A Vision for Transportation

Feb 01, 2016 at 12:03 pm | Hits: 2905

By Leonard Chew

Singapore’s transport system has evolved over the past 50 years to become one of the world’s leading exemplars. The Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system and an extensive bus network forms the backbone of our public transport system while we have taken a pioneering approach to managing the private vehicle population and road traffic.    

The next 50 years will bring transformation at an even faster pace, as we seek ways to fulfil the demands of changing demographics, optimise the use of resources, and embrace the latest technology to deliver “smart mobility”.  

The role of transport and moving forward

Transport plays a key role in our everyday lives — we commute to work or school, travel to participate in social activities, and require access to amenities such as healthcare. It is essential for our transport system to strive to attain top marks in reliability, efficiency, comfort, affordability, and safety and for us to try to reduce the system’s environmental footprint.

Pragmatism has always been the hallmark of Singapore’s land transport system. We have emphasised  improving the public transit mode share — which is the percentage of trips by the main mode of public transport — and the use of traffic monitoring systems and road pricing schemes to keep us moving. Looking ahead, I believe we will retain the spirit of maximising capacity and resources without relying solely on the expansion of infrastructure.

The utilisation of technology will improve our transport system. “Big data” will capture travel patterns and can form valuable inputs for planning routes. Self-driving vehicles will open up new possibilities in the movement of people and goods.

In 50 years’ time, Singapore’s transport system will be intelligent and sustainable, with the latter encompassing safety, efficiency and accessibility.

An intelligent transport system

“Smart mobility” means there is a bi-directional information flow to optimise the way we travel. Real-time information might be available through mobile apps now, but in the future it will adopt a different dimension, with “live” options available at one’s fingertips.

Being informed of alternative routes in the event of any travel disruptions, receiving real-time passenger loading levels on buses and trains, knowing where the taxi “hotspots” are — these are just some of the benefits of “smart mobility”. Journey patterns and travel demands are captured and analysed, facilitating the introduction of additional vehicles to supplement services when demand is high.

Given the plethora of platforms available for the gathering and dissemination of information, commuters will be able to make informed choices for their trips and journey planning will always take into account updates to ensure relevance. These tools will lead to time savings and leave fewer aspects to chance.

Undoubtedly, vehicles will also evolve in terms of intelligence, being able to drive themselves and therefore becoming autonomous. These developments will have implications on sustainability.

Enhancing connectivity

There are different modes of transport, such as trains, buses, taxis, cars, bicycles and on foot. Interchanges become inevitable, especially for longer journeys on public transport.

Mobile applications could inform users about available bicycle parking spaces at the MRT station, allowing them to make a reservation in advance and simplify the drop-off process, so that they can catch a train to the next interchange point. The app would advise subsequent connection timings and boarding points, and would map out the best route to complete the journey on foot, also taking into account covered walkways when it is raining, as well as gradients and stairs for senior citizens or parents with prams.  

Such features also come in handy for journeys to areas not served by the MRT or bus network. The app could pre-book a taxi, taking into account the walking time from the station platform to the taxi stand, or even allow one to add a set time for a brief stopover at the retail outlet on the way out of the station. If desired, one could also connect with a car-sharing service — something several automobile manufacturers are currently developing.

Improving the connectivity of interchanges will benefit commuters. It may also entice motorists to make fewer trips with their personal vehicles, perhaps even forgoing vehicle ownership subsequently. We can achieve better use of resources, such as reducing the space required for parking and alleviating congestion.

Ensuring sustainability

Sustainability encompasses economic, social and environmental aspects. Efficiency can be considered as an economic aspect, while accessibility to transport falls under social sustainability. Transport emissions mainly influence the environmental aspect, but like safety, it can generate an economic and social cost. Because of its non-specific nature, this section is organised around ideas and trends rather than a particular branch of sustainability.  

