Singapore: A Walk with Paul Barter

One of this blog’s earliest fans was Paul Barter, a transport policy scholar based at the National University of Singapore.  Paul’s blog, Reinventing Urban Transport, is always worth a look.

Paul and I met for dinner in Singapore last week, a long rambling evening that ended in an outdoor Islamic (no alcohol) cafe, where we watched the Germany vs. England World Cup game amid a crowd who all seemed to have surprisingly strong feelings for one side of the other.  (Perhaps, given colonial history, this boiled down to strong feelings for or against the British.)  We started with a walking tour of a Singapore that most tourists won’t see, but that covers a huge percentage of the island: the regular, repetitive, but efficient world of the Housing Development Board, the single government agency that provides housing for a majority of Singaporeans.

Paul told me to meet him at Ang Mo Kio station on Singapore’s rail rapid transit network, the MRT:


Most of the rail rapid transit is elevated outside the CBD, so this is a typical station environment, constrained in its urban potential by the overhead structure.  Note the solid mass of bicycles chained to the fence in the distance.

Singapore is still debating the role of the bicycle.  Paul tells me that cycling on pedestrian paths is illegal but tolerated, while riding in the street is legal but looks, to me, pretty scary.  When Paul and others suggest ways to make cycling safer, they get responses along the lines of:  “Cycling will never be popular in Singapore; it’s just too hot and humid.”  There’s an odd disconnect here, as the number of bicycles locked to railings at rapid transit stations indicates some demand, and this would seem to suggest some government interest in the safety of those people, regardless of whether bicycles are officially popular.  As for humidity, Brisbane shares Singapore’s climate for half the year, and in the core parts of Brisbane where there is good cycling infrastructure, cycling volumes are intense.

Paul then led me to the bus interchange for Ang Mo Kio station, which is across the street from the rail station but connected by pedestrian underpass.  It’s a standard enclosed facility with sliding doors that open only when a bus is there.  It’s huge, bigger than the rail transit station, with a long chain of berths receding into the distance.


The interchange gives out onto a typical community commercial area.


Which leads, in turn, to truly vast quantities of this …


The low building in front is a parking structure.  This high density has a surprising amount of parking given the transit options and the generally high cost of driving.  Paul said that the total number of cars is capped in Singapore, by requiring a permit to own a car and capping the number of permits.  Motoring costs are also relatively “unbundled.”  Paul assured me that the parking for these housing blocks is never just lumped into the cost of housing, as it would be in North American or Austrlasian cities, but must be leased separately.

Still, it’s a lot of parking, a lot of cars, and thus a lot of emphasis on big, fast streets:


Our walk took us under the viaduct of the MTR rail transit system, and while it’s not Berlin’s Stadtbahn, they have tried to make the space useful, as a skateboarding area among other things.


Considerable effort goes into providing completely weather protected pedestrian routes, an effect that produces a repeating pattern of small structures that are vaguely Chinese-looking in their composition:



These towers also have an equivalent of the small corner shop, usually on the ground floor.


These massed housing landscapes are likely to be distressing to a lot of Western eyes, reminiscent, perhaps, of European suburbs that are often considered slums.  So it’s interesting to see the same architecture used to create a prosperous environment, with many touches that show a clear intention to make a humane and attractive place.

In the end, I’m not Singaporean, so it doesn’t much matter whether I like it.  The Housing Development Board is Singapore’s housing provider not just for the poor but for much of the middle class.   Generations of many families have known no other form of housing.  It’s home.  And it certainly packs the trains.

5 Responses to Singapore: A Walk with Paul Barter

  1. Leo @ HK July 1, 2010 at 9:03 am #

    To me, as a Hong Konger, Singapore’s public housing is not as packed as ours! They look pretty spacious! To be serious, this could be the only way housing works in such a small piece of land for its population.
    Another striking similarity is, HK’s official also dismisses the transport function of bicycle (as least in the urban area), and refrains it to merely recreational. Only in recent year does it admit its feeder role in the suburb.

  2. Power of Plebis July 1, 2010 at 11:40 pm #

    Great post! You give us armchair travelers and would-be Singaporeans a peek into what life is like beyond the CBD. When I travel, one of the first things I do is to get on a city bus to check out the periphery, and here you have brought it to me. You’ve also nicely framed the challenges of planning for bicyclists (heck, planning for everyone by safeguarding the safety of cyclists in particular) in an Eastern society that seems to tilt west.
    >Generations of many families have known no other form of housing. It’s >home. And it certainly packs the trains.
    It’s interesting to consider the degree of social homogeneity and conformity that must be required to keep estates (as shown here) free of crime and tagging. I guess Singapore can make it work.
    Presumably there’s much we can learn here in the States about housing and mass transit, if we lent half an ear to it.

  3. Daron July 3, 2010 at 2:02 am #

    Wow man, I lived in Ang Mo Kio, and that was my MRT station! I did a post on the neighborhood a while back,
    The bike situation is rough. Nobody ever bikes on the roads, and it is a bit hot, but you can bike from one end of the island to the other easily. Check out east coast park, that’s the best area for biking. Maybe Bukit Timah too, but too many hills.
    There’s a huge effort to make the entire coast of the island into one long bike park. The various parks and water catchments in the middle are being slowly linked by greenways as well. Many of the bikes you see there probably ride to Bishan Park often.
    You picked up on my biggest problem with AMK. It rains every day and most areas have good covered walkways. It’s possible to walk from one end of AMK to the other without getting wet just by walking through the void decks of the HDBs and taking the covered walkways. The train system is elevated, which makes for fantasic views as you shoot around the island, but the area under it is generally poorly planned. Some area like by Choa Chu Kang do have bike paths and walkways underneath, but the area between AMK and Bishan is a complete failure. I should be able to walk south from AMK station protected from rain under the train, but it’s full of concrete and staircases.
    The elevated train lines should be major rain-protected greenways, but they’re not!

  4. J July 3, 2010 at 11:15 pm #

    RE: Architecture. Looks a lot like Brazil to me. Ugly buildings, but gives no indication to the luxury (or lack of) inside.
    “Cycling will never be popular in Singapore; it’s just too hot and humid.”
    Standard response found everywhere in the world. Too hot, too cold. Too far, too steep. Roads too narrow, roads too wide. Obviously, the logic is not logic at all. Copenhagen is cold and wet. San Francisco is foggy and steep. And yet, people bike.

  5. Jordan 8 August 6, 2010 at 8:10 pm #

    Count your age with friends but not with years. Good luck to you!!