But buses are flexible, they said

From the Red Line
Published in
9 min readMar 30, 2024


Technology and innovation should deliver new possibilities.

It took digitalization to give NUS more freedom to meet varying needs as part of its bus network redesign in 2021. Digitalizing dispatch offices likely meant that drivers could be rested anywhere; likely the reason why the BTC bus could layover at NUS’ Bukit Timah Campus instead and thus provide direct connections to other parts of the Kent Ridge Campus; that weren’t possible when they had to layover buses at Kent Ridge Terminal.

Similarly in San Francisco, I rode buses from layover points in the Legion of Honor carpark and roadside layover lots at 48th Ave and Point Lobos; in San Francisco (or many other places, really) you might be hard-pressed to find large airport-style interchanges like in Singapore. Hong Kong, too, largely does not build bus terminals the way we do — a priority is made to reduce idle vehicle time, reducing the pressure on layover space in Hong Kong bus termini.

It could be that our bus operators find this a backward solution; as we saw in the 1980s when there was a push to get rid of roadside bus terminals and consolidate them into interchanges. But this initiative did not extend everywhere — such as at Kembangan, where a long term arrangement exists to terminate Services 42 and 135 without a proper terminal; not even a container office. Redevelopment in the area will still not provide a terminal, only a bigger bus stop.

Out of the box

But that may not be a bad thing.

One can’t help but wonder whether the replacement of the bus fleet management system can enable such service planning, to bring bus service to more areas without spending large sums of money and land to build terminals. Bring back container terminals just as a bus driver rest room, or excess space can be used in MRT stations with bus drivers also using the MRT toilets. Timekeeping can then perhaps be done through technology, using the new operator interface.

For example, it appears that large bus stops are under construction at Marine Parade and Marine Terrace TEL4 stations; presumably sized for the levels of bus traffic currently seen today on Marine Parade Road. But if everything plays out as it has with previous MRT openings, TEL4 can ultimately result in lesser bus traffic serving these large bus stops as a modal shift to rail service occurs.

Big bus stop at Marine Terrace? (photo by me)

What can be done with them, then? Perhaps a new service or two — or even an existing route already looping inside Marine Parade — can be designed to take advantage of these stops for layover; with bus driver facilities being shared with that of the MRT station. This may make up for the lack of bus interchanges and terminals in the Marine Parade area to terminate bus routes at, sadly quite common on newer lines.

A longer term, semi permanent arrangement exists at Changi Airport. The decision to remove the airport as a terminal point for services 24, 27, 34, and 53 arguably may have shattered reliability along these lines, even if it was necessary to increase space for more bus services to stop there. Without a terminal at the other end, there is no place to absorb delays on long looping services highly exposed to highway jams.

Perhaps there may be a case to rebuild the bus station at Changi T2 into a configuration more aligned with what the LTA has been building, with bays for buses to park in and a passenger boarding concourse alongside, to allow buses a proper space to terminate. This can even be air conditioned, so that bus passengers do not have to cross to a traffic island and wait in a not so well ventilated basement at least at T2.

But would it be simpler to just go back to the way things were, in this case? Service 36 still does that. Service 36 is among a small minority of services that does “crew layover without bus” — where the driver alights from the bus for his break and another driver takes over for the next trip. While there must still be time between departures to absorb delays, it’s alright if the bus is somewhat late because the next driver can just depart immediately.

A similar thing is also done at Jalan Rumah Tinggi, where Service 63 drivers can at least take a short break. While this practice can be extended, perhaps to Marine Parade to begin with, there might be pushback from the operators. There already were labour issues with interlining as practiced by Go-Ahead. It could thus be that the industry itself is resistant to change, “because that’s the way it’s always been done”, which may make introducing new ways of optimizing vehicle usage difficult.

But if that happens, we’re only going to be looking for new ways to do old things. So with the continued need for hard infrastructure, instead of modernizing operations, the high costs and inflexibility of bus services will continue to remain high. For now, it seems to work — road widening keeps traffic speeds up, and since car infrastructure is bus infrastructure, wide roads with high car capacities and speeds also keep buses flowing.

Organization vor Elektronik vor Beton

The issue here is that infrastructure has to be designed for the lowest common denominator; in other words, the least efficient operator. Citybus in Hong Kong has crew layovers without bus almost all the time — Hong Kong’s traffic is worse than us, and if they can get away with it, so can we. Perhaps Bravo Transport might do the same thing here if they win the Seletar package. But SBS Transit will still need bus layover space for their routes outside the Seletar package, while they rest their drivers, and the LTA will have to build infrastructure to cater not to Bravo, but to SBST.

Likewise, the LTA will need to buy extra buses to cater to less efficient operators, which means improvements in operator productivity results in spare buses parked within depots, out of use. The nature of bus contracting means that the operators themselves have to take the lead in pushing for innovation in operations to manage costs; though they can only do so much if there is no impetus for overall network and systematic reform from the governmental perspective.

