Singapore: No More Cars

No more room for cars.

That freeway serves a trivial share of Singapore’s travel demand.

I’ve written about the why cars are a bad fit for cities in the past.  While technologies such as automation and electrification may offer improvements in safety and environmental impact, the spatial requirements of automobiles will always be at odds with the spatial limitations of cities.

Cities in the United States have an estimated 8 parking spaces for every car.  Automobiles take up a lot of space just to store, and require even more space on streets to move and be useful.

As one of the most densely populated cities in the world, Singapore has already devoted 12% of its land area to roads and there is no room to add more.  Their updated policy to cap the total number of privately owned automobiles, including those used for ride-hailing services such as Uber and and its Southeast Asian competitor Grab, isn’t what some commentators may decry as a “war on cars”.  It is an acknowledgement of the facts of geometry.

Cities, by definition, have relatively little space per person.  Cars take up a lot of space per person. For cities undergoing population and economic growth, the only long-term solution to this geometric problem is to enable people to get around using less space than cars require — through walking, cycling and mass transit.

singapore: bbc profiles new frontiers in transit denial

This just in from the BBC:  Technology giant Philips corporation sent some people to the extremely busy Singapore bus system to imagine an alternative to typical fixed-route bus service.  The researchers' definition of the problem:

We discussed the benefits and limitations of the fixed-route system – it's clear such a system provided consistency in time and place (to get on and off), and to a certain extent convenience, but not completely. Flexibility is not what a fixed-route and fixed-time bus service system can offer. We have all experienced times when the bus is very empty or extremely packed, which means efficiency is best optimised at the bus-route level, but not individual bus level, since that bus is unable to respond to dynamic demand and traffic situations immediately. We all have all been in situations when there are only a few passengers in the bus and yet, the bus still has to plough through the entire fixed route, picking up no passengers along the way. The motivation was how to optimise the bus service by allowing the passengers and bus drivers to respond immediately to dynamic demand and traffic situations, not unlike a taxi that you can flag anywhere, anytime, and it will take you directly to your destination.

Needless to say, they came up with a massively all-demand-reponsive system identical to the one promoted last year by Gensler Associates, to which I responded (perhaps too colorfully) here. The idea is that now that you have a smartphone, the transit line should twist and turn to meet chase everyone's speciic need and that somehow this will be more efficient.  As I said in response to Gensler, there's little to fear from this dystopian vision beause it's mathematically impossible.  

In a place as crowded as Singapore, well-designed scheduled fixed routes are not just efficient but liberating.  They're efficient on a large scale despite routine under- and overcrowding because they follow straight paths that thousands of people find useful at the same time.  They're efficient because people gather at major stops where they board and alight in large numbers that are impossible in any demand-responsive form.  Frequent fixed routes are liberating because they're there for you when you need them, just as subways are, so that you don't have to wonder whether some automated system will approve your request for transport.  

The all-demand-responsive vision can mean one of two things:  (1) large buses that carry large numbers of people on complex variable routes, changing its route in response to every beep of desire from each of 5 million phones, or (2) fleets of very small vehicles each serving a few people on a more direct path.  Vision (1) is a hellishly circuitous system to ride any distance on, while (2) is a vision of vastly more wasteful use of urban space,  as people who are now carried in a space-efficient way are converted to a space-wasteful one.  Vision (2) also requires either driverless technology or extremely cheap labor, which is why it only happens at scale in low-wage developing countries.

No, Singapore has built its success on subways, and is developing fixed, infrastructural bus lines that work more like subways.

Please don't call yourself a transit visionary until you've grappled with the facts and possibilities of transit network design, by reading a book, say, or taking a course!

the photo that explains almost everything (updated!)

You've seen photos like this. A large group of people, with images comparing the amount of precious urban space they take depending on the mode of transport they use.  This new one is by Australia's Cycling Promotion Fund.


