Singapore: Pedestrian First Impressions

It’s what I deserved, I suppose, for having written so much about how cul-de-sacs (at all scales, not just suburban) make attractive public transit impossible.  My hotel here, the Elizabeth, turns out to be at the uphill end of a 700m long cul-de-sac.  The entire thing is lined with 20-story buildings, mostly residential, that efficient public transit will never reach.


From my hotel at the end of the cul-de-sac, I can see the end of another cul-de-sac that comes from the opposite direction.  To get there, you just climb over a green fence that has a little desultory barbed wire on top — or sneak through a hotel’s gate, if it’s open.


The long walk up Mount Elizabeth Road from the nearest transit stop also offers some fine examples in the endless struggle between pedestrians, drainage, and trees.  (Cars, oddly enough, never seem endangered by these battles.)


Pretty much the same struggle that we see all over the developed world, except that there’s a drainage channel on the left of these images, next to the white wall.  (Drainage is serious business in this monsoon-prone tropical city.  Just last week a single plugged drain caused the flooding of Orchard Road and the lower levels of high-end shopping centers there — mostly food courts and the like.)

I’m curious to know if anybody in Singapore is even inventorying these pedestrian-vs-tree situations, and identifying obvious solutions to them — such as, say, extend the sidewalk into the street, at the expense of a parking space.

Singapore is spectacular, safe, pleasant for the most part.  The density drives huge transit ridership, on both the sleek air-conditioned metro and buses.  More on all that soon.

These odd lapses in pedestrian infrastructure are nothing like the challenges pedestrians face in developing-world countries like India, where
they are often tracing a moving-front line between traffic lanes and roadside commerce.

But clearly, as in many cities of similar vintage, key parts of Singapore’s density were built at a time when nobody was thinking of pedestrians — a world-view that I struggle to grasp.  I find it easier to imagine life in ancient Greece or pre-contact Native America than life in 1970 as a planner who thinks we can build vast forests of towers everywhere, and still assume that everyone will drive cars.

24 Responses to Singapore: Pedestrian First Impressions

  1. Alon Levy June 27, 2010 at 9:55 am #

    Singapore just doesn’t think much of pedestrians. For example: the government’s official trip-to-work statistics split people into various categories – transit, cars, taxi, cars + transit, etc. Walking and bicycling are under “No transport required,” together with telecommuting.

  2. EngineerScotty June 27, 2010 at 9:57 am #

    Are the cul-de-sacs big enough that a bus can turn around safely? Is the are not served by transit, or are you claiming merely that the transit is inefficient–requiring the bus to double back, wasting the time of other passenges?
    20-story residential towers, after all, can potentially drive enough business to justify the trip. ‘Twould be better if the cul-de-sac weren’t there, or course…
    Hong Kong serves its pedestrians well with a wide array of overcrossings, skybridges, and other ways of grade-separating pedestrian traffic. Did you observe similar in Singapore?

  3. Alon Levy June 27, 2010 at 2:12 pm #

    Yes, the cul-de-sacs are wide enough to be served by buses.
    Singapore occasionally grade-separates pedestrian traffic. At Orchard and Paterson, there’s a complex of underpasses. However, even that project was primarily of benefit to drivers. Before grade-separation, pedestrians crossed the street safely in large numbers, preventing cars from turning even on green light.

  4. Dave Lee June 27, 2010 at 3:57 pm #

    Jarrett – perhaps those towers have a dedicated mini-bus service? I stayed in a similar cul-de-sac (,-95.677068&sspn=55.849851,114.169922&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Singapore&ll=1.291642,103.853073&spn=0.069763,0.111494&t=h&z=14 ) which had a 10 minute service to the nearest MRT station at Bedok. In peak hours, there were also a few expresses direct to the Financial District. In addition, such high density means that no-one needs to ring for a taxi – there is always one out front dropping someone off. Yes, the cul-de-sacs aren’t helpful but the density makes for transit heaven.