We saw this taken to its logical extreme in Bukit Panjang. When they tore down the old interchange to construct the current ITH and Hillion Mall, there was no space to build a temporary bus interchange. Instead, a complex network of terminating stops was established, and a temporary bus park was built along Woodlands Road to layover drivers. This lasted for close to 5 years until the ITH opened, with buses incurring dead mileage to travel to the temporary bus park. Some still did, up until the opening of Gali Batu Terminal in 2021.

source SGWiki

This was definitely a chaotic arrangement; and delays with the ITH construction meant that even after the MRT opened, it was impossible to refocus the bus network around the MRT station before the ITH opened in mid-2017. Back when I lived in Yew Tee, the transfer from the MRT to service 979 involved plenty of walking around construction sites to a temporary bus stop. The 979 bus itself also essentially had to ply Woodlands Road four times— once from the bus park to Bukit Panjang station, then from Bukit Panjang station to the KJE to access Yew Tee; vice versa on the return journey.

The same thing happened with Services 920 and 922 — you can see the absurdity of having to loop around the MRT twice; once to board passengers and once to alight. Had there been crew layover without an accompanying bus, driver changes could have taken place at the MRT station, just one loop around the block made, and countless trips to the temporary bus park saved. Frequencies would also have been improved with a shorter route.

source SMRT via Land Transport Guru

Similar “interim” arrangements are currently in place for Service 114 at Buangkok and Service 146 at Woodleigh/Bidadari, while the respective interchanges they’re meant to terminate at remain under construction. It may not make sense to drop a container terminal nearby in the interim for 146 — though there’s no excuse to say why this shouldn’t have been considered for 114, with a temporary layover point built near the MRT station or perhaps in Buangkok Green, with the arrangement lasting for 3.5 years since 2020.

That said, these likewise involve deadheading to other permanent termini, not unlike the issue with the Bukit Panjang Temporary Bus Park.

Time-space dilemma

Of course, the LTA could opt not to cut any single route in the Marine Parade area come June 23rd. It could simply reduce service frequencies instead, as lesser people use a given service, and otherwise retain the status quo. Politically it’s much safer to retain any and all existing links; under existing planning paradigms without regional network redesign, trip reductions are a rational response to decreasing ridership.

But what is the status quo? Is it having to memorize a constellation of stops around a given location and what route from where goes to where, micro-optimizing the choice of bus stop depending on arrival and walking time? Is it seeing many different services come every 15 to 20 minutes, creating bus jams where they go and long waiting times when they do not? Or do we just focus on a frequent network and to expect better out of it?

It will still be necessary to build a large scale of bus infrastructure to support the first kind of operation. We can look at Dubai International Airport, which has to be that big to accommodate Emirates’ immense Europe-Asia connection banks. Even our own Changi Airport also has its peak periods, where many flights arrive and depart around similar timings, to facilitate transfers between flights; the Europe-Australia Kangaroo Route being a major money spinner for Singapore Airlines.

Back to local buses, while popular demand and political expediency may preserve as many direct links as possible, there are people who still have to transfer at the end of the day, and without timed transfers that can mean a 15–20 minute wait at a bus stop. This has happened in Hong Kong, where it’s a constant tug of war between bus companies and district councils, and 30 minute off peak frequencies on commuter routes are the norm there.

In Singapore, though, the fact that quite a few arrive at the same time may either be a happy accident from many different operator schedules; or it may be deliberately engineered by the LTA to facilitate transfers, in a style not unlike the airlines.

Leading the pack (source: busrouter.sg, taken on a Tuesday morning)

And at the ends of the lines, large departure banks may mean we have to build large terminals too.

Shenton Way Terminal, Singapore (source: Google Earth)
Hong Kong would Never! (source: Google Maps)

Are we ready?

There are benefits to service consolidation — where previously you might see four services at 20 minute intervals, but somehow all arrive at the same time, it may be better to see a single service or even two at more evenly spaced 10 to 12 minute intervals. Then you don’t need to spend so much money on infrastructure.

At interchanges, we may be able to see a degree of berth consolidation as services are discontinued, reducing walking distances for those who use buses, as other services can be moved nearer to alighting berths and MRT accesses. Of course, this benefit can also be implemented even in today’s paradigms, where a boarding area that serves three services may be able to serve four, with trip reductions and decreased frequencies.

Even Hong Kong is doing it, too — it is network reform, consolidation, and transfer hubs that have made services like 968 from Yuen Long to HK Island so successful there. But with current political trends, consolidation of services in Singapore is not going to happen, with the words “hub and spoke” and “rationalization” taking on some kind of strange meaning in public transport discourse these days.

Perpetuating the existing network means perpetuating the infrastructure-heavy approach we have now; instead of pursuing organizational and network reform to reduce our reliance on infrastructure, we’re going to find ourselves needing to continue building large bus interchanges and depots, in order to run cross country loop services with poor reliability.

But when once what was unthinkable previously becomes the norm, only then can infrastructure be adapted, to give planners and operators improved route planning flexibility and improve reliability of bus services. Will change happen? I remain skeptical, and not just because of the LTA.

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From the Red Line

Sometimes I am who I am, but sometimes I am not who I am not.