TODAY, Thursday, 31st January, 2008
TO EASE THE GRIDLOCK ...
- Cost of road usage to rise - Improved highway system - Better public transport
Leong Wee Keat
FIRST the carrot, now the stick. After overhauls to make public bus and train services more appealing were announced, screws will now be tightened on drivers to curb road congestion here.
For a start, 16 new ERP gantries will be rolled out, including an outer cordon away from the city. Rates at new gantries will start from $2 instead of $1, and increments will be by $1 instead of 50 cents.
The trigger point for ERP rates will also be changed. Currently, as long as mean traffic speeds do not fall below a certain mark, motorists do not have to pay ERP changes. But from July, charges and increases will kick in if less than 85 per cent of motorists enjoy at least these speeds.
At the same time, the vehicle growth rate will be halved to 1.5 per cent each year for the next three years; the last tweak was in 1990.
This is a move some expect will push up COE prices - even as other costs of vehicle ownership will be reduced to make the point that this is not a revenue generating exercise for the State, which expects to see a $70-million-a-year increase in ERP revenue but a total loss of $310 million annually from reduced taxes.
"If motorists were to drive less, the Government would be happy to collect less ERP revenue," said Transport Minister Raymond Lim as he unveiled the final piece of the jigsaw in the Land Transport Review. These include, over the next 12 years, the Government spending $14 billion on new road projects, compared with $3.4 billion spent on roads in the last decade. But building more roads would not, on their own, solve the congestion problem, said Mr Lim who also announced more measures to improve the public transport system.
This includes, for the first time, allowing trunk buses to duplicate parts of the rail network - specifically, the North-South and East-West MRT lines - as well as more frequent buses and trains.
With rising affluence, not only are more Singaporeans owning cars, they are also using them more intensively: Singapore cars averaged 21,000km a year, compared to 9,100km in London and 13,900km in Melbourne.
Said Mr Lim: "The effects are telling. Congestion levels have increased by about 25 per cent since 1999."
Speeds on major roads in the CBD have also fallen: A motorist crossing the city from Bugis to Chinatown in the evening now averages 18kmh, down from 25kmh five years ago.
The bottom line? Singaporeans must be persuaded to leave the car at home.
"Increasingly, given the more pervasive congestion today, the emphasis must be on encouraging motorists to shift to public transport, rather than drive on alternative roads to their destination," said Mr Lim.
And this, in part, involves making the ERP system "more effective".
To deter drivers who use the CBD to get to another destination, five new gantries will form the "Singapore River Line" starting July 7. This should reduce by 20 per cent such through traffic, which makes up nearly four in 10 vehicles that pass through the Marina Centre, Suntec City and
Bugis areas. And from Nov 3, the ERP cordon will be widened to include six new gantries, bringing the total number to 71.
The revised ERP rates and speed calculation criteria will kick in only after public transport improvements are rolled out by June, increasing train and bus passenger capacity, Mr Lim stressed. As a result of the ERP changes, the Land Transport Authority expects 6,000 fewer car trips to be made daily.
Even so, Automobile Association of Singapore president Bernard Tay argued that the authorities should wait for the changes to the public transport system to stabilise before reassessing whether it is really necessary for the ERP charges to go up.
"It may seem that the incremental ERP charges have no effect on motorists, but the fact remains that there are currently no better alternatives for them," said Mr Tay.
But in Mr Lim's eyes, a two-pronged solution approach was vital -
"building up our public transport so that people will have a viable alternative to the car, and taking firm steps to curb excessive car travel demand".
WILL CHANGES TO ERP REAP DESIRED RESULTS?
System more in tune with road conditions should address existing
Leong Wee Keat
- Additional reporting by Ng Jing Yng
THE pain to their pockets may have some drivers griping about the biggest overhaul of the Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) system in a decade, but analysts agree that another source of their frustration will likely be reduced: Traffic crawls on roads under the scheme.
