Transport and Energy
Commuting sustainably

Lim Swee Say describes how Singapore manages its ever expanding land transport system in an environmentally sustainable way.

Singapore is an island, a city state. It has a total land area of 650 square kilometres and a population of 4.1 million. With limited land and a high population density, it has to meet the challenge of building a comprehensive, efficient and yet environmentally acceptable land transport system.

We have done our utmost to minimize the adverse impacts of an ever expanding transport network. These impacts include traffic congestion, environmental pollution and the use of precious land to accommodate the growing numbers of vehicles on our roads.

Singapore has implemented various strategies to bring about a more efficient and environmentally less polluting land transport system – including improving public transport, integrating transport needs into land-use planning, managing demand for road usage and harnessing technology to optimize the capacity of the island’s transport infrastructure.

Providing an attractive public transport system is a key thrust of Singapore’s policies. Currently about 63 per cent of all motorized trips on our island are made by public transport – 5 million of the total 7 million made every day, comprising 3 million on buses, 1 million on the mass rapid transit trains and another 1 million in taxis.

We hope that one day 75 per cent of all motorized trips on our island will be made by public transport. To this end, we are seeking to expand our rail transit system further.

There are at present two train networks in Singapore – the mass rapid transit (MRT) lines and the light rapid transit (LRT) system. The MRT links the main population centres north-south and east-west, while the LRT serves the intra-town and localized transport needs of the residents of satellite townships. Another 57 kilometres of MRT and LRT lines will be added to the existing 91 kilometre network over the next five years. By integrating the two networks, we are making travel by train a seamless and attractive mode of transport for commuters. There are also plans to improve bus and taxi services further.

A ‘traveller information system’ is being introduced for the bus service. This will provide commuters with real-time information on bus movements, locations and expected arrival times, to help them plan their journeys better and cut down waiting time.

At the same time, more and more taxis in Singapore are being equipped with a satellite global positioning system, allowing them to be directed to the nearest passenger pick-up points. The system has effectively cut down customers’ waiting time, while maximizing the utilization of the taxi fleet.

All these are important features in making our public transport system attractive and appealing to commuters.

Unpopular though they may be, tough measures are also needed to moderate the ownership and use of motor vehicles in a crowded city state like Singapore. We have to avoid congested roads and motorways for both economic and environmental reasons.

Under our vehicle quota system a certificate of entitlement (COE) must be acquired before a person can register a vehicle for use on the road. The price of a COE is determined by market demand through a public tendering system, and it has a validity period of ten years. By limiting the number of COEs issued each month, the quota system has served as an effective means to keep the growth of the vehicle population in Singapore at a level of 3 per cent per year. This is a sustainable growth rate, carefully calculated and based on what we can comfortably provide for in terms of the amount of roads needed and the space to be set aside for supporting infrastructure. An electronic road pricing system is used to moderate the use of vehicles on busy roads. All vehicles in Singapore are now equipped with cashcard readers. Motorists are levied a fee whenever they pass through the gantry point of a busy road during peak hours. All transactions are done electronically, and motorists are encouraged to avoid such charges by using less busy roads, or by taking public transport. This electronic system also allows us flexibility to vary the charges based on traffic conditions, so that we can continually optimize the use of our roads.

We have also implemented an expressway monitoring and advisory system which uses detection and surveillance cameras to monitor the speed and volume of traffic on expressways. The information is, in turn, disseminated to motorists through electronic signboards placed at strategic points. This manages peak hour traffic flow by advising motorists to avoid congested expressways.

Thanks to this system, we have been able to cut down our reaction time to a traffic accident on an expressway by 7 minutes to an average of 15 minutes. This has significantly reduced the chances of traffic building up due to road accidents, and consequently reduced air pollution arising from idling and slow-moving vehicles on expressways. By June 2001, the entire expressway network in Singapore will be equipped with the system.
We hope that one day 75 per cent of all motorized trips on our island will be made by public transport
Older cars are more prone to emit pollutants. We therefore decided in September 1992 to prohibit the import of any used vehicles more than three years old. This has allowed us to maintain a relatively young fleet of vehicles, which are both more roadworthy and less polluting.

