No car but can travel: Checking our desires to own cars

No Car But Can Travel Photo - Paris Metro

The Paris metro has one of the highest station/km2 densities in the world but would measuring up to it help dissuade Singaporeans from aspiring to own a car?

Lorong Cat

Guest post by Lorong Cat

When friends from Singapore visit me in London, I invariably get asked the question,

“Why didn’t you get a car?”

Fair point. A cheap second car in the UK costs about as much as the top end Apple Macbook, very affordable by Singapore’s standards.

I get this question so often, I have readily on hand the standard response stocked in my bag of Frequently Asked Questions. Being an organised person and all, it comes in a bullet form:

  • I live within the tube (London subway) network and I can get to most places in central London within 30 – 45 minutes. Sure it is no spring chicken and breaks down all the time especially at the sight of a lone snowflake, but there are ways to manage these disruptions with real time updates from smartphone apps.
  • I am a member of a car club and should I need to make a trip out of town to IKEA to shop for bulky furniture, I just pay £5 per hour for it. The cars are parked within 10-15 minutes of walking distance from where I live. I don’t have car insurance, MOT (equivalent of Singapore’s VICOM car inspection test), fuel or parking fees to contend with.
  • There is no psychological craving or social pressures for car ownership here simply because it is so affordable. If you do not have young kids or special needs, there is really no requirement to own a car. Just about everyone commutes to work using public transport, especially if you work in the business districts. That includes your boss and your boss’s boss. (a minority forks out the daily £10 congestion charge – equivalent of our ERP charge – for the privilege of taking their Ferraris for a slow drive through rush hour)
  • Cycling is a viable way to get around in London, something I appreciate would be difficult in Singapore given the weather. I keep a handy hybrid bike which I use to ride short distances from home to the gym or library.

So I’ve often spoken of the irony that Singaporeans living in the UK do not always jump at the first opportunity to buy a car despite the affordability. Back home, it is prohibitively expensive to do so with the ridiculous COE prices. Buying a car will immediately burn a big hole in one’s pocket and driving it starts a slow but severe haemorrhage with the ERP charges, parking, fuel and parking fines.

Has this prohibition of car ownership in Singapore caused us to place a psychological and social premium on having one?

Think again.

The grand vision of our urban planners (M. Ely, May 2012, “Urban Rail Networks in World Cities”, is to enable access to a MRT station within 5 minutes’ walk from anywhere in the city area by 2020. That’s a real step towards closing on the established rail networks of model cities such as Paris, famed for having a station within 500m of every point in the city.

While we can gripe and make our displeasure felt about the transport system to the government who seems to be making a back-bending attempt to listen, things would take time to change. Policies can be tweaked and infrastructure can be enhanced but the land mass of Singapore is not going to get any bigger. We have to be realistic and accept that there just isn’t enough space for everyone to own a car in Singapore and ditch the idea that it is a must-have.

At the same time, we should continuously remind the policy makers through available channels of the need to tweak the COE system. Many have already done so, with the most promising ideas calling for a departure from the current system in favour of a social economy market model to ensure a fairer distribution of COE to those who has greater need for a car.  A re-examination of the COE system’s purpose and what it hopes to achieve is long overdue and should be addressed so that not every household with means can sweep the bidding war and put out their patriarch, matriarch, son, daughter and maid out on the road in individual cars.

I am glad we are getting more rail lines and stations built on the MRT network. However, having the perfect blueprint on paper is not enough. I hope to see improvements by SMRT in operational aspects such better integration of our rail and bus networks to distribute passenger loads, reducing downtimes, more comprehensive signage/connection maps in the stations and more effective handling of information flow and backup logistics during train breakdowns.

So perhaps I can get by without a car too in Singapore – and would be able to do so when I really do need one.


The Writer is a Singaporean currently living in London and appears on The Void Decker as a guest blogger.