From July, ERP charges or increases will kick in when more than 15 per cent of vehicles fall below optimal threshold speeds, while rates at new gantries will start from at least $2 and increments will be by $1 instead of 50 cents.
What all this means is that someone driving from Ang Mo Kio to the city via the Central Expressway between 8.30am and 9am could soon be paying $10 in ERP fees - should traffic conditions worsen and warrant a $1 hike.
However, ERP hikes and extensions have, in the past, raised a chorus of complaints from drivers about having to pay more, yet still experiencing congestion or "stop-start" traffic on those priced roads. Transport Minister Raymond Lim acknowledged as much yesterday.
"We often hear feedback that the ERP has not helped to ease congestion on the highest demand roads like the Central Expressway beyond a temporary respite; that the ERP rate increases have little impact on travel behaviour," he said.
"There is some truth in this."
But this "critical" review of the ERP system, which has changed little since 1998, aims to ensure motorists see the benefits of paying.
For one, traffic conditions will be determined based on whether 85 per cent of motorists enjoy speeds above the optimal threshold - instead of simply averaging out travelling speeds, which can lead to a "disconnect" with reality.
For example, Mr Lim said, though the average travelling speed on the Pan Island Expressway from 7.30am to 8am was above 45kmh early this month, nearly four in 10 motorists were actually moving below that speed.
Another key change: Bigger rate increments. Mr Lim noted feedback that the current 50-cent increment has "only a temporary impact on driving behaviour". There were nine rate changes in 2006, but 25 were needed last year.
Increasing ERP charges would make the system more effective so drivers see a "visible improvement" in traffic flows, he added.
Researcher Paul Barter of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, who has written papers on the ERP system, agreed this could work.
"Motorists that keep driving at peak times on these roads will pay more for higher, more reliable speeds than now, and more places will qualify for gantries sooner. But at least it should become much less common for traffic to slow down or stop on the roads that have ERP," said the assistant professor.
Still, National University of Singapore transport researcher Han Songguang wondered how steep ERP rates would have to get before drivers consider switching to public transport. "I don't think drivers would pay $70,000 for a car and then want to leave it at home."
Sales manager Felix Lim, 31, who uses his car to meet his clients, said:
"I don't think I am going to stop using my car or avoid travelling on priced roads as I do not really have a choice."
But accountant G T Kee, 54, who travels into the Central Business District several times a week for work, thought the changes fair as it would "deter those not essentially in need of that route and get them to use another route instead".
'THE NEXT PARKING LOT IS 400M AWAY ...'
- Ansley Ng
MOTORISTS who often have to twiddle their thumbs while waiting for a parking lot - or waste time cruising for one - may soon find it easier to get a parking space.
From March, electronic signboards will be put up in the city areas, informing drivers of available lots in the vicinity, Transport Minister Raymond Lim announced yesterday. Apart from the signboards, the North-South Expressway (NSE) will also be built by 2020 as part of a slew of measures to improve traffic infrastructure.
The Land Transport Authority (LTA) is working with private car park operators, such as shopping malls, to link car park information systems to several electronic signboards in the city - similar to those along expressways giving time-to-location data.
Details about the new parking guidance system are sketchy, but car parks in the Marina area, such as those at Suntec and the Esplanade, will have their space information hooked up to these signboards.
This, along with providing more traffic information and expanding the Expressway Monitoring and Advisory System, is one way of embracing technology to help improve traffic, said Mr Lim.
With congestion levels up by 25 per cent since 1999, new roads will be built to help ease clogged ones, while several existing roads will be widened.
A new 21-km-long expressway linking the northern part of the island to the city will slash travelling time by 35 per cent.
The artery, targeted for completion by 2020, would cater to expected growth in travel between the northern and city areas, said Mr Lim. The NSE will start from Woodlands and pass through areas like Yishun, Thomson and Marymount, before ending at the East Coast Parkway.
