Right now, I’d rather drive. Let’s hope that changes

By Daryl Choo


I count myself lucky to have travelling options other than public transport. Sometimes, I drive and other times, I book a Grab to get home after a late night out.

It takes me about 25 minutes by bus just to get to the nearest MRT station from home. So I always take the bus when I travel, and if my destination is not served by the dozen or so buses around my area — which is rare — I tend to choose other means of transport rather than the MRT.

In three years time, my area will be brought onto the MRT network when a new station on the Thomson-East Coast Line opens. While I look forward to its completion, the station will still be a hot and sweaty 15-minute walk from my house. I could cycle, but that would mean choosing between constantly braking and dismounting to dodge pedestrians on the pavements or gripping my handlebars for dear life as large metallic death machines try to pass me on single-lane roads.

A Grab to town during off-peak hours costs less than $10 and is 30 minutes faster than taking a bus or the MRT. To me, the convenience and comfort is worth the extra cost, especially when I am in a rush. But if I’m not in a rush, I think I’d rather stick with buses.

These are the considerations I take when I travel, which are concerns I know are not even worth airing on a newspaper forum page. First-world problems, if I may say so. If there’s anything to take away from this, it’s to illustrate that for many people, the transport options we end up choosing is often what we view as the best balance of speed, comfort and cost.

But for those not as fortunate, the choice to take public transport is not about whether they are late for class and have to get a cab – it is the cost of public transport. It’s about whether it’s possible to walk to the MRT station to save money.

When I was younger, and perhaps more naive than I am today, I couldn’t fathom why people would raise a ruckus over a 3-cent hike in bus fares. I wondered if it was simply the political opposition camp jumping at the chance to criticise the establishment and ignoring the wood for the trees. Unsurprisingly, the announcement that bus and train fares will rise by 9 cents at the end of the year had likewise drawn criticism.

I now realise that for some, the worry is about whether their salary is able to tide them over for the month, rather than whether the transport firms are collecting enough in fares to offset increasing energy costs.

We tend to forget that even our everyday movements can define our privilege. Sociologist Teo Yeo Yenn began her seminal book, “This Is What Inequality Looks Like”, depicting how even in an urban metropolis like Singapore, there are people who hardly leave their immediate neighbourhood because of their circumstances.

The average household uses 1.7 per cent of their monthly expenditure on public transport, down from 2.3 per cent in 2012, according to the Public Transport Council (latest the department of statistics). For low-income households, that number has also dropped from 3.5 to 2.5 per cent.

Behind these averages, however, are stories of households on the fringes that we cannot neglect – like a 63-year-old cleaner TODAY had interviewed, who earns $700 a month as the sole breadwinner of the family and has to spend one-seventh of that on transport. Unable to pay her bills, her water supply was restricted and she now has to leave pails under her taps to collect enough water to shower.

Using global standards, Singapore’s public transport is affordable. The Government also gives transport vouchers to lower-income households regularly, but many families do not take advantage of these subsidies. In the latest exercise, more than one-third of the 300,000 eligible households had yet to apply for public transport vouchers close to a year after the voucher disbursement exercise commenced.

Public transport here has also often been lauded as one of the best in the world and operators were still able to make profits off fares (at least until recent years).

So when our transport companies started making millions in losses, Singaporeans were shocked. And after the Land Transport Authority (LTA) bought the trains, buses, and related infrastructure from these transport companies, leaving them to operate the services, LTA’s operating deficit also soared 3.6 times over the past five years to $2.4 billion.

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan has signalled that commuters may have to pay higher public transport fares in the future, saying that the Government’s subsidies for public transport at current rates are unsustainable.

Judging from online sentiments, many were aghast. Especially after the spate of train breakdowns in 2015, they felt that the performance of the transport companies did not justify the price increase.

Despite being run by businesses, mass transit should not be seen as a purely private good. The move by the Government to acquire the bus and rail assets also shows that it recognises the public value of having a fast and reliable transit system. Even for those who do not take public transport, a good transit system has external benefits of reducing pollution, less congestion on roads, and even increased property values for those living near MRT stations.

It is common for metro systems in developed cities to not recover their operating costs from fares alone. According to the World Resources Institute, Paris recovers only around 30 per cent from fares, Chicago 42 per cent, Boston 40 per cent, Madrid 41 per cent, Beijing 59 per cent and Vancouver 28 per cent.

While policymakers explore ways to keep our transport deficits in check, there must continue to be safeguards to ensure that everyone is able to afford it. Singaporeans should also understand that rising transport costs are a reality for a majority of developed countries, and be prepared to contribute more in the form of higher fares or higher transport budgets.

An LTA survey conducted between 2016 and 2017 found that 33 per cent of peak-hour commuters make their trip on private vehicles, excluding taxis. To reach this goal of a ‘car-lite’ society, LTA aims to have nine in 10 of all peak-hour commuters to travel by public and shared transport, including taxis and carpools, by 2040.

For those who have trouble affording public transport, it’s about ensuring the right help gets to the right people. As for the rest, it’s about convincing drivers to give up their cars and also ensuring that the transport system is capable of handling the added commuters. The MRT is never in a jam, but the past five years have shown that it can break down and have delays. Bus services might also be more on time today, but if buses are too full, workers still won’t be able to get to work on time.

If a ‘car-lite’ society means higher transport costs, then I believe it is justifiable for us to pay more, whether in the form of higher fares or taxes, so long as the transport goals can be delivered and commuter satisfaction does not take a hit.

The challenge will then be to balance improvements to speed and comfort with the increased cost of public transport: the improvements must be great enough to encourage more drivers to give up their cars, while have costs rise at a level that regular commuters will find reasonable.

As for myself, I would be lying if I said I won’t want to own a car when I start working. But it’s simply too expensive to own a car in Singapore where you can only use it for 10 years. And then there’s the creeping guilt of contributing to the dire state of our planet’s climate.

Conversations I have with my peers suggest that my generation no longer idealise cars as the ultimate symbol of social mobility. One day, it will be more trendy to take public transport.

Read about the buzz over transport here.

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