high then, consider revalidating your COE for another five or 10 years. It may still be a costly move but, in the long run, far less expensive than buying another car. by Christopher Tan
  11. ST_Opinion

    Pot of gold at the end of the rail line?

    IMAGINE a mode of transport that almost halves the current fastest door-to- door travel time between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. That is the exciting prospect offered by the KL-Singapore high-speed rail (HSR) project, where instead of 4.2 hours by air, you will be whisked city to city in 2.5 hours. These times include airport/station transfers, wait time and immigration clearance. Because of this sheer speed and accessibility, the KL-Singapore HSR - which can be up and running by 2025 if work starts next year - is expected to change profoundly the way people in both countries live, work and play. An HSR links up cities far more effectively than planes can. Singapore has shortlisted three possible sites for its terminus, each with its own potential - and pitfalls. Until now, the possibility of an HSR line linking two countries that were once one - an idea bandied about for three decades - remained vague, the way cross- border projects (not just those involving Singapore and Malaysia) tend to be. But developments are firming up. The choice of site for the Singapore terminus will be announced when ministers on both sides meet at the Leaders' Retreat here, said to be tentatively slated for the end of next month. Singapore has thrown up three possible sites for the terminus: Tuas West, Jurong East and the city centre. Here are the pros and cons for each. Tuas West IT MAY seem like the boondocks right now, but this area is slated to become an enormous hub for trade and industry. There is plenty of land there, so an HSR terminus - which requires quite a lot of space - can be built without much difficulty. And because it is currently an area of sparse development, builders have a fairly blank canvas to work with. This saves costs, as there would be no or minimal land acquisition and diversion of existing infrastructure required. The terminus can link up with the MRT Tuas West Extension for relatively painless transfers to the rest of the island. Freight transport an option: A future MRT line will also extend towards Tuas South, and this could form a link to Singapore's new port location. Indeed, while HSR lines are predominantly associated with high- speed passenger commutes, there are interesting developments to suggest that HSR can be an attractive option for freight. Freight can be moved during off-peak passenger hours; or concurrently, using well-timed schedules that allow passenger and cargo trains to share the same line safely. If the KL-Singapore HSR can double as a freight service, freight can subsidise operating costs, and consequently, passenger fares. Another cost upside of Tuas is that the line need not go underground in this non-residential district. The downside is that Tuas has an industrial setting, and is quite unglamorous for an HSR terminus. And, of course, it is far from the Central Business District (CBD) and the hip Marina Bay area, making cross-border rail commutes - to seal deals or to wine and dine - several stops short of chic and seamless. Jurong East SINGAPORE is positioning this precinct to be the "jewel in the west", and plans are already taking shape to turn the once sleepy hollow into a vibrant "lake district" in which to work, live and play. Shopping malls have sprouted (seemingly overnight), and hotels are being erected, recreation areas zoned, a hospital is near completion and, of course, dozens of housing projects are in the pipeline. The existing Chinese and Japanese gardens are also being merged to create Jurong Lake Gardens. Even a highway is being moved to free up more land for waterfront housing. Besides the East-West MRT Line that serves the area now, the future Cross Island Line and Jurong Region Line will improve connections to other parts of Singapore. While not as sparse as Tuas West, there are open spaces where an HSR terminus can be built. And unlike Tuas, the image of the transformed Jurong East fits in nicely with the high-tech, wind-chiselled picture of an HSR. Detractors may say it is still a distance from the city centre, where the action is. But in the not-too-distant future, Jurong East might have its own fair share of action. An HSR terminus there will complete its transformation. Downside? While it could become as cool as New York's rejuvenated Meatpacking District, it is no Wall Street. For that, we still have to look south. City centre THE undisputed financial centre of Singapore is Raffles Place. To have an HSR stop there will undoubtedly add to the downtown buzz. That the fast-developing Marina Bay area is just next door adds to the attraction. For a traveller, nothing beats coming out of a station and strolling over to his final destination. Indeed, HSR lines the world over tend to link city centres. London to Paris; Zurich to Brussels; Taipei to Kaohsiung, and so on. But not all of them are right smack in the middle of the city. For instance, the Tokyo-Osaka leg of Japan's Shinkansen stops 3km outside Osaka's city centre. This apparently was to avoid the engineering difficulties of running the HSR into the heart of the city. If Singapore were to build its terminus in the city centre, where would it do it? Well, the old Tanjong