Oli Lewis (right) in Singapore with transport consultant Terence Ng
A line of school children dressed neatly in white dresses are serenading a crowd of hundreds of people, singing a patriotic-sounding song about Singapore as the transport minister and other dignitaries watch on.
It’s 30 degrees Celsius outside and humid - the ever-present clouds hanging like a wet blanket over the island, a tiny speck of land the size of Lake Taupo. Despite its size, this global shipping and financial hub has roughly the same population as New Zealand. Land is scarce. Planning for its most efficient use is key.
That’s why we’re underground. After the heat, descending the escalator down into the train station is like entering an oasis: cool from the air conditioning and, in this case, sparkling new.
As he mounts the stage, the transport minister, Mr S Iswaran, wipes his brow with a cloth. It’s the 11th day of the 11th month and he’s here for the official opening of 11 new train stations on the Thomson East Coast (TEL) line.
“As we have emphasised many times, the rail network is the backbone of our public transport system,” Iswaran says. “So we have made it a priority to design and build a well-connected and resilient rail network.”
Singapore's Minister for Transport S Iswaran arriving for the official opening stage three of Singapore's Thomson East Coast line
A priority, indeed. I’ve come to Singapore to write about its transport system and the lessons it might offer New Zealand. Shortly before I came, Auckland announced a major rail rebuild that will result in closures and years of disruption. That would never happen in Singapore, I was told. Ensuring efficient and easy travel across the island is a strategic imperative, good for residents but also for positioning the city state as an attractive place to live and do business.
I was an immediate beneficiary. Getting the train from Changi Airport after a 10-hour flight was a seamless experience: the station was clean and easy to navigate, payment was simple (you can tag on using a credit card) and the carriages were spacious and air conditioned. Singapore has attracted derision over the years for things like its chewing gum ban, a measure Western critics like to cite as evidence of government overreach (Lee Kuan Yew, acknowledged as the founder of modern Singapore, was dismissive of these claims. "If Singapore is a nanny state, then I am proud to have fostered one,” he said).
Less well-known are the positive government influence campaigns like a push by the Land Transport Agency (LTA) and others to create what they call a caring commuter culture. In the stations and on trains I saw advertisements celebrating public transport workers, signs encouraging commuters to share space and, in a gallery run by LTA, bus driver simulator systems.
On the streets, too, were posters encouraging commuters to leave their car at home, part of a ‘car lite’ strategy being pursued by the government. Already, about 70% of people walk, cycle or ride public transport in the morning peak - almost the inverse of NZ, where by far the majority of people drive. By 2040, LTA aims for it to be 90%.
Billboards in the underground system encourage people to leave their cars at home to help save the environment
Providing public transport so good people choose not to drive requires investment.
Following fierce debate in the early 1980s, the government committed $5 billion to build the first MRT rail line in the country - a staggering sum at the time. Since it opened in 1987, Singapore has added five more lines, with plans for more this decade.
Getting around on the MRT system is simple and fast. Aside from using the rideshare app Grab to get to a bus depot in the west of the island, I took trains to all my interviews. They were too convenient not to. However, to fulfil my professional obligation to try out other modes, I also hired a bike using the Anywheel app and rode it from Gardens by the Bay to the East Coast Park, a green belt along the coast.
Lewis: " Providing public transport so good people choose not to drive requires investment."
Pedalling past the futuristic garden domes, I spotted a fighter jet overhead. As a Grab driver told me, Singapore, a tiny country neighboured by the much larger and populous nations of Malaysia and Indonesia, can’t afford to be complacent. Ever since its independence in the 1960s, the city state has viewed national defence as an existential issue - MRT stations double as civil defence shelters and there’s compulsory military service.
But back to transport. As well as pull factors to make public transport attractive, Singapore excels at push factors to price the use of private cars. Over coffee with a respected journalist, he told me the recent auction for a certificate of entitlement - a 10-year right to use a car - had recently reached record highs. The price? S$115,000, or more than NZD$135,000.
Then there’s the electronic road pricing (ERP) system, a series of gantries on key roads that charge motorists who pass under them. With limited land, Singapore understands that cars aren’t the most efficient transport mode - people who want to use them have to pay. As the journalist told me, the high barrier to car ownership means many people who do choose to drive tend to opt for more expensive models. If you’re paying S$115,000 just for the right to own a car, why not buy a Ferrari?
All of these systems require integrated land use and transport planning.
Singapore's public transport system is integrated across various transport modes for efficiency
A highlight of my trip was visiting a museum run by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), the lead planning agency in Singapore. The museum features scale models of the island and its many fantastic buildings, including an incredibly detailed model of the central city. Every decade, the URA, working with partner agencies like the LTA, produces a long-term plan with something like a 50-year outlook. This gets reviewed every five years. Agencies also come up with their own plans and meet regularly to talk with each other about progress.
I’m reliably informed that New Zealand politicians passing through Singapore always take an interest in the planning system. And why wouldn’t they? It works. Walking around areas like Marina Bay, which sits on reclaimed land, is a testament to the long-term vision people decades ago had for how the city might develop.
As I was leaving Singapore, a communications professional sent a message to wish me a safe journey home. I told him I’d miss how efficient the transport system was. “Efficiency to us is an existential issue,” he replied.