  5. Jarrett at June 27, 2010 at 6:17 pm #

    Yes, there are a lot of pedestrian bridges and tunnels especially around rail transit stations.  As for the cul-de-sac, a small bus might be able to turn around, but even seven 20 story towers aren't going to support 10 minute all day headways by themselves.  They need to be on the way.  If the wall between the two cul-de-sacs were pierced by a bus-only link, that would probably give them a workable shuttle route, flowing through the area but not ending there.

  6. JayinPortland June 27, 2010 at 10:33 pm #

    I’m not a transit planner, and I don’t play one on Teh Intert00bz. But this is interesting to me, because the question reminds me of the 19 Woodstock TriMet line here in Portland, which alternates back and forth between serving the massive high-rise Union Manor apartment complex (which should have been built elsewhere, but in true 60’s style was built on the fringes of the Westmoreland neighborhood and along the highway, assuming everybody would be driving private cars everywhere), and the wealthy residential neighborhood on the other side of Reed College.
    Fwiw, in years of riding this line I can count on two hands (with some fingers left over) the number of times there have been boardings / deboardings, at least on my rides, at either Union Manor or in the Reed neighborhood. The bus service between the bridge over the tracks and SE Milwaukie, both ways, is essentially a long scenic tour. A good service to have, of course, but one which would be unnecessary were it not for piss-poor urban planning along the way.

  7. Alon Levy June 28, 2010 at 4:50 am #

    Jarrett – perhaps those towers have a dedicated mini-bus service?

    The closest thing to a dedicated minibus service I saw in Singapore is school buses. The expat private schools’ buses wend through the cul-de-sacs to get kids to school.

  8. Jarrett at June 28, 2010 at 6:19 am #

    I saw no evidence of minibuses, but I saw lots of taxis.  A taxi ride from the bottom of the hill to the top will cost you something like S$3.50.  If you can afford these places, you can probably afford that. 

  9. bzcat June 28, 2010 at 5:51 pm #

    Singapore was paved over mostly during the 70s and early 80s… a period of time when walking and bicycling was considered seditious Chinese communist plot to overthrow crony capitalism in East Asia. Urban planning in the regional during the period went out of its way to make it difficult to walk and ride bicycles.

  10. J B June 28, 2010 at 9:27 pm #

    My guess is that East Asian cities reflect what East Asian politicans imagine modernity to be rather than planning or giving any consideration to people who can’t afford chauffeured limos/ SUVs. Luckily aside from towers, freeways and lots cars that also includes sleek, efficient metro systems.

  11. Alon Levy June 29, 2010 at 1:01 am #

    BZCat, you’re projecting American political attitudes onto countries that never had them. While Singapore was and still is right-wing and paranoid, its government has never been stupid enough to believe what the American Republicans say about transit and urbanism being communist. On the contrary, it was an early adopter of both environmental cleanups and congestion pricing.

  12. Brent C June 29, 2010 at 3:43 am #

    The tree on the foot path reminds me of a cycle lane on Aucklands North Shore

  13. EngineerScotty June 29, 2010 at 7:17 am #

    It would be awfully hard for Singapore to reject urbanism, even if it were ideologically motivated to do so. 🙂

  14. marco June 29, 2010 at 7:59 am #

    Rome is full of places like these, with several towers at the end of a cul-de-sacs:
    Usually this areas are served by two bus lines, one going straight on:
    The other serving all the cul-de-sacs along the way:
    Even with this kind of service, the service was quite inefficient: direct buses were always packed, while buses serving all cul-de-sacs were always empty, even at rush hours.

  15. Alon Levy June 29, 2010 at 11:33 am #

    Scotty, it was the urban elites that came up with urban renewal, suburbanization, and single-use subdivisions. Singapore benefited somewhat from the fact that people couldn’t escape bad planning to the suburbs. (It benefited even more from practicing capitalism, rather than road socialism.)

