The Queenstown question
A rapidly-densifying estate needs equally high quality public transportation.
The SERS redevelopment in Tanglin Halt, HDB’s largest to date, has seen nearly 3500 households move out of Tanglin Halt. Many of them were rehoused in new estates largely built in old Queenstown along Margaret Drive, where a previous generation of SIT flats built as part of the old Princess Estate used to stand.
Farewell to Old Tanglin Halt
A total of 31 blocks - Block 24 to 32, 33 to 38, 40 to 45, 55 to 56, 58 to 60 and 62 to 66 - at Tanglin Halt Road and…
But I’m not here to give a history lesson, there are other more well-suited blogs for that. I’m here to question what happens when those nearly 3500 households shift across the road to Margaret Drive, and what happens again when their old 10-floor blocks are torn down and replaced with 40-storey tall edifices much like those already next to Commonwealth station.
It also doesn’t help that recent BTO launches have also seen similarly-dense projects put up in the Buona Vista area. And considering that Queenstown has consistently produced some of the highest-valued HDB flats, flooding supply by redeveloping old neighbourhoods is a time-tested way to pull prices down. There will be second-order consequences though.
I do not use this name lightly. It is quite likely that within 10 to 15 years, the area around Commonwealth MRT station might start looking like Ngau Tau Kok or Kwun Tong MTR stations in densely populated Kowloon. Perhaps Clementi as well, if and when SERS really comes for the older Clementi HDB blocks.
The replacement sites listed by HDB where residents of Tanglin Halt were moved to, total approximately 4500 units; a thousand over what was needed to rehouse Tanglin Halt residents. It is hard not to imagine that a significant portion of this thousand extra units ended up under the Sale of Balance Flats scheme, and there may yet be more still to come. This is just one of the problems that comes with intensifying land use, and there may yet be more to come.
Greater problems with public housing have been raised even in Parliament, but I think many people are blowing hot air about the issue and not looking at things even from a macro urban planning perspective. I will say that I think one of the few upsides about all this nonsense comes from Pritam, who correctly identifies the original sin that we need to build. Whatever the PSP says it wants will not come to pass unless we build, anyway.
I’m honestly not sure what more to expect from a party following the Populism 101 guidebook and reheating ideas either already done by HDB but which need upscaling, or found on Reddit. But there are always political realities. Some party could pander to disaffected millenials in 2025 and if they are put in power, decide to start work within the financial year on 20,000 new HDB flats, channelling the spirit of Bukit Ho Swee. I think it likely that a considerable portion of these won’t be in Tengah.
One might argue that there is plenty of space and spare public transport capacity in Mount Pleasant, Marina South, and Bayshore. They ought to start there; to a lesser extent Havelock and Outram Park too, with plenty of old flats torn down (including in Bukit Ho Swee itself) around the TEL stations. Let’s say a large part of these end up in the promised 100k flats within the next few years. What happens after? The quick wins have been easily exhausted, and then it won’t be so easy.
There’s a good chance they’ll be in Queenstown instead. Queenstown is not a quick win. The bigger problem with this should be well familiar to any NEL peak-hour user. Too many people with not enough transport infrastructure getting them in and out. Sengkang and Punggol also already have the benefit of largely being less dense than what I would expect in Queenstown, with buildings likely to be twice as tall in Queenstown compared to Sengkang or Punggol if recent developments are any indication.
Yet, this area will only have EWL service; with trains already being decently full from people coming from the west. I think this is the main issue, not a moral panic about JRL passengers all being thrown to Jurong East. The CRL at Clementi will help, but likely not by much. But also, to be fair, it will become possible to increase service levels on the EWL once the Pasir Ris turnback is completed by 2024, so that might also improve matters somewhat.
Shorter waiting times for commuters when railway turnback at Pasir Ris MRT station completes in…
The quicker turnaround of trains at the turnback will result in a 20 per cent increase in the number of trains running…
No plan is no plan
I don’t believe it to be exaggerating when I say there’s no bus interchange in the entire Queenstown Planning Area. Whilst there are three bus terminals, they are all at the edges — Kent Ridge on the western side of NUS, Ghim Moh and Buona Vista around Buona Vista station. Bukit Merah interchange may not help much looking at its size and the services already there, and there aren’t any concrete plans to develop the supposed Tiong Bahru ITH.
