Car Free Day in KL (10th edition, 2014-10-03)

KL Car Free Day


I’ve heard about Car Free Day but never experience it in person. Thanks to the invitation from URA, I had the opportunity to participate in the 10th edition of KL Car Free Day last Saturday. I went with a team of URA, LTA, SLA, SDCF and Mr. Peter Ong, the Head of Civil Service, to study how the KL Car Free Day is organized. It was an eye opener for me.


How was it like cycling on KL Car Free Day?

Cycling on the car free four lanes road through the CBD area felt like a dream. I saw many happy faces from young to old, including cyclists, skateboarders, in-line skaters and joggers. It felt like a big celebration in the city. According to Datuk Naim Mohammad, the Chairman of Cycling Implementation Committee, the monthly Car Free Day (7-9am) typically attracts 10,000 participants. Despite the initial skepticism, the complaints from motorist has dropped and more stake holders are finding ways to sponsor and capitalize on this popular event.

What are the benefits of Car Free Day?

Quote from the KL Car Free Day:
“The KL Car Free Morning was initiated as part of a goal to reduce carbon emissions in the city by 40 per cent by 2020. The project is the result of the Transport, Planning and Leisure Departments of DBKL working with the Royal Malaysian Police Force to achieve a coordinated whole-of-government outcome. KL Mayor, Ahmad Phesal Talib, and Chairman of the Cycling Implementation Committee, Datuk Naim Mohammad, act as the figure heads of the initiative.”

Apart from reducing carbon emission, Car Free Day provides the opportunity for citizen to experience the transformation of public space from car-dominant to car-free. In many cities, such events help to inspire people to consider more use of green mobility such as bicycle for joy, health and efficiency. In Singapore, the CBD area is mostly quiet with little traffic during the early Sunday morning. A Car Free event during this time can be a great way to optimize the usefulness of limited space in Singapore and provide a wonderful opportunity for everyone to experience the city in a completely different way.


The next question is how?
Below are some tips after talking to the organizer and seeing the event unfolded:

1) Closing off the entire road is safer and easier than closing only one or two lanes.
2) Road blocks and road marshals at strategic positions such as the entrances of the closed segments of the roads.
3) Safety: Traffic police on motorcycle to clear the roads before and after the event. Safety riders are deployed along the way. Ambulance and first aid team standing by in case of any accident.
4) Participants gathered at the starting point to wait for the flag off. It was a natural one-way flow and that’s safer than bi-directional traffic.
5) Getting support from business and the shops/hotels in the affected area helps to make the event more sustainable.
– The Car Free Day event can become an attraction for hotel guests. The hotel just need to provide a few bicycles, minimum investment.
– Consider alternative way for hotel guests to access transport to airport


Can we have Singapore’s own Car Free Day any time soon?

I certainly hope so! Judging from the happy faces of the Singapore team it seems the idea of a Car Free Day in Singapore may come sooner than later. Photos below includes staff from URA, LTA, SLA, SCDF and Head of Civil Service.

Do you think Car Free day is a good idea for Singapore? Where would you like to see it happen?

Singapore study team meeting with Datuk Naim Mohammad, the Chairman of Cycling Implementation Committee, KL Malaysia.
Peter Ong, Head of Civil Service, Ng Lang, CEO of URA, Lim Eng Hwee, Chief Planner of URA
Dr. Chin Kian Keong, LTA, Tan Tee Nee, LTA and URA team (Andrew, Nicholas, Eugene)
Francis Chu, LoveCyclingSG, Lucy Lim, SLA and Swee Leong CHUA, Yeow Kiat YAM, Boon Hui SER from SCDF

More photos at Flickr

Will you let your kids to cycle to school? A case for safer intersection design in Singapore

Will you let your 10 years old kid to cycle one 1 km to school? …. Why not?

Most parents will tell you that although the bicycle path is safe, they worry their children may be killed when crossing the roads.

Bicycle network at Tampines

1. Bicycle network is not safe, if the crossings at the roads are not safe

What if there is a bicycle path, off the road, connecting home and school?