Pagar railway station would be nice, as it will be in the middle of an intense mixed-use district once the port moves to Tuas. The facade of the grand old building, as well as some elements of its interior, can be retained, and it can be a wonderful link between the past and the future. Station platforms will have to be underground, as an HSR line running into the city will no doubt have to be below ground because of space constraints. Largely because of this, a city terminus will be the costliest option. Excavations will have to be deep to avoid a congested subterranean area filled with utilities, pilings, basement floors, and MRT tunnels. It will also have to be cavernous. This will add to the final bill, which can easily be five times that of Tuas and three times that of Jurong East. Expense versus benefits A TERMINUS in Marina Bay would be a good compromise. It is central, but there is still plenty of space above ground for an HSR station. There is even enough space for train stabling. Yes, it would be expensive, prime land. Too precious to be set aside for a train station, some say. Yet, it is exactly what Hong Kong has done. Prime real estate in West Kowloon has been set aside for its HSR terminus. The decision whipped up plenty of controversy, but decision-makers believe that future benefits outweigh the hefty initial capital outlay. Once it is built, people from Guangzhou can zip to Hong Kong for dinner and the theatre, and still return home before midnight. It will allow Hong Kong to tap more effectively into a population of 60 million in the Pearl River Delta region. Hopefully, policymakers here think likewise. They have to believe the HSR line will benefit Singapore as much as it will Malaysia - if not now, then in the future. Academics have suggested that HSR lines create a so-called "straw effect", where economic value flows towards the strongest city along a line. It has not been proven conclusively but if true, which city along the KL-Singapore HSR will benefit most from the straw effect? On that score, Kuala Lumpur is making sure it has a convincing "pull" at its end of the line. It is siting its terminus in Bandar Malaysia - an ambitious project that transforms the old Sungei Besi area (3km from KL's financial district) into a dynamic, connected township. Which of Singapore's three choices trumps Bandar Malaysia? -- ST ILLUSTRATION : MANNY FRANCISCO by Christopher Tan
  12. HOW will the latest public transport fare revision affect you? The Public Transport Council (PTC) yesterday said it had decided on an overall fare increase of 2.8 per cent. But fares for more than 1.1 million commuters won't change, as fares were frozen for senior citizens and concession pass holders. So the actual impact of fare increases will depend on the profile of your family. A typical household with two working adults and two school-going children who each make two trips a day is likely to see a $7.20 rise in monthly transport expenditure. While that may not sound like much, it is sizeable for a one-year rise when you compare it to the average increase experienced by households between 2007/8 and 2012/13. According to the Department of Statistics, the increase in transport expenditure over that five-year period was merely $10 - from $160 to $170 a month. That would work out to be an average increase of only $2 per year. But of course averages do not always tell the whole story. For instance, if a household consists of two retirees and their unmarried son who earns less than $1,900 a month, it would see zero increase in bus and train fares this year, thanks to fare concessions. If the policy to help vulnerable groups continues, it is possible that low-wage workers and persons with disabilities will not have to incur more on transport fares for many more years to come. Of course, their cost will be borne by other commuters. Well, mainly able-bodied adults holding down relatively well-paying jobs. Public transport companies - which pay their shareholders millions in dividends a year - are also required to share the social responsibility. Up to half of their revenue gains from a fare increase will be clawed back and put into a fund to help the poorest commuters defray the cost of a fare hike. This stronger social safety net was put in place two years ago by the Fare Review Mechanism Committee headed by Mr Richard Magnus, under the direction of Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew. That is why going forward, adult fares are likely to rise by bigger quantums than in the past. It may sound unfair, but it is actually more socially equitable than previously, when a fare increase cut across a wide spectrum of the community. Yes, the Public Transport Fund had been around back then, but efforts to disburse transport vouchers were feeble at best. Some years, only half the vouchers were distributed to needy families. This has improved dramatically. Last year, 207,000 of the 250,000 available vouchers were distributed; and out of those, 180,000 were redeemed. At this juncture, the casual observer might ask: Why not have smaller fare rises in the first place, and not have to claw back anything from the operators? That would result in one of two things. One, the operators not having enough revenue growth to cover cost increases. Two, the more likely outcome, is that the Government will have to fork out more in subsidies. As such, the current mechanism is quite