Cars more than three years but less than ten years old are required to undergo a mandatory vehicle inspection for roadworthiness every 24 months; cars more than ten years old are subject to annual inspections. Goods vehicles less than ten years old are also subject to annual inspections while older ones must have them twice a year. Motorcycles and scooters also have to be inspected every year.

Our vehicle inspection centres, which check roadworthiness, also carry out tests during these mandatory inspections to ensure that the exhaust emissions from all vehicles in use meet the limits set by the Ministry of the Environment. Vehicles that exceed these emission limits have to pass re-inspections before they are allowed back on the roads.

The Ministry of the Environment also controls air pollution from vehicle exhausts by setting stringent fuel quality and vehicular emission standards. Our strategy is to pre-empt any deterioration in air quality as vehicle numbers grow.

We first introduced unleaded petrol in 1991 and were able to completely phase out leaded petrol in Singapore by July 1998. Similarly, we have been reducing the sulphur content in diesel fuel progressively over the last decade. We have cut the permissible sulphur content in diesel to 0.05 per cent by weight, and are moving towards ultra low sulphur fuel.

Better fuel quality has, in turn, paved the way for us to adopt more stringent emission standards for motor vehicles as engine technology advances. Singapore currently adopts the Euro II emission standards for both petrol- and diesel-driven vehicles. This pre-emptive approach has helped to ensure that air quality in Singapore stays within international guidelines despite a 3 per cent rise in vehicle numbers each year.
Our challenge is to constantly come up with new ideas... and continue our pursuit of an environmentally sustainable land transport system
Electric vehicles and hybrid ones (which use a combination of electric and diesel motors to deliver energy more efficiently) hold promise as the green vehicles of tomorrow, because they generate substantially lower levels of pollutants than conventional vehicles. We have introduced tax incentives to narrow the price difference between such vehicles and conventional ones and encourage their use.

The potential environmental benefits of using electric or hybrid vehicles in place of conventional vehicles are: reduced fuel consumption; reduced emission of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas; reduced emissions of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, oxides of nitrogen, sulphur dioxide and particulates; and reduced levels of noise.

From both economic and environmental standpoints, natural gas is fast becoming the most important energy resource for power generation and manufacturing in Singapore. We also want to promote its use for transport because it is a cleaner fuel. We have started a pilot project to gauge the potential of compressed natural gas buses: depending on its outcome, we hope to be able to extend the use of the fuel from buses to taxis. We hope to bring about cleaner and greener public transport.

In highly urbanized Singapore, noise pollution from road traffic and MRT/LRT trains also receives much attention. With further urbanization and the widening of expressways, noise levels have been gradually rising in some areas, especially those along existing expressways.

We require new buildings fronting expressways, major arterial roads and MRT tracks to be set back from these thoroughfares so as to minimize the impact on residents. In addition, we have set noise emission standards for vehicles, and are using low-noise porous asphalt to pave our expressways. We have adopted noise-damped rail tracks and wheels for MRT trains. Our LRT trains have rubber wheels, and we make them run on concrete tracks to keep the noise level down.

Singapore is densely populated and highly urbanized. We have to manage our land transport system effectively and creatively so that the people need not endure high environmental stress from traffic congestion and atmospheric pollution.

Over the years, by harnessing technology and planning ahead, we have been able to keep road traffic free flowing and keep our living environment clean and green. Looking ahead, our challenge is to constantly come up with new ideas, take advantage of technological advances and continue our pursuit of an environmentally sustainable land transport system

Lim Swee Say is Singapore’s Acting Minister for the Environment and Minister of State for Communications and Information Technology.

PHOTOGRAPH: Topham Picturepoint

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Driving change | Clearing the bottlenecks | Commuting sustainably (Singapore) | Transported to the future (Curitiba, Brazil) | Bucking the trend (Freiburg, Germany) | Message from the UN Secretary-General | Message from Cuba | Message from Turin | Competition | Breaking free | Calling for change | Reaching the unreached | Greening the screen | Taking the lead | Wanted: more good reporters | On the dot | The city century

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Human settlements 1996, including
Herbert Girardet: Giant footprints Gerhard Berz: Insuring against catastrophe (Disasters) 2001
Kofi Annan: At a glance: Small Island Developing States (Small Islands) 1999
Theodore Panayotou: Win-win finance (The Way Ahead) 1997