“That will be much better.” a friend once told me. “Free from the danger of cars, I will seriously consider to let my son to cycle to school. After all cycling is a healthy way to move around, providing much needed physical exercise in today’s computer age. I think it will also helps him to become more independent and I won’t be so stressed during the morning rush hours.”

However, it is not realistic to assume the bicycle network can always be kept “off the road”. As the network grows into towns, it is inevitable that the bicycle network will have to intersect with the road system at some intersections. If the road crossings are not safe, the cycling path is broken at each road crossing. The entire network becomes a bunch of isolated off-road paths.

Therefore the objective of road crossing design along a bicycle path is to make it easy and safe to cross the road, to connect and reassure parents that it is safe for their kids to cycle across the road independently.

Cycling as a lifestyle choice will be a major step for Singapore to move towards a more green, clean and livable city. URA, together with key government agents such as LTA and NPark, are extending current 230 km of bicycle network (mostly Park Connectors) to more than 700 km by 2030. We can be duplicating existing (safety) problems if the new (off-road) cycling path is built with existing intersection design. Therefore now is a good time to consider how to improve the safety for all road users at intersections and road crossing.

Why existing traffic intersection is not safe enough?

Let’s take a fresh look at traffic intersection today. The diagram (2) below illustrate a typical intersection design, based on a traffic junction at Tampines Street 44-45 and Avenue 9. As a cyclist, or pedestrian, if you need to cross Street 44 from bottom to top, you will encounter 2 high risk “conflicting points” where fast moving cars may be coming from your behind.

example of existing design of traffic intersection

2. example of existing design of traffic intersection- Cyclists need to keep their eye wide open and keep checking left and right, and behind(!), when crossing such intersection. -Click on the image to enlarge

The first “conflicting point” is right at the beginning of your journey, left turning car from Avenue 9 may run over you from behind (right). To be aware of the danger and prepare to take evasion action you have to check behind while moving forward onto the road. This is not natural, and very difficult to do while on a bicycle. If the turning vehicle is a large lorry, you likely to be at their blind spot. You can be rear wheeled without the driver even notice.

The second “conflicting point” is the entire stretch before the centre road divider, the driver at the diagonal side of the intersection is watching carefully at the on coming cars (not at you!), waiting for a window of opportunity to make a right turn. The pedestrian crossing is the first location that is not on the path of coming cars. That driver are likely to dash into your path for their own safety, they need to escape the flow of on coming traffic. Under such stressful condition, some drivers forget to check cyclists and pedestrians before they make the quick turn. If you are crossing Street 44 from top to bottom, the situation is even worst, because this car is now turning into you from behind, making it impossible for you to check and be prepare.

The entire crossing is 18 meters. There are two high-risk conflicting points. It can take between upto 60 seconds, depends on age and mobility.

Alternative intersection design (Dutch)

Luckily we don’t have to re-invent the wheel from scratch, problem we face today is not new, we can learn from the Dutch who are more advanced in integrating bicycle as a key transport modes. Over the last 40 years, the Dutch has developed, and systematically refined their traffic intersection design such that it is not only safe for cyclists and pedestrian to use, it is also safer and more efficient for motorists too. With the help of my friend Maurits (who gave a presentation of Dutch bike infrastructure to LoveCyclingSG members and at URA in Februray, 2014) I managed to obtain the design template of a typical Dutch solution to traffic intersection – a special roundabout design that eliminate the dangerous “conflicting points”. I will start with the “ideal solution” in this post, and later follow up with some “in-between” solutions possible.

The ideal solution: Dutch roundabout

The diagram (3) below make use of the same space as in diagram (2) and following the dimension based in the Dutch design specification. No additional space is needed.

