One day in the future, the mobility dreams of young Singaporeans may well centre not on costly, pollutive cars but lightweight, eco-friendly devices like electric scooters on which to zip from home to bus or train and then on to work or leisure. A peek into that future was provided by several MPs who joined the scrutiny of the Ministry of Transport’s (MOT’s) budget. Their questions and the responses of two office holders suggest that despite recent headline-grabbing rail service disruptions and persistent complaints about peak-hour congestion, the shift towards a more sustainable, less car-reliant future is gaining momentum. Dr Janil Puthucheary (Pasir Ris- Punggol GRC) and Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam urged regulators to stay ahead of innovations such as personal mobility devices (PMDs), which include electric scooters, as these can tilt the balance in favour of public transport by making the “last mile” to home or office that much easier for commuters. But not everyone was as welcoming of PMDs and other alternative modes of transport, including cycling.
Mr Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC) and Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) said their proliferation could pose a danger to pedestrians. In response, Parliamentary Secretary (Transport) Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim said the ministry is working to establish clear and consistent rules and norms which will balance the interests of PMD users and pedestrians. A pleasant surprise was his assurance that there would be room for flexibility, including “a slightly different set for towns that are ready to embrace more progressive rules and norms, for example in allowing cyclists and users of non-motorised PMDs to also use footpaths”. The solution need not be “one size fits all”, he added.
To be sure, most of the MPs who spoke were more concerned about longstanding transport issues of taxi fares, cost and supply of COEs as well as bus and train reliability and capacity. Observing that the share of peak-hour trips on public transport rose to 66 per cent last year from 59 per cent in 2008, Mr Cedric Foo (Pioneer) said this was good news as extensive use of public transport is “the only sustainable way forward for a small city state like Singapore”. But he added: “We want to achieve this high mode-share because public transport is cost-effective, reliable and comfortable … it would be disconcerting if the mode-share increased only because commuters have no other choices but a below-par public transport (system).” That was also the sentiment of Parliamentary Secretary Low Yen Ling (Chua Chu Kang GRC). She described in detail her constituents’ transport woes due to over-crowded buses and a lack of feeder bus services connecting them from home to shops and the nearest MRT station.
Among the MPs who spoke on cars was Mr Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC). He critiqued the way COEs are now categorised, and called for a more effective way to ensure affordability of COEs for small cars. In defence of the COE system, Senior Minister of State (Transport) Josephine Teo said it exists to control the vehicle population size. She also pointed towards a future where the growth rate for the car population may have to be further cut from the current 0.25 per cent a year to 0 per cent. By then, attitudes towards private car ownership may have shifted, if Mrs Teo’s reading of present trends is accurate. She said: “With the emergence of the sharing economy, many people, especially the younger generation, see the wisdom of renting or purchasing services when needed, rather than tying down funds for things they do not use all the time.
They think it is smarter to be free of a car loan, and rely instead on a mix of transport options including buses, trains, walking, cycling, taxis or car-sharing services. The shift is taking place even in the United States, which is as car-loving a society as one can find.” Technology and shifting global norms – including the rise of the green movement – are working in MOT’s favour for they not only enable people to choose lifestyles in line with a more sustainable future but also make these choices desirable. Other ministries with sustainability on the agenda, such as the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR), can also tap into this shift to address key challenges of waste reduction and water conservation. MEWR is beefing up Singapore’s water production capacity by building a third desalination plant – a crucial addition in the light of recent dry spells – as well as seeking to change water consumption habits. Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said the goal is to cut water use from the current 150 litres per person per day to 140 litres per person per day by 2030. What might help push this campaign along is a water-saving device that doubles as an object of desire – one as cool as an electric scooter, perhaps.