From the Red Line
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From the Red Line

Fighting the war on cars

Yes, I said there may not be a war last time.

But if you’re following COP26 and/or want to get into serious climate activism, things have changed and there can be some more scope for things to change later. And you may want to drag me along.

On a somewhat related point, blaming the global chip shortage, the LTA has announced that the installation of OBUs for the new ERP system will only begin sometime in 2023. To anyone looking at it, this is quite understandable (ever tried to buy a GPU in the past year? I have), but it is very important that the extra time should be put to good use to put in place policies that let us extract the most out of the system.

The current public health situation has driven even more people to buy cars. Part of it may be due to perceived freedom of movement, part of it may be the five Cs, part of it may be due to moral panics about catching viruses on public transport. It will be important to understand the reasons and deal with them to arrest the rise in car ownership. At least while CNA claims people are buying cars, overall usage has declined; though this may change as more return to the office next year.

Any policy developed to counteract the need for a car, be it internal combustion or electric, may thus have to be sufficiently radical and comprehensive enough to overcome such great social inertia and expectations. Furthermore, Singaporeans are a conservative lot in general, so expect that there will be pushback. A lot of pushback. But the LTA has shown it is more than happy to take the unpopular but necessary option, so if things have come to that, then so be it.

The goal of ERP was always to minimize car use, albeit initially only amongst CBD bound commuters. With those potentially gone or at least their numbers somewhat culled, along with the decentralization initiative encouraging development anywhere else but the CBD, there will be more equal traffic distribution across the island — and as people move into the CBD and need to travel outwards, they’d still be contributing to road congestion albeit in the opposite direction. This means that a perimeter-based charging system makes less sense.

Distance based charging, which a satellite-based ERP system lays the groundwork for, makes the most out of the new technology that is offered — a far cry from the initial plans where the plans were apparently to just have marker gantries which are watched by satellites. Nah, I say. That’s not enough. I thus consider it very important that distance based charging should be included from the new day one in 2023 or so, and the extra year and a half should give some time to actually work out how the policy will function.

Peak and off peak tolling, as part of the distance based charging scheme, could also be a replacement for the off peak car scheme. Especially since today there already appears to be far lesser red plate cars than before, with the high COE prices making it more worth it to buy a regular COE. While on paper this might encourage car ownership, and the NotJustBikes wannabes might thus not like me for this, the trends are interesting to ponder.

But this is Singapore, you Pay And Pay. So even if there is already a stereotype that car ownership is for the affluent and the poor take public transport, I consider it decently fair to bill car use directly — not just through perimeter-enforced congestion charging, but through how much the roads actually are used. Much like how the cost of public transport stares at you through per-trip distance fare charging, the cost of car use should be expressed the same way, and not just through road or petrol taxes — the latter which electric cars may not need to pay anyway.

It should be about sending a message. Alcohol and tobacco taxes are meant to deter unhealthy behavior like drinking and smoking. Much as I would like that, we don’t pay a one time alcohol tax and get to drink as much as we want. If we are to recognize that car use and the accommodations we need to make as a society for them is bad for cities, making ERP a visible consumption-based luxury or sin tax at the point of use in a similar way may also help to deter unnecessary car use in general.

A big bugbear on the internet with the new ERP system is the inability to “bring your own device”. It’s important to consider this decision, since the social aspects of ERP are already unpopular and my proposals will very likely make it even more unpopular. There may be a sufficiently lucrative market for hacking the system and perhaps other illegal modifications.

While mobile payment and e-banking solutions require a certain amount of security on the device (such as how rooting Android phones apparently disables things like Google Pay), any client-side ERP solution will probably have to be more bulletproof. That may be the rationale behind providing separate on board hardware, but apparently people take umbrage at being asked to install a large metal box in their car. Sure, recent technology and more powerful individual chips may allow them to reduce the size of the unit, but that may still not be acceptable to people.

A compromise could perhaps be to skip any user interface and just tie the OBU directly to a SingPass or business account and it’s the owners’ problem if they don’t check the tolls, but I don’t see any potential to get rid of the OBU and implement fair and secure distance-based tolling at the same time.

Given how it’s necessary for pretty much every vehicle to have a system comparable with next generation tolling, perhaps car resellers can be required to also install the relevant software packages on newer cars equipped with “smart infotainment systems” instead. You’d still have to take a refit for some 5 year old family sedan, but if you buy a Tesla in 2023 it should probably come with everything built in. Security by design will be necessary for enforcement — apart from GPS tracking, taking of odometer readings at yearly roadworthiness inspections could be done as a backup.

Sure, some people argue that license plate cameras should be used as a replacement, but I think this won’t be sufficient for what we want to do unless a metric shit ton of cameras are put up across the roads. Big Brother also isn’t big enough to ingest the camera footage from even private cameras to follow a given vehicle at a tight enough resolution for distance based charging to be fair. It can be a backup, but shouldn’t be the primary form of tolling.