Dutch style roundabout - a safer intersection design

Dutch style roundabout – a safe intersection design. —-Click on the image to enlarge

Let take a look at how this roundabout work in real world (Video):

First thing you’ll notice is the entire crossing distance is shorten to 1/3 of the original, 6.5 meters instead of 18 meters. That means cyclists and pedestrians will be able to clear the crossing in 1/3 of the time. This assure motorist and make them more likely to wait because they don’t need to wait for long. More importantly, previous first two dangerous “conflicting points” are eliminated. It is now easy for both motorist and non-motorist to watch out for each other because they are facing each other. Thirdly, right turning drivers (at the diagonal opposite site of the intersection) now have a safe space to pause and wait, they are not stressed to dash onto the pedestrian crossing for their own safety.

There is no need for cyclist to “dismount and push” as such crossing. Clear line of sight between motorists and other road users give both parties enough time to react to sudden, unexpected events.

Compares to current intersections in Singapore, this design is a lot safer and more intuitive, there is no need to use traffic signal lights to regulate the flow. This special roundabout is a “continuous traffic flow processor” that produce the optimal balance of car and human flow. Some people may think that the (car) traffic capacity is reduced because more cars are able to clear the current intersection during the the GREEN light phase. But they forget that they have to wait for the RED light phase and sometime it is waiting for nothing. Some others may doubt if Singapore drivers are able to handle such special design. Fortunately Singapore drivers are already responding positively to similar roundabout. If you drive to NTU, there is a small roundabout (missing the facilities for cycling) near the ADM Building. I was told that there use to be a lot of accident at that intersection because it is on a slope. After changing to this roundabout design the accidents rate has been reduced significantly.

Facts sheet: Dutch roundabout
In the Netherlands: over the last 30 years, traffic intersection has been systematically replaced by roundabout. By 2010, there were 3900 roundabout in the Netherlands.
Capacity: 25,000 cars/day. Waiting time is usually shorten for motorists.
Casualties: reduced by 70% (light and serious injuries)
CO2: reduced by 21%
Noise: reduced

This special Dutch roundabout design may not be applicable to all road intersection, yet the design thinking behind can always apply to any crossing:
1) Prepare motorist before they reach the pedestrian/bicycle crossing. (optimal approaching speed = 30km/hr)
2) Give time and safe space for drivers to response to cyclists and pedestrians
2) Make it easy and obvious for cyclist and pedestrian to notice where the car is approaching (“fail safe” approach)

Although the example is in Tampines, but this idea can be prototyped and tested easily in any existing location with similar space.

I will be sharing this Dutch style roundabout design with LTA and relevant agents. feel free to post your comments here so that I can take your view into consideration when talking to the government agents.

2014-04-09 Chu Wa, Francis

Update: 2014-04-29 more information about roundabouts
(USA) Myth Buster comparing 4-legs intersection VS roundabout. Roundabout is 20% more efficient than a 4 legs intersection.

(USA) Roundabout causes more accidents? (This is an example of poorly designed roundabout, with too many signs distracting the drivers)

(USA) Roundabout is safer and more efficient (this is not yet the best design, car entering the roundabout tangentially make it unnatural to reduce speed)

Related readings:
Unsafe driving due to bad intersection design
Dutch examples of roundabout with bicycle and walking facilities

Safe cycling in Tokyo, culture or infrastructure?

I visited Tokyo recently, took the opportunity to cycle there. Riding through Tokyo city centre feels quite different compared to Singapore. It feels safe! The same exercise could be deadly, especially for a traveller who is not familiar with the driving culture in Singapore. I’m not suggesting Singapore drivers are maniac, in fact, given the chance, many are very polite and courteous. However sometime they have to endanger others in order to be safe. The design of the road greatly affected their choice of action.

Bicycle users in Tokyo includes all walks of life. Male & female, young & elderly, mothers and kids, workers and office ladies.

Bicycle users in Tokyo includes all walks of life. Male & female, young & elderly, mothers and kids, workers and office ladies.

