By Tharuka Prematillake Thibbotuwawa
“Singapore is a great city to walk and play – if we have money”, said William Lim, a well-known architect in Singapore, during a short interview with me, recently.
The city’s rapid economic growth and development has translated into a city of high-rise buildings, casinos, theme parks, theaters, high-end shopping malls, and restaurants. It is orderly and clean and surrounded by landscaped gardens. It is also a city with more increasing numbers of car owners and an efficient but increasingly stressed public transport system. But, the question is, whether the benefits of these forms of urban growth are shared equally by everyone in Singapore? Out of many areas that Lim discussed pertaining to this question, this article looks at how cycling as an alternative urban transport mode could widen the range of people benefitting from Singapore’s growth.
According to Lim, Singapore’s economic growth and development seems to have mostly benefited “the more affluent class. Middle-income earners have not been successfully benefited from the growth. This is not just a Singapore case, but in all developed countries”. For the majority of people in Singapore, the aforementioned developments add vibrancy to the city but are changes that do little to help people meet their daily needs. In some cases, they have had the opposite effect by transforming public resources into private goods and making the city more expensive.
“For Singaporeans with family, it’s not so simple. Their budget is not so simple. You run the family, you pay for your mortgage, you pay for the children’s fees; so it’s not so simple to have what you need to have. I think the issue here is whether the increasing productivity has been translated into shorter working hours for everybody. Whether they have more space, have more time for friends and family- that is the issue,” added Lim. Hence, there is an urgency to address ways of improving the city to allow people time to spend with their loved ones. This should be part of the urban development process.
In Lim’s humble opinion, “it is a political decision to shorten the hours. It’s a political decision, [to] improve the transport. But, if you keep increasing the number of people in Singapore, the public transport is going to be difficult.” I believe the purpose of improving transport is to ensure a comfortable ride and shorter travel time and distances at an affordable price. Shorter travel time and distances would mean that people are able to travel to and fro to work and to school easily, giving them more time to spend with family and friends.
This made me wonder: is Singapore’s vibrancy and growth mainly for affluent, high-income groups and tourists? If so, what kinds of interventions might be possible to benefit the city as a whole?
In the recent past, there have been various developments in the Singapore’s public transport system that have had broad benefits, such as added bus and MRT services, wheelchair accessible buses, etc. Although, nothing comes for free these have made the city more accessible for everyone. “Your transport all seems to improve but you have to pay for it,” said Lim. In other words, the public will eventually need to pay more cash to maintain and improve the system. Moreover, developed roads, increase the demands placed on the city by increasing numbers of motorists, and the expansion of road infrastructure could mean that the public—including the majority of non-users—have to pay back sunk costs with their taxes or through other fees. This is the case is most developed countries today.
Apart from these financial burdens, fuel leaks and carbon emissions add environmental pollution and health hazards to the list of broader impacts of transportation on the city’s livability. Furthermore, the travel distance has not been addressed. For instance, it takes approximately 2-hours for some people to travel to work and back home via public transport. Adding to this, at peak hours the system is already overcrowded. Hence, what other possibilities are there for the majority of public who do not own a vehicle? Is there a possibility to retrofit infrastructure to have an inclusive urban development plan that provides everyone a freedom of travel choice? Given the increasing costs of public transport it would be pragmatic to look at other viable alternative modes of transportation too. How about cycling?
A Bike Friendly and People Friendly City
“Cycling has to be taught as a crucial thing. But you have to provide proper bicycle lanes” said Lim. He explained that reducing the number of car lanes and adding bicycle lanes would be an effective way to use the transport system to broadly improve the city. Currently, cycling is seen as recreational. There are bicycle lanes off-street through park-connectors and trails in neighbourhood areas designed specifically for leisure. Can we modify the physical landscape of the city so that cycling becomes a viable alternative mode of transport for daily travel? To do this we need to rethink our infrastructure plans to make streets more accessible for cyclists to travel distances beyond their immediate neighbourhood without either delays or hazardous conditions. Cycling would be economically and environmentally beneficial. It would also have health benefits too. So, although cycling is often seen as a transport issue, building cycling into the fabric of the city would improve Singapore as a whole.
Bicycles are a low-cost mode of transport, which do not require any fuel consumption. Hence, they cause no environmental damage or health hazards through fuel emissions. Most importantly, increasing the city’s bikability would enable residents to have more physical activity leading to health benefits too. Furthermore, less car parks and road networks to accommodate automobiles would make land available for other purposes. This is benefit seems vital given the fact that land is already a scarce resource in Singapore. All of these benefits should be considered as part and parcel of making the city more livable not just more prosperous
However, if cycling is to become an alternative transport mode, it needs to be brought into the planning process in order to implement the necessary steps and to provide proper facilities. Lim mentioned that this would mean that “your office must have parking space for bicycles and you must have shower places for people to change. All this is fairly simply. It can be done. It has been done in other countries.” Lim added, “it’s not to get rid of cars, but you can give less privilege to the cars” so that the urban development process would not only include the top 10 percent but also the lower- and middle-income earners as well.
Having said all this, there are also various challenges in setting up a whole new alternative approach to transport. This would mean reimagining our existing roads and rearranging them to be shared with motorists and cyclists. It might also entail narrowing of motorists’ lanes, increasing traffic density (if not developed with careful planning), and potential conflicts between motorists and cyclists or between pedestrians and cyclists.
Nonetheless, Lim believes that many developed countries would not have adopted this transport mode if it was not worth the effort. Therefore, the best outcome might be to involve the public in urban development plans so as to identify potential issues and find solutions to them. The public should be given a role in taking part in the urban development planning from the initial stages all the way to implementation and post-implementation processes for future developments.
In Singapore, “the public opinion is becoming increasingly relevant. I think the government is slowly changing their position to include some in the government, some in the civil service and some in the academic circle. They have begun to make minor concessions of the public opinions. So certain changes are taking place on different issues”, said Lim.
In so doing, it ensures greater inclusivity of urban development processes that would result in improved productivity, development and sustainability.
-This blog post is written based on an interview with Mr William Lim on 22 July 2014.-