From the Red Line
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From the Red Line

The Long Term Plan Review review

There’s things to get excited about, both in the short term and in the long term.

What gets most people excited in my circles are almost-but-sure alignments for CRL2, CRL3, and the DTL2 Extension, which we’ll look at. But inside the new Long Term Plan are also some clear policy directions the government has set for the future of transport.

I’m not sure I like all of them, but here goes.

Editor’s note: Several links may break if URA doesn’t keep the online exhibition up on their website past August. If that’s the case, you may use Wayback Archive.

The crayons go back in the drawer

I don’t believe how the LTA doesn’t have a say in this especially looking at how reliant land use planning is on future transport lines and where their stations will be. But Concept Plan 2001 was the last time the government was so ambitious with their publicly announced future transport corridor plans, with all the rail expansion plans that even now we’ve still not completed.

CP2011 did reveal an early variation of the CRL and JRL, initiatives formally committed to by the LTA within the 2013 Land Transport Masterplan. But here, the only new thing that’s actually been confirmed in anything more than a line item in a factbox is the DTL2 Extension to Sungei Kadut to accommodate the redevelopment of that area, also already announced in the latest Land Transport Masterplan. The rest are foregone conclusions even if apparently the stretch of CRL from Aviation Park to T5 has disappeared.

And alternatively, the focus on Paya Lebar Air Base may indicate that they believe the PLAB area and the possibilities it provides is, for now, a more worthy investment. From some of the plans demonstrated, a CRL infill station can be built between Tampines North and Defu to serve the PLAB area, with a major activity centre around this station. Perhaps some form of LRT system could be built for the rest of PLAB as well as to connect it to surrounding towns, but the Long Term Plan still doesn’t show anything of the sort.

As for other focus areas of the Long Term Plan, the Greater Southern Waterfront also has easily-solved transportation needs as long as someone makes the improvements, and the Long Island Project may still be sufficiently far away enough that there could be other solutions for transportation there as envisioned by the URA.

Perhaps, at the next Long Term Plan Review in 2033, as things for the current focus zones clear up, the transport needs of where they want to focus next will be made clearer. But the LTMP and the next Draft Masterplan are due sometime in 2024. Things should be clearer then. At that time, we’ll probably thus hear more about the two/three projects in limbo — the Seletar Line, the JRL Extension to Haw Par Villa, and the North Coast Line.

Attack of the pod people

From what was presented, MND seems pretty intent on betting the farm on autonomous vehicles — and not just any kind of autonomous vehicles, shared autonomous vehicles, or basically self-driving GrabCars. That was the fancy pitch Uber sold to investors until they stopped trying to sell it to investors, which should raise questions. It did for me.

photo taken by me at the URA exhibition

There’s also a lot of talk about flying things, in the form of air taxis and UAVs. Trials are already being done to get supplies and such to ships anchored off our shores, reducing the need to send out pilot boats to transfer supplies to ships. Delivery drones in the urban environment could work based on this example, and if you go to Jakarta there are already GrabHelis so air taxis aren’t that crazy an idea. Still, this isn’t Coruscant.

They’re not the only ones, and the infrastructural adaptations necessary for such third-dimension mobility are real and necessary depending on how they want to proceed. If there’s a docking station for air taxis on the 12th floor, apart from the MRT station in the basement and bus interchange on ground level, the meaning of “ITH” could be very different in a few decades’ time.

But I do have to point this out — while what are presented are just concepts and mockups, it’s interesting to also note that some of the AVs depicted do travel in platoons. Platooning smaller vehicles makes them act more like a larger vehicle, and this raises questions on how we use AVs. AVs can also vary in size from the self-driving car and there are even trials on having a whole public bus be autonomous. If that’s the case, why not just have a driverless bus?

That said, the overarching idea is that a transport policy with shared AVs means we can return road space for other purposes. But to me that doesn’t seem that easy. Sure, shared AVs may have the ability to almost become a true pocket car by going into some kind of compact storage facility when not in use. And this has some road space savings by not requiring curbside parking and perhaps many lanes for surge capacity. But things like expressway jams may not go away; even if they may become a lot smoother when driver variances are removed.

Good urbanism?

Assuming that traffic can be sufficiently reduced by techno-fixes and perhaps some urban planning tweaks to reduce longer distances travel, there were also moves proposed in the Long Term Plan for road diets and other such tweaks in favour of active mobility and pedestrianization. There’s a big if here, which assumes AV policy doesn’t blow up in their faces.