Despite there are many cars and I have to share the roads, I feel drivers in Tokyo are more careful when they need to overtake cyclists. They give cyclists plenty of room or they will slow down and overtake carefully. The number of people on bicycle is much more than I expected. All walks of life, including office workers, students, old people and even mothers with their kids (one front, one back) on bicycles. There is something in Japan that makes cycling easy and safe. I was reflecting my experience in the Netherlands many years back, it was quite different from the Dutch cycling experience, although both are safe. One of my good friend LCH suggested:

– Dutch cycling is a culture of the mind i.e. a result of rational thinking (typical Dutch) that lead to investments in cycle-infrastructure
– Japan cycling is a probably more of the heart, respect for each other as part of total society inherent in the deep rooted Japanese value system.

There is no doubt that, respecting each others is a core value system in Japan. I can understand how it contributed to road safety. However, is this “culture of respect” the only factor for the safety I experienced when riding in Tokyo?

40 km speed limit is very common in Tokyo. Smaller road are often limit to 30 or 20 km per hour.

40 km speed limit is very common in Tokyo. Smaller road are often limit to 30 or 20 km per hour.

Apart from riding a bicycle, I had the opportunity to sit in a car, next to the driver, my friend Tsuneki San, who drove me to his office during a morning peak hour. He said that most of the roads in Tokyo are limited to driving speed of 40 km. Only a few main roads are 50 km. Expressways are 80 km. When I cycled through the heart of Tokyo, I passed through many smaller streets with 30 km and 20 km clearly marked on the road. It suddenly daunt on me that, Tokyo, despite being one of the biggest city in the world, is fairly free from loud traffic noise. The overall slower speed must be the key reason for the relatively quiet and calm atmosphere.

Safe junction design in Tokyo prepares drivers to slow down, and provides safe space to "PAUSE and WAIT".

Safe junction design in Tokyo prepares drivers to slow down, and provides safe space to “PAUSE and WAIT”.

I also noticed that Tsuneki San slowed down whenever he drove passed a junction. This greatly enhanced his ability to stop in case of any emergency. Likewise, pedestrians and cyclists who approach the junction can see our car clearly. I noticed a number of visual element may contribute to the “calming effect” around the traffic junctions.
(1) Dotted lines define the lanes changed to solid lines, about 30 meters before a junction. This helps to prepare the driver to slow down.
(2) Sometimes the lanes narrow down a bit in order to add a right turning lane. Driving within narrower lanes require more care and has to be slower.
(3) The zebra crossing is visually bold and striking. The “STOP” line is about a car’s length away from the actual zebra crossing.

Lane marking changed to solid lines, preparing the drivers to slow down.

Lane marking changed to solid lines, preparing the drivers to slow down before they reach the junction.

The overall visual effect is that you intuitively feel the need to slow down and drive more carefully before approaching a junction and pedestrian crossing.

Like many bicycle users, I cycle on the roads as well as pavements. When I need to cycle or walk across the roads, It is easy to judge if it is safe or not. In Singapore, I’ll have to constantly check my back while crossing the road because turning cars may intrude into the pedestrian crossing from behind. This is due to the fact that, in Singapore, the crossing is drawn at the turning radius. There is no buffer space for the driver to “pause” before entering into the “conflicting zone”- the Ped-crossing. Tokyo drivers always stops if there is someone riding or walking on the ped-crossing. Right turning cars does not intrude into the pedestrian crossing, they have a “buffer space” to pause and wait. Driver in Singapore don’t have such space, they have to enter into the pedestrian crossing in order to avoid being crashed by on coming traffic.

It seems what makes cycling safe in Tokyo is not only the culture, design of the road and infrastructure must also play a part to support and sustain safe road user behaviour. At this point I wonder how would a Tokyo driver behave in Singapore? or vise versa?

Related: Unsafe driving behaviour due to poor junction design.

Bicycle friendly city, lesson from Japan (1)

I’ve not heard of any big campaign from Japanese government to promote cycling, but I was amazed to see many people on bicycle during my recent trip to Tokyo. I know bicycle use is common there but didn’t thought that it is so popular. Out of thousands “cyclists” I only spotted a handful who dress up in lycra with helmet, the rest all looks like normal people. Once they park their bicycle and walk away, they look just like any pedestrians. Office workers, students, mums with kids and elderly. They don’t seem to dress in bright colors to increase their visibility for safety, no helmet, no lycra. Many do have a basket or two mounted on their bikes. Bicycle parks (official and unofficial) are everywhere!