It will cost at least $7 billion and will have tunnels and depressed routes, like the Central Expressway currently does near the Outram exit.
To improve traffic conditions, several roads on existing expressways will also be widened. Lanes will be broadened on roads on the Tampines Expressway and on roads such as Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1 and Yio Chu Kang Road.
The improvements will be completed between June and 2011.
MIXED VIEWS OF ROAD AHEAD
Neo Chai Chin
Worried about earnings
THE cut in road tax is welcome news for the taxi operators, but several cab drivers worry whether the rise in various charges will further affect their earnings.
The Taxi Operators' Associations (TOA) promised that the six operators would pass savings from the 15-per-cent reduction in road tax to their hirers.
But cabbies whom Today spoke to said the new Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) gantries and pricier charges would put another dent in their earnings – as some are still complaining of poor business after the recent fare hikes.
Taxi driver Mohamad Jenpire, 41, said that with potential flag-down customers deterred by the higher costs, he would be tempted to venture into the Central Business District (CBD) only when there are phone bookings.
The TOA estimates that road tax cuts would amount to $5 million in savings for taxi companies.
The group's adviser, Mr Seng Han Thong, urged the taxi companies to "plough back these savings into the taxi drivers' Medi-save accounts so that drivers can build up their Medisave funds".
Higher COE prices likely
WHILE some dealers are optimistic about the policies' impact on vehicle sales, there are those who believe that car prices may go up as high as 30 per cent by next year.
The policies will affect driving habits more than car ownership, in this shift towards a "pay-as-you-use system", said Mr Glenn Tan, group chief executive of Motor Image, the distributor of Subaru vehicles here.
For example, car owners may take public transport during hours when ERP gantries are in operation.
Those who believe car prices may rise next year point to the fact that from May 2009, the Government will halve vehicle population growth to 1.5 per cent. Dealers told Channel NewsAsia that this will reduce the number of Certificate of Entitlements (COEs) - leading to higher prices.
Mr Neo Nam Heng, president of the Singapore Vehicle Traders Association, said that besides COE prices, car sales also depend on the economic outlook and foreign currency exchange rates - for example, the yen versus the Singapore dollar when it comes to Japanese imports.
"In the short term, I see no reason for COEs to go up. In the mid- to long-term, I see no impact on sales of high-end cars because high-end car buyers can afford it. Mid-range owners of cars costing between $50,000 and $100,000 can still afford it but they will have to change their driving habits.
But budget buyers of low-end cars may switch to public transport,"he said.
Said Mr Tan: "There'll always be a demand for cars, but if COE prices go up by $10,000 or more, car buyers may look for something cheaper."
Mr Mark Ng, co-owner of parallel importer Apricar, added: "What will happen is that car buyers will take variable costs like petrol and ERP charges into serious consideration before buying."
More incentives, please
WHILE the measures may result in reduced traffic congestion, the Automobile Association of Singapore (AAS) and some drivers are not sure whether the introduction of more ERP gantries will help alleviate traffic conditions in the targeted areas.
Sales manager Felix Lim, who takes the PIE to his workplace in Jurong West, said: "I think fuel charges are a better deterrent for motorists."
Student Jonathan Chua, 22, who drives to the National University of Singapore from his home in Katong, also has no plans to change his travel route just because of the ERP charges. "Taking a different route might also land me in a jam with other car users who switched routes."
AAS president Bernard Tay said the introduction of more ERP gantries "may result in slower traffic flow along the roads where the gantries are".
He added that reductions in road tax and the Additional Registration Fee (ARF) "fall short of market expectations".
The AAS hopes that "more incentives can be given to motorists who also use public transport", such as providing more parking facilities and passenger drop-off points near public transport hubs.
The group also calls on the LTA to give car owners cash rebates on their vehicles' remaining Preferential ARF value, instead of offsetting upfront vehicle taxes for owners' next cars.
This would encourage more people to give up driving, or to scrap their cars earlier, said Mr Tay.