What this means is that while there’s potential for Queenstown to have a greater mode share travelling by bus, there’s no infrastructure for it. The former is not a bad thing contrary to what some detractors of this blog may say. It may be possible for someone to use only Service 122 to commute to their workplace in the central area. But this will require a level of service increase that may be difficult to continue providing in the long term with the infrastructural status quo. Not just for 122, but for bus service in general, seeing as Service 122 operates out of Kampong Bahru terminal and has to navigate other congested trunk roads to get to Queenstown.
I’m not going to understate the importance of legitimate bus priority here, but I also understand that it’s not likely going to be easy. Painting bus lanes along Commonwealth Avenue and perhaps Queensway might help, but I anticipate mixed results due to the many service roads turning off Commonwealth Avenue. And large parts of Margaret Drive, among other minor roads, still remain as a piddly two-lane road, despite road widening taking place in some sections. Shared cycle paths might be a hard ask, forget bus lanes.
As built, Margaret Drive might work for 10- to 14-storey high flats in a time when car ownership was a legitimate luxury for the average HDB dweller. It’s not unfair to expect increased traffic from the significant density increase even if the HDB does what it can to ensure the use of public transport from Margaret Drive’s new residents, walking distance to Queenstown MRT and all. And what happens when the land opposite is developed? Sure looks like they’re starting.
The same applies also to any redevelopment in Tanglin Halt, where while people can be encouraged to walk to Commonwealth MRT, they can only go so far if the old route of Service 61 within Tanglin Halt is any indication. And if they redevelop the low-density Stirling Road area, where the 164 terrace houses can likely be replaced with at least six times the amount of housing units in high-density HDB blocks, things can get even worse.
In fact, we can likely already see how this plays out at the new high-density developments in inner Dawson Road, which also happens to house some of the sites where Tanglin Halt residents were relocated to. Despite high property prices I still consider this area quite badly accessible by public transport. Why? The fastest way to the MRT is Service 32 to Redhill. If Service 122 works out for the commute, that’s also an option. But both bus routes run along Margaret Drive/Kay Siang Road, so residents have to walk out. If they’re so inclined, they can walk out to Alexandra Road to join Services 33, 64, 120, and 145.
Many of these are still through-running long-distance trunks where reliability has a higher risk of being impacted. Of course, they could also introduce short turns that go no further than Redhill or something and operate semi-independently from the parent service, ensuring Queenstown and Tanglin Halt redevelopments still get an acceptable level of service. Without a base of operations such as a bus interchange in the immediate area, this might be tricky to do.
The need to build
Apart from needing bus interchanges, I don’t think it unfair to say that with the amount of development planned in Queenstown, Tanglin Halt, and to a certain extent Bukit Merah, some kind of rail service expansion will be necessary. And no, not just road-based LRT. While it will help, dumping passengers at already busy CBD-fringe MRT stations as a bus replacement service may not be the best idea. It may not even work now that one of the last undeveloped pieces of land have been taken by HDB to build BTOs. So you can’t build a depot be it for a people mover or a tram.
We will need new MRT lines, we can’t run away from that fact. The South Island Line in Hong Kong might at first glance appear to be ill-suited to HK’s high density due to its small capacity, but the reason why it works is because it’s just that short. In this vein it is quite possible that a 3-car system could be made to work in Queenstown and Bukit Merah — in fact, there’s already a system with expansion potential that could be sent here.
What I’m saying is that it would be a good idea to extend the CCL Dhoby Ghaut branch towards Queenstown, up to Science Park or something — with Bukit Merah served by an NEL extension as mentioned before. This makes the most out of an underused city centre alignment and stations and also improves the cost-benefit of splitting Promenade and building the Bencoolen-Bras Basah low level paid link. Moderating demand by keeping the line short also means we don’t have to extend platforms.
I think this also resolves the question of whether any potential Tengah Line should be providing a link to the city centre or to the old Tanjong Pagar Port. Forcing interchanges back to the existing network won’t hurt so much if there are extra links that can serve Tengah Line passengers.
But this last one will probably be a very long term initiative in the next 10 to 20 years, especially once you consider the upcoming housing dynamics in the Tanglin Halt replacement flats. It gives us the time to think about and to implement additional high-capacity public transport plans for the Queenstown and Bukit Merah areas. And we would do well to make use of that time.