I will be jotting down my observation from this Tokyo trip bit by bit. Here is a quick impression of the women bicycle users I’ve seen. They cycle practically everywhere, on road, on footpath. Some even with kids in front and back! Women cyclist is known to be a good indicator of bicycle friendliness – more women cyclist means that the area is safer for cycling in general


Weman, bicycle users, cyclists Ladies cycling in Tokyo














Photo set at flickr:

Read more at Link to my Flickr set

Learning from London’s mistakes

Recently 5 cyclists died in London within a short period of 9 days. At the same time New York CitiBike just just completed 5 millions rides over the first 5 month without a single person killed. Consider the CitiBike is used by all sorts of people from young to elderly, including tourists, this contrastic experience between London’s deadly “Cycling Superhighway” and New York’s bicycle friendly design contains a lot to be learnt.

A short video released by The Guardian provides a close look of London’s “Cycling Superhighway”. An experienced cyclist will be able to point out a few design issues relates to cycling safety. Some say more death is expected because new bicycle facilities attracts more people to use bicycle and therefore more accidents is inevitable. I think this is purely nonsense. If that’s true, New York should report similar number of cyclist death during that 5 millions rides.

Apart from feeling sad for those families and friends of the victims, I believe there are important lessons to be learnt for professional road designers:

“Your job is directly affecting people’s life and everyday wellbeing, please consider the vulnerable road users when designing.” If New York can do it, so does other cities, just don’t repeat the mistakes made by London’s road planners.

Looking at the video, I cannot imagine the one who design this so call Cycling Superhighway will cycle on it themselves. Let’s first check out the video:

I captured screenshots of area that is showing some safety issues. I will add more comment tomorrow. Feel free to add your comments in Facebook here:


Fig. 1

Fig. 1 Wide and straight, does this looks like a road you can drive fast? 
Painting half a car lane and call it a bicycle superhighway, this design suggests bicycle is to mix with high speed traffic ..



Fig. 2

Fig. 2 Driver abuse the bike lane by parking there, exactly as some people mentioned the reason not to have bike lane… but it doesn’t have to be like this. In New York, the parked cars are used to provide a safety barrier between cyclist and fast moving traffic. 


Fig. 3

Fig. 3  The “Bike super highway stop abruptly, not transitition space to prepare the dirvers and cyclists to slow down when they have to directly mix on the road. Extremely dangerous, by design. 



Fig. 4

Fig. 4 Here an example of a fast van just over took the cyclist (who took this video) very closely because the driver is forced to share half a lane with the bicycle.



Fig. 5

Fig. 5 Finally a segregated section of the BSHW, it only allows one bicycle at a time and the separation from big lorry is way too little. Pathetic, but at least it is relatively safe compare to other parts.



Fig. 6

Fig. 6 The separation suddenly stop!!?? What are you supposed to do here, the cyclist is right at the blind spot position of turning long vehicles.



Fig. 7

Fig. 7 The yellow lorry on the right can easily eat into the “invisible” BSHW and kill a moving cyclists there, and the driver will say, honestly, “I didn’t see him!” another example of “likely accident caused by road design”



Fig. 8

Fig. 8 The BSHW reappear again



Fig. 9

Fig. 9 The BSHW suddenly end right before a junction. What are the cyclists supposed to do here?



Fig. 10

Fig. 10 Let’s mix with the traffic again..



Fig. 11

Fig. 11 Dangerous crossing , by road design (or the lack of it!)



Fig. 12

Fig. 12 Now this is a proper bike lane, wide enough and with good separation when there is fast moving traffic.