This photo makes at least three important points, two of them probably not intended.  In this one image you can see that:

  • Bike racks on buses (and most other transit) can never be more than a niche market

The rack on the bus in pic #1 carries two bikes, which is great for those two people.  But if all the bikes in pic #2 try to get onto the bus in pic #1, we have a geometric impossibility.  Bike racks are already as large as they can be if the driver is still to be far enough forward to drive safely.  A non-folding bike inside a transit vehicle takes the space of several passengers, so could fairly be accommodated only at several times the fare.  In the ideal sustainable future, you will have to park your bike at the station, or return your rental bike, just as Europeans do.  If transit does accommodate your bike, you really should pay a fare premium that reflects the rough number of passenger spaces displaced, or the supply/demand ratio for 2-3 bike racks vs 20 people wanting to use them.

 Dreamers along these lines may well be right about many suburban areas, where demand is sparse and the land use pattern precludes efficient transit.  But when all the people in this picture want to travel, driverless cars may take less space than the cars shown here, but they will still take far more space than a bus would.  The scarcity of space per person is part of the very definition of a city, as distinct from suburbia or rural area, so the efficiency with which transport options use that space will always be the paramount issue.  

(Of course, this very thought experiment presumes that we will actually achieve, and culturally accept, driverless cars that require very little space between them, in which the prevention of ghastly accidents — especially with pedestrians and bikes who may appear with zero warning and minimal stopping distance — is achieved through the absolute infallibility of human-designed hardware and software.)

To make the same point more generally:

  • In cities, urban space is the ultimate currency.  

We spend too much time talking about what things cost in dollars and not enough about what they cost in space.  That, of course, is because urban space is perversely priced to encourage inefficient uses of it and discourage efficient ones.  If you're going to claim to be able to visualize how technology will change the world of 2040 — as the techno-futurists claim to do — you should also visualize what a political system ruled by people now under 40 would look like.  These people are much less emotionally attached to cars, care about environmental outcomes much more, and value urban space much more than their parents do.  Given that the revolution in urban pricing has already begun (see the London and Singapore congestion charges, and the San Francisco and Auckland dynamic parking systems), isn't it foolish to assume that today's assumptions about how we apportion urban space will still rule your techno-utopia?

UPDATE:  A reader points out one other key point, which is that

  • the photo understates the space requirements of bikes compared to the other two.  

Once you put these three systems in motion, the cars and bus will need more space in one dimension — forward and back.  However, in motion, the mass of bikes will expand in two dimensions, it will need to be both longer and wider for all the bikes to move safely.  This could have been rectified in the photo by consciously spacing the bikes to a distance where riders would feel comfortable at a brisk cycling speed that ensures not only stopping distance but also space for passing.  Masses of cyclists on a recreational ride may all agree to ride in tight formation at the same speed, but in daily life cycling infrastructure must accommodate the the fact that people in a cycling crowd will have different desires and intentions around speed, which affects lateral spacing and stopping distance.

Singapore: Transfer Penalty Eliminated, Complaints Predictable

IMG_0263 Singapore’s weekend Straits Times was full of debate about the recent fare system changes, which finally eliminated fare penalties for connecting from one service to another.

Eliminating these penalties is a crucial step in creating an integrated and versatile transit network, because (a) networks designed around connections are more legible and frequent than those that aren’t and (b) transferring is already enough of a hassle without these penalties.  The new system means that your fare from A to B will now be the same regardless of the path you take and the number of times you transfer.  This, in turn, will allow the transit agency to design a simpler and more reliable system. Continue Reading →

Singapore: Mysterious, Providential Buses

[Slightly revised 22 August ’10 to eliminate some innocent mistakes.  The overall naive tone of this post was intentional; this was, after all, my first full day in Singapore, so I was seeing as one sees when first trying to figure out a network.]

My first transit adventure in Singapore began in at the remote wetland reserve, Sungei Buloh, in the northwest of the island.  It’s adjacent to a curious area called the “Kranji Countryside,” billed as Singapore’s “homegrown agritainment hub.”  It’s a small patch of farmlands and vineyards designed to serve all the agrarian tourism needs for the 5 million people living just down the road.   Continue Reading →

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. Continue Reading →