Autonomous vehicles

Self-driving vehicles will revolutionise transportation. The existing bus system is constrained by limits on driving hours and a shortage of drivers. Taxis sometimes disappear before the peak surcharge kicks in, or may not be close to where commuters need them. On the road, human error and poor driving etiquette contribute to accidents. Motorists spend significant amounts of time looking for parking. By using autonomous vehicles, these scenarios could be minimised or eliminated.

Singapore is already testing driverless vehicles like the NAVIA and SCOT, and tech companies such as Google are evaluating self-driving cars. Autonomous pods shuttle passengers to the carpark at London’s Heathrow airport. The future will see technology capable of operating larger vehicles in more complex environments.

Given its size, Singapore is in a good position to shape a nationwide operating environment for autonomous vehicles through supportive legislation. Our planning system enables us to create and implement masterplans effectively. Jobs and operations will undoubtedly have to be redesigned, but staff can be redeployed to other value-added vocations within the industry, providing a better service to commuters without needing to focus on the demanding task of driving.

Self-driving cars utilise space more efficiently, allowing planners to reallocate part of the area occupied by parking infrastructure for other purposes such as widening pedestrian walkways. Besides, safety is improved with driver error taken out of the equation, and people will be able to use the time spent driving on something more productive. Without the need for a driving licence, youth and the elderly benefit from greater freedom and independence. All in all, the availability of buses and taxis could be improved around the clock.

Zero-emissions transportation

Electric vehicles hold the key to an environmentally sustainable transport system. Singapore’s geographical size makes it suitable for such vehicles. I envisage electric vehicles, together with fuel-cell (hydrogen) vehicles, to be commonplace in 50 years’ time.

With the advancement in battery technology providing increased range, zero-emission vehicles will not just comprise of private cars, vans, taxis and buses, but also service vehicles such as garbage trucks. Wireless charging technology could become commonplace, and intelligent systems will manage the charging regime, balancing the electrical grid and minimising user input.

There are major benefits in moving to zero-emission vehicles, not least in relation to our carbon footprint. Air quality will improve, with no toxic gases and particles emitted from tailpipes. Furthermore, Singapore will be less dependent on fossil fuels and fluctuations in oil prices.

Car-free zones

Forward-thinking cities designate car-free zones in residential areas. I visited the Vauban neighbourhood in Freiburg, Germany, where the concept of shared space exists – small streets outside homes are used mainly as pedestrian walkways with the occasional car passing by to pick up or drop off passengers. Parking is situated on the fringes of the neighbourhood, meaning that the immediate surroundings of the residential areas are not car-dominated.

Urban planners will have to adapt the existing infrastructure to ensure its relevance for the future, especially if we intend to go “car-lite”. It is not difficult to see the benefits — better living space and improved quality of life, yet accessibility is hardly sacrificed given that public transit connections exist nearby, and autonomous cars can park themselves after passengers are dropped off.

Shared, affordable transport

The “sharing” model is beginning to catch on, with car-sharing enabling a group of members to access a common pool of vehicles for their use. Ride-sharing (or car-pooling) has recently been marketed, and should prove to be popular once a critical mass of subscribers has been attained. Both concepts improve resource efficiency. In the future, user experience will be streamlined, further increasing the appeal of such services.

Trains and buses will continue to be most effective way of moving people over longer distances, while driverless pods could be the answer for specific last-mile journeys. Affordability will always be the key in pricing mechanisms for public transport given the economies of scale, though commuters will also have different options further up the price scale for more direct journeys.

Smart, connected, safe, efficient, environmentally friendly — these should be how Singapore’s transport system is described in 50 years time. It may not be possible to eliminate car ownership, but the convenience of public transport should appeal to many more. Technology will change how we get from A to B spatially, and this also happens to be an apt way to describe the temporal shift between now and 2065. The future is not all that far away as numerous trials are already taking place around the world, providing us with a sneak preview of what lies ahead.

Leonard works in the transportation industry in Europe. He is involved in the conceptualisation and delivery of various electric vehicle projects. He has a Master’s degree in Transport and City Planning from University College London.

Top photo from smrt.com.sg


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