Fig. 13

Fig. 13 The end of the better part of the BSHW

Below is how my friend Calvin Boo describe his experience of riding in London last year:

Having heard about and seen the painted cycle lanes and advanced stop boxes of London, I thought London was cycle-friendly until I tried riding on the city roads one evening … and nearly got knocked off the bike twice on a short 25mins ride (once by a car, once by a bus).

Personally, the poor cyclist safety in London is not just a question of infrastructure, although it stems from infrastructure. The road culture in London is, to sum up in one word, aggresive; aggresive drivers, aggresive cyclists. Aggressive attitudes from both sides does not serve anyone well. 

On London roads, I see cyclists riding at speed along the roads, not alone, not in twos, not in threes … but in hordes. And this at peak hours of the day. I haven’t been to Amsterdam, but from the many videos I have seen, my feel is that the road culture is different. 

People use bicycle in Singapore

These are some of the people I randomly came across who are using a bicycle on Singapore roads. Some bring their children to school on bicycle, some bike to work or school directly, ride to the market, to visit a friend or just to have a coffee at nearby food center. There is a wide spectrum of bicycle users in Singapore. However they are typical the “silence majority”. They are not vocal in media, you don’t read them on Stomp or other online forum. They hardly write to the newspaper. But many of them have the right to vote. Introduce safety space on roads for them and they will feel it and definitely appreciate it.

Every parent who bring their kids to school on bicycle is helping to remove one car from the morning traffic congestion. But the above lady need to exposed her child and herself to the risk of car traffic by cycling in a narrow gap between the cars and the curb. Struggling to balance the bicycle within such narrow margin, her handle bar or pedal may scratch the car. Such situation invariably creates tension between cyclists and drivers. Opportunity is hidden in plain sight! The pavement is empty on her left, she could have make use of the pavement if it is better designed. This is one example of many opportunities to make cycling safer in Singapore.

Photo set at flickr:

Read more at Link to my Flickr set

Sunday ride with Minister Khaw Boon Wan

Minster Khaw with 3 princesses of LCSG

Folks in LCSG are very excited to meet Mr. Khaw Boon Wan in person. he bring his team from MND together with friends from NPark, URA and HDB to join our Sunday morning ride at Punggle Water way. After riding and talking to him, I’m very impressed by the works done under his ministry (URA, NPark, HDB). Cycling is now a wonderful leisure activity along the 200km of PCN today. Within HDB towns, thanks to the traffic calming and people friendly design, more and more people are able to use bicycle to go to nearby markets, food centres and MRT stations. He believes cycling is not only efficient and green, it is also a great medium to connect people and communities together. Thank you Mr. Khaw!

Lang Ng and Jok Kwang chatting with Mr. Khaw just before the ride.

Taiwwon and momo leading the LCSG convoy to the big surprise (no one know Mr. Khaw will be riding with us!)

Photo at the starting point : Punggol Water Way.

Friends from URA, NPark talking to Mr. Khaw

Teach Esther presenting a hand made “LCSG heart” to Mr. Khaw

More photos flickr:

Read more: SmallWheelsBigSmile

Bike skill workshop at Bedok Advanture Park

“Bike Skill workshop is to prepare you to be a safe rider on pavement.” We all want to cycle on the road as well as PCNs safely to go where we need to go. However due to lack of consideration for cyclist safety, some roads are very dangerous and it is understandable many people riding on pavements all over Singapore. However that create another safety concern for pedestrians. In order to share the pavement safely with pedestrians, a cyclist must be able to slow down to walking speed and give way to pedestrians. Thanks to Encik George Lim, Taiwoon and LCSG Angels for this fun and practical bike skill workshop.