Speaking of fairness, we also need to consider those who use their vehicles for work. While government vehicles used for official purposes can be exempt from distance based tolling, there are those people who drive things like delivery vans, so such regressive taxation policies actually hurt the small business and such. On a per-kilometer basis, it may be necessary to either determine a lesser tariff rate for those who use their vehicles to work, or curve the tariff scale enough such that such long-haulers can enjoy a lower per-km charge compared to the discretionary car driver.

This is only tangentially related but I think it has to be mentioned here. I do not believe 1300km of cycling paths is being built for any altruistic reason. Because of the above reasons for widespread ownership — or desire for ownership — the car lobby is sufficiently powerful enough that cyclists are being painted in various mediums as a menace to the streets, and even bus drivers have to agree with that. Unfortunately for them, even I agree.

Sure, the cyclists argue, they lack the infrastructure, but it’s a chicken and egg problem. You can’t have the infrastructure without doing something about something else using land space first, especially when it comes to older towns with established road networks. Let’s get real, this is the best we can do. It will take years, potentially decades considering the COE turnover rate and the idea of sunk costs, to dismantle the car lobby and generate a modal shift to public transport. To me, only after that happens can we start really talking about “complete streets” and non-car use. Bikes, trams, bus lanes, you name it.

It is useful to note that a lot of the narrative here actually focuses on pedestrians, which is a setback for people who want bus or bike lanes, or tram tracks. This is again, an ideology issue. The reason why we even have all the old-town “stroads” like Tanjong Pagar Road and Geylang Road with old shophouses along the roads, is because it was built in that era — of those who walk on the streets, maybe horse carriages, and perhaps Ford’s Model T. It could be possible that a focus on reclaiming road lanes for pedestrians not only might appeal to nostalgia, those on foot walking past a given place might be tempted to drop in and see what’s in store, generating activity along the streets. Buses and bikes are still somewhat transient users which may explain the reticence.

Looking at it from this perspective, I think it’s understandable why 1300km of cycling lanes won’t be great — it’s just appeasement to get cyclists, admittedly an already marginalized population — off the roads. Sure, it won’t help accessibility, and cost-wise bicycles probably won’t have a ERP satellite tracking unit strapped to them either. And it may be difficult to defuse tensions between cyclists and drivers so long as one pays road tax and the other doesn’t; stated as a common reason of driver self-entitlement.

I’m digressing a bit, though this discussion on making car drivers’ lives difficult makes me wonder whether it might be possible to slap a blanket 30kph speed limit, at least on Category 4 and 5 local roads if not all non-expressways, to make them less conducive to cars, like Paris and Brussels did. It won’t do anything about larger roads, but it’s a start, and making driving much more annoying could do something about car ownership. Sure, drive that expensive BMW, but with a 30kph speed limit you won’t be getting anywhere quickly to show that BMW off.

Could there be a case for a lower speed limit on other roads as well? Average speeds on larger arterial roads were at about 29kph in 2014, which is just a hair under the 30kph speed limit I’m proposing. Plus, the ERP system is meant to keep average road speeds in that belt anyway. Codifying a lower speed limit into law could be just symbolic, especially considering the relative density of traffic lights and other junctions.

Buses may be collateral damage — at least whatever bus routes find it necessary to travel along affected roads — but a much lower speed limit and the consequent discouraging effect, would allow us to relandscape the roads to make them more conducive to other road users like pedestrians and cyclists. Additionally, creating better walking facilities around train stations means we don’t have to size bus routes to serve populations nominally within reach of rail service but for whom walking is inefficient, creating savings in bus services for the same outcomes as well.

At the end of the day, I’m afraid the cycling lobby won’t really get what they want as long as the war on cars isn’t won. And how should it be won? Not just through extended cycling infrastructure, but also with reasonable public transport options and ways for people to get there on foot for those who are not interested in cycling. To think otherwise would be to put the cart before the horse.

At the same time, compelling as these options are, we have to overcome long-held social beliefs and principles, and this may be where the stick comes out. For all the bellyaching about social issues, this is one, and unlike more nuanced topics it may be clear which side they’re on. If only they’d take stronger action — albeit this may be a case of unstoppable force meets immovable object considering the investments people have made into their vehicles.

Next-generation ERP brings a lot of possibilities, and given the public backlash against what actually needs to be put in, it may be far more justifiable to go to the expense if those possibilities are taken advantage from Day One. The LTA has bought themselves at least a year and a half to design the policy levers to take advantage of the technology — maybe over two years depending on how long the OBU rollout takes — and they would be fools to waste it. Yes, we can have some infrastructure, and we will need more, but our limited land and existing urban landscapes means public policy has to catch up with infrastructure — and so far, they are behind.

If we’re talking about sending messages, maybe COE rebates should also be given as public transport vouchers instead of cash or offsets towards a new car.



A blog on transport issues in the Garden City of Singapore. You can say that I love controversy. Posts can get technical! Abuse of comments may be blocked. Subscribe to Telegram for updates:

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