  16. Daron July 1, 2010 at 12:32 am #

    Having lived in Singapore for a year and a half, I’d say they value pedestrians and bicyclists more than most places. It’s extremely difficult to get a car there. Other than the operating hours, the transit system is extremely easy to navigate. Every train station is a bus interchange, etc.
    Around Orchard Road where the average person is more likely to take a cab to their exclusive hotel or to their remote landed house, then there’s some trouble.
    The only thing that really jumps out at me is the drainage ditches next to the sidewalks. They’re open and sometimes easy to fall into. I never fell in one and broke my ankle, but I always assumed I would eventually. Partially covering it would be nice. In many places they have concrete panels that can be lifted off. Doing that island-wide would widen the sidewalks a lot more.
    If you’re still in Singapore get down to the Singapore City Gallery as soon as you can. It’s an urban planning museum. You can see everything that’s going to happen in the next fifteen years. It’ll explain every parcel of land on the island and its future into the next 15 years or more.

  17. Alon Levy July 1, 2010 at 10:54 am #

    When I say my experience with Singapore as a pedestrian is negative, I should add that I’m comparing it to other dense urban areas – especially New York, but also Tel Aviv (itself not very pedestrian-friendly, but better than Singapore) and the urban parts of the French Riviera. But if your basis of comparison is a place like New Jersey, then I agree with Daron, Singapore values pedestrians a lot.

  18. Wai Yip Tung July 2, 2010 at 12:59 am #

    I´ve spent 1.5 years in Singapore. I think its transit is pretty good with MRT reaching most places efficiently. From what I can see this is not a high traffic route for pedestrians. Probably that´s why it is not getting a first class treatment.
    Also it happens that I´ve just written about some pedestrian experience in Hong Kong and Shenzhen. Perhaps you may find it interesting.

  19. Jarrett at July 2, 2010 at 1:34 am #

    @ Wai Yip Tung.  No, this isn't a high-volume pedestrian route, but that in itself is a problem.  This path and the street nest to it are the only access to a bunch of residential towers on a hilltop cul-de-sac.  Transit can't get to them, so if people can't walk, the only thing they can do is drive or take taxis.  What is the point of living at high density if you can't walk to any of density's intrinsic benefits, such as shops nearby?

  20. Daron July 3, 2010 at 1:53 am #

    Jarrett, like I said, that’s one of the nicest areas of the island, and the lack of walking and transit is an amenity for the wealthier folks around Orchard Road that don’t want the density by their homes.

  21. Wai Yip Tung July 19, 2010 at 12:38 pm #

    Here is your revenge – in Okainawa, Japan, a power pole protruded on the street!
    I was really afraid hitting one of those when I was driving my rental car.

  22. Yata August 12, 2010 at 7:21 am #

    Coming from Tokyo, with extended stays in Paris, San Francisco, Hong-Kong and Pekin, I would have to say that Singapore is the most pedestrian unfriendly of all.
    I know of no other place when the traffic lights stay green for cars for such extended amount of time (even when there is little traffic), whereas pedestrian have on average 10 to 15 seconds to cross any road.
    Also, at all crossroads, pedestrians will have to wait even though the cars perpendicular to them have a red light, just so that the occasional car on the direction parallel to them can turn left or right. In most other countries, pedestrians and cars on parallel ways are allowed to move for the same amount of time (with cars turning having to give way to pedestrians). But, no, not in Singapore. And if the traffic is really so intense as not to make it a viable option, the crossroad will function as a scramble crossroad (with pedestrians having an extended period for crossing in all directions while all cars wait, then cars having exclusive access; look up Shibuya for a very well done example in Tokyo). Well, in Singapore, if you arrive at Dhoby Ghaut station and want to cross from the nearest exit to the Cathay building, prepare a good book cause it may well take around 4 minutes. Soooo pedestrian unfriendly.
    Now don’t start me about cycling !! There is nowhere to run!!

  23. Annonymous April 4, 2011 at 12:47 am #

    This sounds like a lot of intersections in the U.S. where the walk sign doesn’t come on until you press a button and then wait a full signal cycle (typically around 1-2 minutes). The result: most pedestrians simply ignore the pedestrian signal and cross anyway when the light for parallel cars is green.
    Similarly, if there’s something unusual about an intersection (one-way streets, left turns, a very wide median, etc.) that permit safe crossing during multiple signal phases, the walk sign typically only comes on during only one such phase. Again, many pedestrians including myself disregard the pedestrian signal and cross anyway if the car signal indicates we have a protected path.