sound. The only quibble one might have with it is the long time lag between factors that justify an adjustment, and the actual adjustment. This year's exercise was based on 2013 figures, using changes in consumer price index, average wage and energy index from that year. The reason for this was that full-year 2014 figures were not yet available when the Public Transport Council deliberated on the latest application by the operators for an adjustment. This poses a special problem, but it has to do with public perception. The man in the street is probably unfamiliar with the intricacies of the fare revision exercise. What he sees is oil prices plunging by nearly 60 per cent in the last half-year, and fares going up at the same time. What he also probably forgets is that part of last year's increase was held back to prevent too big a hike. This problem of perception can be managed if the fare revision exercise were to revert to the previous timeline for changes. That is, PTC deliberations to be done around July, and new fares to be effected in October. The time lag would be just one year, not two. Another alternative would be to use projected figures instead of actual figures. And if there is a big difference, work in an adjustment the following year. Policymakers loathe doing this, though. They prefer to work with hard, precise numbers. Also, they sometimes get things very wrong when they do projections - like the way certificates of entitlement supplies were determined a few years ago. It was based on the projected number of cars to be scrapped in a given year. Theoretically, it was a more market-responsive method. But projections were eventually way off the mark, which made the Government revert to the original formula of basing supply on vehicles actually scrapped. A similar flip-flop in the public transport sphere will cause more angst, as there are a lot more bus and train commuters than car owners. -- ST FILE PHOTO by Christopher Tan
  13. WITH the growing popularity of independent taxi-booking apps here, the Government recently announced a regulatory framework for these services, in a bid to safeguard the interests and safety of commuters using them. At least five taxi apps have entered the Singapore market in the past two years, including Easy Taxi, GrabTaxi, Hailo, MoobiTaxi and Uber Taxi. The market is set to grow further as investors pour money into these start-ups. GrabTaxi, which operates in Singapore and five other countries, has raised US$340 million (S$450 million) in 14 months, with the latest injection of US$250 million from Japan multinational SoftBank announced earlier this month. San Francisco-based Uber raised US$1.2 billion in June. Unlike booking services offered by individual taxi operators, these apps offer commuters a higher chance of getting a cab, by allowing users to book taxis from any cab company. They also match drivers and passengers efficiently through the mobile device's location-based technology. Last month, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) spelt out a broad framework of regulations for these app services, which include specifying fares upfront and having customer support services. While the regulations will take effect only in the second quarter of next year, some worried if they would stifle start-up companies' innovation. But app companies themselves aren't worried. Most say they already comply with the regulations and welcome the Government's move, as they feel they are now regarded as legitimate players in the taxi industry. This is significant because their presence has been a contentious point for cab companies, many of which have invested heavily in their own booking systems. One cab operator earlier told its drivers not to use the apps. App companies charge cabbies a small fee per match - revenue which would have gone to the operators if the bookings were made through their own centres. The Government's latest move, however, seems to suggest that the apps are here to stay, but they are laying down rules to make sure commuters' interests are looked after. Do the regulations go far enough? Some have suggested that app companies regulate cabbies' behaviour. But taxi-booking apps function as "middlemen" - they facilitate booking of cabs, but do not provide a transportation service. So app companies cannot be held directly accountable for how cabbies and passengers behave towards each other during the ride. But they should be responsible for allowing only licensed drivers and taxis to use the app. This would prevent a recurrence of what was reported in April, when a commuter booked a cab through GrabTaxi but was met with a Ford car. App companies will be kept on their toes, with penalties of up to $100,000 per violation and even being barred from operating here for severe offences. The stiff penalties ensure they will work harder to make sure drivers who sign up with the apps are licensed cabbies. This makes it safer for commuters to use them. Regulations have other advantages. For one, they create a barrier of entry to "fly-by-night" app companies that may look to make a quick buck from the 28,000 cabs and 970,000 taxi rides made here every day. Compared to taxi companies, ride matching services do not incur the hefty costs of buying and maintaining a fleet of cabs. An industry source said it may take as little as under $20,000 to set up a basic booking app. Getting app companies to register with the