Here is a well written summary by Eugene Tan:
“Thank you so much LCSG and the bicycle Angels for putting together the well structured basic bike skills workshop.
The morning started with a self-test guided bike course for participants to gauge their riding skills. Through a series of guided workshop modules, participants were cycled through the skill sets: balancing, braking, negotiating slaloms, left / right turns,, basic hand signals for cycling, turning safely to look behind, evasive action, proper bike fit, etc.
Even more experienced riders will certainly benefit from this bike skills refresher course, especially through the passion, enthusiasm and humour of the course planners, instructors and assistants. I know I did.
A self-ride-through evaluation was done over a riding course at the end of the training for participants to verify the benefits of the workshop. Many will tell you that they have definitely gained more confidence to negotiate the footpaths and pcns.
This joint community project was made possible in collaboration with Bedok CC. The good folks at the CC provided the Bedok Adventure Park facilities gratis for the programme venue. Bedok community residents also took time on their Sunday morning to participate and join LCSG members to improve their basic riding skills.
Kudos to the organisers and Bedok CC. Cheers”

Encik George Lim briefing for Bike skill training

Master coach Steven Lim giving trick instruction

Photo set at flickr:

Read more at SmallWheelsBigSmile

Opportunity is hidden in plain sight (How N.Y. was transformed in 6 years)

Link to the source:

In this funny and thought-provoking talk, Janette Sadik-Khan, transportation commissioner of New York City, shares projects that have reshaped street life in the 5 boroughs, including pedestrian zones in Times Square, high-performance buses and a 6,000-cycle-strong bike share. Her mantra: Do bold experiments that are cheap to try out.

As commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation, Janette Sadik-Khan is responsible for the smooth running of a New York that hides in plain sight… the streets, highways, bridges, signs and lights that make up the bustling metropolis.

What I like most about Janette’s talk is that all these transformation can be experiment quickly with paint and simple furnitures. The resistance is much less if people know that if it doesn’t work out, they can easily go back to the previous situation. This is how New York public space has been changed quickly from car centric to people centric. In this respect, Singapore, the Little Red Dot, can learn a lot from the Big Apple.