Yes, I consider these separate issues. In the interest of safety and due to the dense crowds in Singapore, bicycle lanes really only work if they’re separated from both cars and pedestrians. At the end of the day, they’re also private transport and policy has to be made in such a matter, the same goes for autonomous vehicles.

The policy examples that were provided also follow the current “road categories” but express them in 3 levels based on locality:

from URA
  • “Intertown” roads, proposed to get the bus lane and cycling lane treatment. This can somewhat work but I’m expecting the vision to be eventually nerfed due to local opposition. And depending on the bus traffic, corridors with MRT service may have to gravitate more to those and there may not be that much of a need for the bus lane.
from URA
  • “Intratown” roads dedicated mainly to municipal services and also active mobility. The example provided seems a bit extreme — one must assume that this, too, will also be eventually nerfed for either part-time bus lanes or to preserve some form of access for local developments. Still nothing wrong with this.
  • “Neighbourhood” roads may face pedestrianization or at least a greater focus on active mobility. This is actually a decent idea — to “support safe walking and cycling” it could be possible to cut things down to the lowest common denominator of wheeled vehicles, the cyclist. Some policy loosening could be done at this level to “facilitate” active modes of transport.

Heck, the “superblock” word was even name-dropped at the URA exhibition in the context of PLAB redevelopments, so we know at least they’re looking at things like Barcelona. Though it’s still a bit odd that smaller AV pods should be allowed inside a superblock. They’re functionally the same as cars and should belong where cars are — on the wide streets outside and between superblocks.

But the overarching concern, no matter how nice the plans sound, is that it seems odd to put the cart before the horse and say that AVs are necessary for road diets. They shouldn’t be — if the desire is to shift to walking, public transport and active mobility, then policy should lead and not lag in this part. If we still maintain private vehicle-centric urbanism where people can still take a car close to their doorstep, then we can’t do much in terms of getting people to use public transport or even active mobility for the entire journey.

Moving other things

My earlier post on a underground goods movement system proposed by JTC appears to be very timely, since this theme isn’t just a JTC gadgetbahn fantasy now. Underground logistics systems is also a big feature in the Long-Term Plan this time around, and it appears that they may have found solutions for the issues that JTC were facing. The mention of “guided vehicles” probably further underlines this being an extension of the earlier studies, though that might not yet rule out things like laser line followers.

They may even have found more users. The focus on e-commerce, for what it means, means that theoretically you could have a large parcel sorting facility in Tuas. A single vehicle can then gather up everything for a certain neighbourhood (say, Jurong West) and then travel to Jurong West using the underground goods mover system. It can surface directly into an unused bit of carpark where parcel runners (human or robot) receive the packages from the automated system and then complete the last mile of the delivery.

Between Tuas and several estates in the west, the vehicles could potentially share the underground tunnel perhaps with freight trains or something like that; or maybe even have containers transported by the freight “trains” themselves. With expanded purpose, it could also be possible that such a system can be expanded to other industrial estates across the island apart from its initial remit, such as Senoko and maybe even out to Loyang and Changi.

That is assuming the space issues around inland ports can be solved, though with a greater usage of underground and underutilized spaces such as building basements or void decks.

Futurepunk?

My verdict based on what I’ve seen might to be just “curb your enthusiasm”.

Ultimately, the Long Term Plan is about land use in the next couple of decades. I hold skepticism about the realistic impact of autonomous vehicles (they can’t even run trains unmanned, forget buses and cars), and I think we really don’t need to re-engineer everything now to serve these paradigms, but if they’re going to be a thing in 20 years, there’s no harm being prepared.

More immediately, at least land is being released in Marina South, Bayshore, and Changi South for transit-oriented development; while out of scope of the Long-Term Plan, it might do us well to build them as walkable districts accessible on foot. Here and in other places such as Tengah, there can be small-scale dipping of toes in new paradigms especially for freight transport. But these are still going to be several years away, and before that happens, we also can’t forget the more immediate transportation needs.

Those needs may also change. A theme oft-seen is also the reduction of specialization in land zoning, or in other words to allow different uses of a plot of land by building up. An example was made of some empty land next to Gul Circle station, as below, but more of these probably depends on whether developers will bite. And if they do happen, it will also eventually affect the origin-destination matrix of journeys, which underlines how our rail and bus development must move to a more polycentric model to keep up.

source URA

Nonetheless, there are moves in the right direction here. Thoughts are in the right place when it comes to what is needed in road diets, for example. It appears that they know what they need to do, but perhaps the timing and prerequisites for such moves needs to be relooked.

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yuuka

yuuka

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