LTA, with every successful application being valid for three years, sends the right signal that only serious players are welcome. Too many apps can fragment the market. Whenever an app company enters a new market, it goes all out to woo drivers to use their system, dangling monetary rewards for fulfilling a certain number of pick-ups and offering free smartphones preloaded with their app. This may cause cabbies to flock to taxi app companies offering them the best incentives, and users having to change apps or use multiple ones concurrently to maximise their odds of getting cab. Regulations also help curtail unwanted practices that distort the market. A case in point is the no bidding, no tipping rule. The GrabTaxi app used to allow commuters to offer tips or bonuses for cabbies to pick them up. But this practice was frowned upon, for fear that taxis will become biddable commodities, with drivers wanting to pick up only commuters offering the highest dollar. Imagine if cabbies take to waiting for desperate passengers to dangle fat tips before they decide to start their engines. The regulations forbid such tipping. But while useful, some think the regulations can do more. Right now, cab companies have to meet a Quality of Service standard, which require 92 per cent of customer calls to their despatch centre to be successfully matched with a taxi. Making app companies fulfil a similar standard will level the playing field and raise the efficiency of taxi booking here. Perhaps future regulations can require companies to share their data collected, about where passengers request for cabs and how easily they get them. This can help the LTA study the oft-lamented mismatch in supply and demand. Singapore is not the first city to impose regulations. Some cities ban taxi-booking apps outright. In Shanghai, cabbies can't use the apps during peak hours because there is concern that they will neglect street hails and focus on app requests to earn booking fees. This does not seem to be a problem yet in Singapore. But if apps take off in a big way here, and more cabbies use them exclusively, there's a risk here too that roadside pick-ups will fall, which would affect the less tech-savvy. That might then require a new set of regulations - but for now, those proposed are sensible and will create more peace of mind for taxi app companies, cabbies and commuters alike. -- ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO by Adrian Lim from The Straits Times
  14. ST_Opinion

    Car-sharing does not reduce road use

    How would an electric car- sharing scheme further our ambition to be "car-lite"? In short, it does not. Car-sharing schemes, electric or otherwise, will actually lead to higher utilisation of road space, not less. And as the whole purpose of going "car-lite" is to put a cap on congestion, car-sharing does not quite serve the cause. Former Transport Minister Raymond Lim told Parliament in 2010: "From an overall transport perspective, more people sharing a car in effect increases the use of that car." Furthermore, Singapore already has an absolute cap on its car population, via the vehicle quota system. In countries where there is no such control, a car-sharing scheme might conceivably reduce overall car demand marginally. Not so in Singapore, where the quota system has been in place since 1990. In Singapore, car-sharing schemes will only lead to a greater demand for road space. If the end goal is to reduce demand for road space, then we need to ramp up our public transport system, improve how our taxis are deployed, and make it easier for people to share rides. Ride-sharing - or car-pooling as it is more commonly called - reduces demand for road space. So, why are we launching an electric car-sharing scheme? One theory is that it is another way for us to assess the viability of electric cars here. The first $20 million "test-bed" led by the Energy Market Authority (EMA) ended with pretty watery findings. Examples include: Electric vehicles are "technically feasible" in Singapore, because the average distance clocked in the trial was 46km a day. This is less than the national average of 50km for a conventional passenger car, and much lower than the manufacturers' declared range of 120-160km per charge. (The average distance clocked by car owners is a long known fact, and there is no reason to doubt an electric car owner would behave differently.) High purchase price was the top inhibiting factor cited by consumers. (There has already been clear evidence of this in other markets.) Range anxiety was the next major concern. (Another well-documented fact.) Electric cars are expensive compared to conventional cars primarily because of their high open market value. (Yet another known fact.) A cost-benefit analysis showed that the health-care savings arising from the clean mode of transport would not be sufficient to offset the high cost of electric cars. (This is probably the most interesting finding, but the EMA did not elaborate despite repeated requests.) Another $75 million in tax dollars have been set aside to put more than 1,200 green vehicles on the road. Sources say the electric car-sharing scheme would account for the bulk of the budget. But despite having been on the drawing board for over a year, the initiative is still stuck in neutral gear. Life! understands that the Land Transport Authority and Economic Development Board - which will be spearheading the