Fewer cars, fewer roads


Fewer cars, fewer roads

By Kishore Mahbubani, For The Straits Times BY INVITATION

A FEW weeks ago, on Aug 28, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the famous speech given by Martin Luther King Jr entitled “I have a dream”. He said: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.”
The goal of his speech was to open the roads to advancement for his fellow black citizens. I too have a dream for my fellow Singaporeans. However, while the goal of his speech was to open the roads to advancement, my goal is to close the roads to advancement for my fellow citizens. The only difference between him and me is that while he was speaking metaphorically, I am speaking literally. We do not need many more physical roads or much more physical road space in Singapore.
One undeniable hard truth of Singapore is that we live in one of the smallest countries in the world. This is also why we have one of the most expensive land costs in the entire world. Apart from Monaco, no other United Nations member state has land as expensive as Singapore has per square foot. Hence, we should value every square foot. Every square foot we give up to road space is a square foot taken away from other valuable uses: pedestrian walkways, bike paths, green parks and so on.
To be fair to our road planners, they are caught in a bind because Singapore is continuing to grow its population of cars. If we expand the number of cars, we have no choice but to expand the amount of roads to carry more cars. So the real solution is to reduce the demand for more cars in Singapore. How do we do this?
The problem here is that a car remains an essential part of the Singapore dream. Yet, if every Singaporean achieves his or her dream, we will get a national nightmare. To prevent this national nightmare from happening, we have created harsh policies to raise prices and reduce the demand for cars.
Status symbols
PARADOXICALLY, the high prices of cars have made them even more desirable as status symbols. This is why luxury brands trump cheap brands in Singapore sales. If the desirability of cars keeps rising, our efforts to curtail car ownership will be as successful as a dog chasing its tail.
So what is the alternative solution? The solution is obvious: Change the Singapore dream!
Yes, almost every Singaporean reading this article will laugh out loud at this suggestion. How can any well-off Singaporean deprive himself of a car? It serves as the most reliable form of transportation as well as a powerful status symbol. The minute you own a car, especially a Mercedes-Benz, BMW or Lexus, your friends know that you have arrived.
But for 10 years of my life, I have actually lived on another even more crowded tiny island where it is not rational to own a car. In fact, it is considered downright stupid to buy and own a car if you live in Manhattan. All this came home clearly to me one evening in Manhattan when I saw the former chairman of Citibank, Mr Walter Wriston, and his wife Kathryn standing on First Avenue with their arms raised and trying to hail a cab.
Clearly, Mr Wriston was then one of the richest men on our planet. He could have easily bought a car in Manhattan. Yet, it just did not make sense.
The eco-system of public transport that Manhattan had created with a combination of subway trains, public buses and readily accessible taxis meant that in a crunch you could get anywhere in Manhattan using public transport.
More significantly, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, another clearly very rich man, used to take a subway train to work in Manhattan.
The former mayor of Colombian capital Bogota, Mr Enrique Penalosa, put it very well when he said: “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.”
I have been to Bogota. When I visited it in 1992, the city was so unsafe that I was given a private bodyguard to walk down its equivalent of Orchard Road. Mr Penalosa transformed the city so much that Latino Fox News described him as “one of the world’s pre- eminent minds on making modern cities more liveable.”
Mr Penalosa is quoted as saying: “When we talk about car-free cities, we’re not talking about some hippie dream. Not only do they exist, but they also are the most successful cities on the planet. The ones where the real estate is the most valuable, the ones that attract most tourists, the most investment, the ones that generate the most creative industries.”
There was a time when Singapore’s experiments in improving its urban environment would get global attention. Today, it is a man like Mr Penalosa, with bigger dreams than our dreams, who is described by Latino Fox News as a man whose “work and ideas have gained him international attention and a loyal fan base that includes New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg”.
Mr Paul Steely White, executive director of New York City’s Transportation Alternatives, has also said about New York City that “the way the streets of the greatest city in the world are being used is changing fundamentally… People are beginning to understand that it’s entirely possible and really very desirable to lead a life without being tethered to an automobile”.
We therefore have to replace the Singapore dream with the Manhattan or Bogota dream.
We have to give up this insane dream of owning a car and replace it with an ecosystem of a public transport system that makes it irrational to own a car.
Singapore’s failure
AND this is probably one of Singapore’s biggest failures in its first 50 years: We have failed to develop a world-class ecosystem of public transport. We do have a good public transport network, but this has not kept pace with the population’s expectations, which include a more reliable MRT system with fewer breakdowns, predictable bus services, taxis available in thundery showers, and pools of electric cars for ready rental.
So why did we fail? The answers must be complex. But one fundamental error could be simple. We expected every artery of this ecosystem to be financially viable. The disastrous result of looking at each artery and not looking at the ecosystem as a whole is that while each artery made sense in isolation, the combination did not result in a good ecosystem. Even more dangerously, by looking at each unit in isolation, we did not consider its impact on the island or the nation as a whole.
Let me give a specific example from the area of expanding road space. Many Singaporeans of my generation are still puzzled that the road planners of Singapore destroyed our precious National Library on Stamford Road to build a little tunnel under Fort Canning to save two minutes of driving time. The road planners who designed this tunnel had no idea that they were effectively shooting a bullet through the soul of Singapore by destroying the National Library.
This is why we have to be fair to our road planners. The only key performance indicator (KPI) given to them is to make traffic flow smoothly. With this KPI, it is logical to build more roads or expand road space. Hence, it was perfectly natural for our road planners to announce recently that Clementi Road and the Pan-Island Expressway would be expanded. I am sure many motorists who use that stretch of road daily will approve. But when do we say that enough is enough?
This is why we need a new dream. Does this mean Singaporeans will stop driving cars?
Absolutely not. My dream is to walk out of my house, use a smart card to pick up an electric car on rent and drive it anywhere I want to. We can replace car ownership with car pools. In fact, other cities have begun trying this. In Vauban, a suburb of Freiburg, Germany, 70 per cent of residents choose to live without private cars due to excellent city planning and a car sharing system. Before you scoff at electric cars, let me tell you that electric cars have faster torque than petrol-driven cars.
In short, we can have an alternative dream for Singapore. Let us dream of an island with fewer cars and fewer roads. It will be closer to being paradise on earth.
The writer is dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.