Opinion

Why Initiatives Like Car-Free Sunday and Orchard Road’s Pedestrian Night Have Been Such Flops

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Joanne Poh

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Once the nation’s pride and joy, Singapore’s shopping scene is now a shadow of its former self. Vacant units haunt malls on the once-bustling Orchard Road, and the CBD and Civic districts’ recent attempt to attract shoppers with Car-Free Sunday not only reeked of desperation, but also failed to noticeably increase revenue for businesses.

In fact, most of the businesses weren’t even aware of the existence of car-free Sunday, and did not notice any difference in their sales for the day. All this despite the fact that there were apparently a few thousand people heading to the CBD because of it.

Then there was Orchard Road’s Pedestrian Night, which was stopped abruptly because, despite the crowds being as dense as ever, businesses did not see increased sales.

Here are some reasons why that might be the case.

People have been visiting these events for the free stuff

So it seems like Car-Free Sunday has been attracting people—just not the right ones, ie. the ones with cash to burn.

The National Gallery Singapore has reported greater visitor numbers. So why not the shops, restaurants and bars in the area?

It seems like most of the people who headed to the city centre to take advantage of Car-Free Sunday did so to enjoy cultural and sporting activities. They came to check out the museums, participate in the National Gallery’s free yoga sessions, or cycle and walk.

It is difficult to envision people in cycling gear wanting to hit up an expensive restaurant at Boat Quay or shop at a Marina Bay Sands boutique.

Pedestrian Night tried to generate foot traffic with buskers and street performers, but realised that people were coming to see what the fuss was about and then leaving without spending money.

 

People come to enjoy the free activities, and then leave when they have to eat

You can get so easily from the CBD to other touristic parts of Singapore on Car-Free Sunday that there’s a high chance many visitors came to check out the museums or take a jog by the river, and then went off elsewhere for cheaper food.

These people could just have walked, cycled or taken the MRT over to the much more vibrant Bugis area to get food.

I’m pretty sure most of the PokemonGo hunters searching for Magikarp by the river don’t really want to spend $15 on a beer there, whether or not there are cars on the street.

 

There’s the perception that food in the CBD and Orchard is a rip off

There’s the perception that food in the CBD is overpriced and not that great. That’s not wrong. Even food courts charge higher prices here.

Even Lau Pa Sat has the reputation for being overpriced and serving up food that’s not that great.

As for Orchard Road, most Singaporeans know that spending money there is a rip off. As far as dining enclaves go, there are far better places in Singapore. Many people would rather head over to Dempsey Hill or Newton Circus for a meal.

 

The organisers are not targeting the right people

Many of the Singaporeans who wouldn’t think twice about spending $50 on a casual lunch at Marina Bay Sands would rather drive or take taxis into the CBD area anyway. These people might actually find Car-Free Sunday prohibitive as they can’t bear the thought of taking the MRT.

What Car-Free Sunday should focus on is attracting people who would actually spend money in the CBD, such as taitais who shop at Marina Bay Sands or expats at Boat Quay. Right now the focus seems to be on families and cyclists.

 

The organisers quit too soon if they don’t see immediate results

The problem with Singapore initiatives is that they’re often way too obvious about the objectives they want to achieve. And when they don’t immediately achieve their goals, they pull out.

After a brief run of just five weeks, the authorities stopped Car-Free Sunday, so that URA could review the scheme. They say it’s so they can update the routes, but one big reason for the break could be to survey business owners to see if it helped them make more money.

The event is supposed to begin again in October, after a 2 month break.

I suspect that if the carrot-dangling approach does not translate to greater business revenue, they’ll discontinue the event. Remember how Orchard Road Pedestrian Night got unceremoniously axed?

The problem is that the people in charge are looking for quick cash. They were dreaming about a sudden influx of people, all of whom would immediately start spending money with abandon the minute they hit the area.

What they should be focusing on is slowly building a following, and helping people get warmed up to the fact that the CBD area or Orchard Road are great places to spend your weekend. After a while, they’ll start finding favourite restaurants or exploring new spots. But it takes time to build a following organically, and based on past experience we doubt the organisers of Car-Free Sunday will have the patience.

Have you ever participated in Car-Free Sunday or Pedestrian Night? Share your experiences in the comments!

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Joanne Poh

In my previous life, I was a property lawyer who spent most of my time struggling to get out of bed or stuck in peak hour traffic. These days, as a freelance commercial writer, I work in bed, on the beach, in parks and at cafes, all while being really frugal. I like helping other people save money so they can stop living lives they don't like.