plan - have not yet called for an RFI (request for information). As such, the scheme is unlikely to take off anytime soon. According to industry players, one of the stumbling blocks is the different charging cables used by various manufacturers from China, Europe and the United States. This makes setting up a public charging infrastructure that can be used by one and all a costly affair. Even if Singapore were to adopt the latest European convention, the new cable is different from those used by cars involved in the first test-bed. That might render an entire network of three-year-old charging stations obsolete. One view is that Singapore should forget about setting up a public charging infrastructure. As the first trial showed, the average driving distance for an electric car is less than half the range of a fully charged vehicle. The Government should just leave it to the private sector to decide how it wants to provide charging facilities to customers. And instead of another tax-funded trial to see if electric vehicles are viable, the carbon emissions-based vehicle scheme (CEVS) should be enhanced to give due recognition to cars with substantial environmental and health contributions. Today, CEVS rebates are granted too freely. Having said all that, car-sharing still has a role here. Not so much as a transport solution, but a social one. Car- sharing indirectly placates the person who is priced out of the car market. But the way we have been operating car-sharing thus far is inefficient. In Europe, car-sharing plans rely on smartphone apps that tell users at a glance the availability of cars in the vicinity. Users can then book an available car with a touch of the screen. There is no need for designated parking spaces and other logistical requirements. In Singapore, where carpark spaces are as precious as road space, reserving lots for car-sharing schemes is just not possible. -- PHOTO: BLOOMBERG by Christopher Tan
  15. ST_Opinion

    A car-lite Singapore: How to get there?

    A new sustainable blueprint to guide Singapore's development over the next 15 years was launched earlier this month, to create a better home, a better environment and a better future. That better future, however, includes curtailing the dream of many Singaporeans - owning a car. One priority of the ambitious $1.5 billion Sustainable Singapore Blueprint 2015 is reducing the number of private cars on the roads. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong explained: "We have to rely less on cars on the road, because we can't keep building roads; more roads for more cars." Roads already make up 12 per cent of land use, compared to housing at 14 per cent. Fewer vehicles would also reduce land needed for carparks, and improve the quality of life. Air quality, for example, would be better, with fewer polluting emissions from the tailpipes of private cars. PM Lee said the Government would aim for a "car-lite" Singapore by providing more transport options, such as an expanded MRT network, buses and bicycle paths. But experts said infrastructure gaps need to be plugged, and, in a country where the car is king, laws and attitudes towards them changed. More is also needed to help people move seamlessly from one form of transport to another more easily. Beefing up alternatives LAST year, about 63 per cent of trips during peak hours were by public transport such as buses and trains. Minister for National Development Khaw Boon Wan recently said that cycling makes up 1 to 2 per cent of transport. The Government wants public transport to make up 75 per cent of peak-hour trips by 2030, and has outlined plans to achieve this. From the year 2012 to 2016, it will have added 800 buses to the fleet - a 20 per cent increase - and from last year to 2030 it will have expanded the rail network from 178km to 360km. It will build an island-wide cycling path network of more than 700km by 2030, including both park connectors and cycling paths in Housing Board towns. It is also conducting a year-long study to shed light on why and how Singaporeans walk, and what would encourage them to do so more often. The Economic Development Board and Land Transport Authority (LTA) plan to co-lead a project involving the pooled sharing of electric cars. While the agencies would say only that the project is in the planning stages, The Straits Times understands the Government had considered rolling out up to 1,000 electric cars under such a scheme as recently as two years ago. The LTA has said "car sharing can help those who need to use a car for a few hours or over a weekend, and allow convenient access to it without people having to own or maintain one". The authority will pilot a bicycle-sharing scheme next year, possibly in the city centre and Jurong Lake District. But transport experts said the devil is in the details. When three Straits Times reporters rode 180km over three days last October to test cycling paths for commuting, they found snags that could dissuade users. An 11km stretch that people who live in Ang Mo Kio and Bishan can use to go to work at the Upper Paya Lebar Road factories, for example, had six overhead bridges, three of which did not have ramps. People have to haul their bikes up and down the stairs. Some park connectors were actually existing pavements, which meant cyclists and pedestrians had to jostle for space. Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy transport researcher Paul Barter said the cycling network needs to be not just comprehensive but also enjoyable and seamless so people can ride almost anywhere efficiently. "You want people to be able to travel at speeds that let them cover 7km to 8km in half an hour. But it also has to be safe enough for your 10-year-old child," said the adjunct associate professor. More car-sharing spaces needed INDUSTRY players added that major infrastructure gaps need to be plugged. Take the car-sharing scheme. There are three private car-sharing providers, which offer a fleet of vehicles that can be rented for just an hour or longer. Together, they have more than 10,000 members, but only around 300 cars and 100 locations - mostly at HDB carparks - for pick-ups and drop-offs. Senior Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo said in March that every car added to a well-organised car-sharing scheme could take the place of 15 private vehicles. But Car-sharing Association of Singapore president Lai Meng said a critical mass of cars and car-sharing parking spaces is needed to make it viable. Industry players said 3,000 parking spaces would be a good start, since that would mean about 30 to 40 spaces per constituency. Currently, the Housing Board has set aside only a tenth of that - about 300 car-sharing parking spaces - in 105 HDB carparks island-wide. It is working with LTA and car-sharing firms to identify more locations and has promised that every town will have some spaces. Infrastructure, such as power sockets at the parking spaces and charging stations across the island, will also be needed if electric cars are to be used. Mr Lai noted another problem: The existing spaces are typically on the HDB multi-storey carparks' higher levels, where people may not know they exist. He said there should be signs alerting residents to shared cars at the street level and also designated parking spaces at lower levels. LKY School's Dr Barter said parking spaces should also be set aside on streets, so that people in areas such as River Valley, the Bukit Timah corridor and Marina South - which are not near HDB estates - can car-share. He added that the authorities could encourage more peer-to-peer car-sharing - where individuals rent out cars to each other - by relaxing renting rules. Currently, private cars can be rented out only on weekends and public holidays. But most people need their cars on weekends for, say, family outings, whereas many vehicles are idling in carparks during the week when the owners are at work, he said. Currently, there is one company that offers such peer-to-peer sharing. It has more than 11,000 registered users and nearly 1,600 car-owners prepared to share their vehicles. Some experts, however, questioned whether any car-sharing scheme would take cars off roads here, as only people without cars would use such a scheme. They said car-sharing would at most forestall some people from buying cars, and it could even backfire if it gives people a taste of driving and the desire to own a car. National University of Singapore transport researcher Lee Der Horng said that to actually take cars off the roads, the Government could curtail the number of certificates of entitlement given out, but it would have to be certain that alternative transport modes are convenient and reliable. Carpooling, where people going to the same destination share a car, is another option. Towards a more seamless journey EVEN as infrastructure issues are worked out, more can also be done to help commuters mix and match transport options to achieve the ideal journey. Dr Barter advocates a "supermobility" mobile app that would allow commuters to set parameters such as location and destination, and how much time they have to travel. The app would give options using different transport modes, including taxis, bike and car-sharing, public transport and even walking. People could pay for the various options using just the app. "If commuters can see how easy it is to get around with all of the options, and they are confident there are good options, then fewer will feel the need to buy a car," he said. Germany, for example, has an app called Mo that allows subscribers to rent bicycles, cargo-bicycles, electric bicycles and cars, and use public transport. The system even rewards those who choose more eco-friendly transport modes: Using mostly bicycles and renting a car become cheaper. But one challenge is to change Singaporeans' view of cars as status symbols. In an article for The Straits Times in February, on how to make Singapore more "car-less", dean of the LKY School Kishore Mahbubani noted that in Tokyo and New York, company managing directors, senior bankers and lawyers take public transport. In Singapore, however, even middle-level executives working in Raffles Place drive to work. Mrs Teo also noted in March that 38 per cent of households owned a car a decade ago, but this is now 45 per cent. If it hits 60 per cent, the Government will have to find parking space for another 150,000 cars. "There is a limit to how many more cars we can have," she said. For Singapore to truly become a car-lite nation, a high quality, reliable public transport system has to be supplemented by access to taxis, car-sharing and bicycles. But Singaporeans themselves will also have to take the first step - sometimes literally - to achieving that vision. -- ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL by Feng Zengkun