Suggestions for the new Transport Minister
LIKE healthcare, education and defence, transport is a vital public requirement. It requires a whole-of-government approach when problems have to be tackled. The Transport Minister cannot do his job without input and cooperation from his Cabinet colleagues in many other ministries.
In this respect, Monday's announcement of Khaw Boon Wan assuming the transport portfolio and his concurrent appointment as new Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure is a most welcome move.
In 1971, the Singapore Government published a white paper on transport, and, shortly afterwards, undertook sweeping reforms involving many ministries.
Public transport problems then were considerably alleviated. Such an approach is needed again today.
Public transport has to be given priority. And, above all, it must be available. Tackling public transport woes, however, requires more than adding buses and trains.
MOVING PEOPLE IS THE PRIME OBJECTIVE
Under Goh Keng Swee, who was finance and later deputy prime minister, facilities were provided upfront to attract people to live and work in less accessible areas. More recently, bus, MRT and LRT services were not provided to new Housing Board estates until a critical mass of residents to generate fare revenue was reached. This sometimes took years. Meanwhile, the first residents in new towns had no alternative but to buy cars.
Such an approach must change, and the focus must be on meeting people's transport needs, not helping public transport operators maintain profit margins by mothballing some stations or keeping bus fleets lean.
Attempts to achieve many diverse goals result in none being scored. In public transport, the objective, first and foremost, must be to move people. Secondary functions such as retail facilities must remain secondary.
While public transport should never be provided at a loss, maximisation of profits should be subsidiary to efficiency. Having for-profit commercial organisations operate public transport results in a conflict of interest in balancing the competing goals of providing good service and maximising profits. The ownership model should be re-examined.
A certain degree of redundancy is absolutely necessary. On major arterial routes, buses and trains must provide parallel services. The practice of withdrawing bus services to boost train ridership once MRT lines were built, in the 1990s, exposes Singapore to vulnerabilities.
If bus and train services are duplicated along important routes with routine sharing of the passenger load, when there is a major breakdown, travel might take more time, but it will not come to a complete halt.
ENCOURAGE THE USE OF TWO-WHEELERS
Then there is the issue of motorcycles. When demand for motorcycles was low, and the certificate of entitlement (COE) price remained at $1 for months on end, the Government diverted a large percentage of the motorcycle allocation towards cars.
It is time now to reverse that earlier diversion so as to lower motorcycle COE premiums. With car costs so high, riding a motorcycle is the only option for lower-wage people whose jobs require mobility.
I hope the Transport Minister looks at the plight of motorcyclists sympathetically. The authorities should mandate that all commercial buildings provide short-term motorcycle parking spaces. While they might be low on the corporate totem pole, dispatch riders perform a vital service.
Currently, due to their being denied access to many buildings, they park on sidewalks, obstructing pedestrians and risking fines. And shopping centres, especially those in the Orchard Road belt, might do well to remember that motorcyclists can be customers too.
Cycling should also be encouraged. It is the best method of providing the last-kilometre connectivity that other forms of transport cannot. But, at the same time, pedestrians and cyclists have to be more well educated on sharing space. And pedestrians must have priority. This is practised in Europe and Japan. With sufficient coercion and enforcement, there is no reason why cycling cannot contribute more to transport in Singapore.
An important step is to license all bicycles and personal mobility devices. Bicycles were licensed in the past. There is absolutely no reason why licensing cannot be implemented today. With visible number plates and registered owners, the public will have recourse against recalcitrant cyclists.
With a coordinated and proactive approach, Singapore might finally get a world-class, value-for-money public transport system that will meet defence, economic and social needs as well as satisfy the mobility aspirations of the people.
The writer is a former Straits Times journalist who became a car dealer, and is now retired. He is the author of the geopolitical novel Buy My Beloved Country.
This article first appeared in The Straits Times yesterday.