Besides free travel on MRT, let’s look at car clubs

Zipcar Locations in London

More Zipcar spots than Starbucks

What’s not to like about free travel on the MRT?

I must admit that when I first read the suggestion from MP Janil Puthucheary made in Parliament, I thought it is a nice sounding idea that will unfortunately have limited success. The cynic in me thinks that if an opposition MP had mooted the same idea, it would have been met with some derision from our ministers. So I’m a little surprised at how quickly the suggestion has gained acceptance, considering how the government tends to drag its feet when it comes to accepting ideas that go against its no-free-lunch ideology.

As many have pointed out, workers will be reluctant to head for the office early if the workplace culture doesn’t change to allow them to leave early. Once, I had a boss who believed that if his staff knocks off promptly at 6pm, it means they don’t have enough work on their plates. Given this face time culture, we may have better luck if there is free travel between 9.30am to 11am instead, albeit at the disapproval of bosses.

Still, I’m happy to be proven wrong. And the LTA should be lauded for its willingness to try out new ideas.

It was also reported that, in a transport seminar held at NUS, experts suggested “pay-as-you-drive” schemes to restrain car usage. One transport economist noted that the high costs of COE and ARF encourages car owners to drive more, since they have already paid so much for their cars.

Do we need experts to tell us this?

We already have a “pay-as-you-drive” system — it’s called the ERP. I have suggested before that a high ERP system is fairer and works better than a high COE system. Why? Because the demand for car usage is much more elastic than demand for car ownership.

It looks like the conversation so far on the transport problem has centred around mass transit systems as the main alternative to car ownership. What has been missing is a good option in the middle for those who desire the convenience of a car once in a while without owning one. Taxis belong in this category but its reliability as an occasional mode of transport, especially during peak hours, does not garner much confidence.

Given the size of Singapore, it is strange that car clubs have not seen greater success. Current car clubs have not grown much due to limited subscribers, while membership base will not grow if these clubs don’t offer more locations for picking up cars. So they seem to be stuck in a rut.

The biggest car club, run by NTUC, has less than 200 cars in about 60 locations across the islands. Most HDB estates are served by only one spot, usually near the MRT, so residents away from the town centre still have to take a bus to get to the car. That is hardly an ideal option to encourage greater take-up.

Contrast this to car clubs in other cities in US and Europe. Zipcar in London has over 1,500 cars in hundreds of locations peppered across town (click on image above). Within Zones 1 and 2, you could easily find more than one spot within walking distance. Don’t forget that cars are much cheaper in the UK, and London has a much more comprehensive tube network than Singapore, proving that large car clubs and mass transit systems can co-exist.

Car clubs don’t just cater to normal folks, but also provide a more affordable option to small businesses. For example, if you run an office lunch delivery business from home, you could rent a car for two hours a day, instead of leasing or buying one. Besides giving businesses an alternative to paying high COEs, the higher weekday demand from businesses also complements the higher weekend demand from the public, thereby driving profitability for the car clubs.

So, besides free MRT travel, perhaps this is an area the government should put funding into? With our size, a good number will be about 400-500 locations for an average of one location per square kilometre of built up area, with up to a thousand cars or more. That sounds pretty manageable to start with. Government funding can help keep rates affordable for multi-trip needs and make car clubs a viable alternative to hiring taxis.

So, what’s not to like about car clubs?