Zero car growth: only in Singapore?

No new cars is no news for the city-state

Singfat Chu

Environment & energy, Government and governance, Arts, culture & society | Asia, Southeast Asia

22 November 2017

Capping the car population in Singapore is the natural finale to the Vehicle Quota System implemented in 1990, Singfat Chu writes.

On 23 October 2017, Singapore announced its decision to freeze from 2018 the number of private cars and motorcycles on its roads. The news attracted wide coverage in global media. In my native Mauritius for example, the leading afternoon newspaper opined that despite the positive impacts of the zero growth policy on road congestion and the environment, it had near-zero chance of implementation there.

By contrast, the news hardly made a ruckus in Singapore. The reason is that the tiny city-state has done an effective job over the years to prepare its population for this inevitable policy decision.

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Vehicular growth has been on a tight leash since the implementation of the Vehicle Quota System in 1990. Initially set at 3 per cent, the annual growth has been systematically trimmed to 1.5 per cent in 2009, 1 per cent in 2012, 0.5 per cent in 2013 and 0.25 per cent in 2015. Despite these meagre growth allowances, per capita car ownership has actually gone up. The number of cars in the city-state has expanded by 115 per cent (from 280,000 to 600,000) against a population growth of 79 per cent (from 3.1 to 5.6 million) between 1990 and 2016.

For the 12 months leading up to January 2018, the 0.25 per cent annual growth allowance amounts to (a mere) 1564 cars. Singapore can afford to have such a small number of extra cars without much public grumble. It has diligently worked towards its car-lite goal by providing a world-class, highly affordable hub-and-spoke public transport system comprising a Rapid Transit System (MRT and LRT) and buses.

Between 2012 and 2030, some US $44 billion will be spent to double the RTS track length to 360 km and by 2017, 1,000 new buses will have been added for fleet renewal and new routes. As a daily user of public transport, I currently experience over-capacity save for the peak hours.

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On top of public transport which had about 1.3 daily per capita rides in 2016, there is also a significant taxi industry which reported about 0.2 per capita rides. The latter should now be amplified with ride-hailing competitors providing ever more cars and usage incentives. Except for rainy periods, I have never been on the short end of transport availability in the past 25 years living in Singapore.

Despite my own comfortable experience without a car in Singapore, I must acknowledge that its “recipe for success” is hardly transferable. The success accrues from an exceptional confluence of circumstances, beginning with the tiny size of the “Red Dot” city state itself, at just 720 square kilometres. In a city where space is so constrained, roads have already consumed their maximal 12 per cent land area allowance. By comparison, housing has an allowance of 15 per cent.

There are several other important factors unlikely to be found elsewhere. Singapore’s hub economy is especially reliant on free-flowing roads for the movement of goods and people. Its strong governance has promoted a “carrot and stick” approach to combatting road congestion, providing reliable and affordable access to public transport while making car ownership highly expensive. Finally, Singapore’s pragmatic population have been willing to sacrifice for the city-state’s economic well-being, with about 55 per cent of households not owning a car.

The zero-growth policy will be reviewed in 2020 coinciding with the planned implementation of another world premiere – namely satellite-based Electronic Road Pricing. This new system will charge according to the distance covered in each trip, as opposed to the present system which only charges when travelling under gantries positioned at bottleneck zones.

The greatest merit of Singapore is that its government has succeeded in making the population accept that car ownership and road usage are privileges rather than rights. Enacting a zero-growth policy now is a natural and expected final act to a policy that started in 1990 with the Vehicle Quota System.

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