Transportation

What Will it Take to Get Singaporeans to Give Up Their Cars?

car ownership singapore

Joanne Poh

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Many foreigners are baffled as to why a Singaporean would want to buy a car, paying several times the price of a car in their own home countries. After all, they insist, the MRT system is fantastic and so much better than the subway in New York or the Tube in London. Others argue that car ownership takes on an aspirational veneer in Singapore, and people are willing to pay a lot of money to realise the dream.

However, as any Singaporean knows, public transport can only get you so far if you don’t live near an MRT station and don’t go out after midnight. In order to really change Singaporeans’ attitude to car ownership, some changes need to happen first, like the following.

 

Increased accessibility to public transport

The occasional breakdown and daily shoving matches not withstanding, the MRT is fairly efficient. While it pales in comparison to its counterparts in Hong Kong, Tokyo and Taipei, it does offer the quickest way to get from Jurong East MRT station to Bugis MRT station, especially considering the jams on the road.

But the problem is that most Singaporeans live in suburban areas quite a distance from the central zone, and unless you actually live within wallking distance of Jurong East MRT in the above example, getting to the station can be a big headache in itself. I can’t pretend I’m not just a little bitter about this, as I live in an area with only one bus, which has taken up to 1 hour to arrive in the past.

When you think about all that lost time spent waiting for the bus in order to get to the MRT station, it’s not hard to see why many Singaporeans don’t mind shelling out the cash to buy a car. Either driving to work or using the park and ride scheme to get to an MRT station can save you more than an hour each day—a life saver if you have to work long hours.

 

Cheaper late night transport options

While raising the prices of cars can deter people from buying them, those who routinely travel after midnight save much less, which then increases the attractiveness of having your own transport. Taxi fares in Singapore have risen quite a bit over the last ten years, and taking a 30 minute cab ride after midnight can easily cost you more than $25.

If you go out for late night suppers a lot, get the urge to shop at Mustafa at 3am or work the graveyard shift but have a meagre transport allowance, getting a car makes a lot of sense. While we do have NightRider and Night Owl bus services, these are limited and operate only only Fridays and Saturdays and the eve of public holidays, presumably to cater to partygoers.

I personally think the NightRider services are great, and if they could be extended to the other days of the week and serve a wider range of areas, going out at night would be a lot more affordable, considering the cost of two beers and a cab ride home with midnight surcharge could easily set you back $50.

 

More independence and free time for kids

Many Singaporeans I’ve spoken to seem to be of the opinion that a car becomes a necessity when you have kids. However, unless you ferry your kids around every single day, the odd taxi ride to the zoo or the clinic would probably still cost much less than a car.

The problem is that many Singaporeans actually do ferry their kids around every single day. I live just outside a primary school, and every morning and afternoon the road gets jameed by an insane number of parental cars just waiting to drop their offspring off at the school gates. Many parents prefer to get stuck in a neverending queue of parents’ cars than to drop their kids off a 5 minute walk away.

Singapore is one of the safest countries in the world and actually the perfect place for kids to learn how to use public transport on their own, since there’s little fear of their being kidnapped and sold as slaves.

On the other hand, very often it’s not that kids aren’t able to take public transport on their own—but rather that they have too many after school activities. Parents need cars so they can drive frantically from tuition centres to piano lessons to Young Genius seminars.

If kids are allowed to be independent and free up enough time in their schedule to remove the need for parents to become chauffeurs, more people might realise that it is indeed possible to parent without a car.

 

Greater comfort on public transport

If you’ve ever had a migraine, been pregnant or just damned tired after another 12 hour work day, you’ve probably sworn that you would either quit your job or buy a car. For many people, their biggest bugbear about having to rely on public transport isn’t commuting time—it’s comfort level.

To be fair, the MRT and buses in Singapore are actually quite comfortable on their own. Nobody’s asking for velvet cushions or free foot massages during their commute. But when the trains and buses are packed to bursting point, you have to stand throughout an hour-long commute and you’ve got armpits in your face and heels stabbing at your feet, a car looks that much more appealing.

Unfortunately, even if SMRT started being more generous about the air con on the trains and hiring smiling greeters to wish passengers a pleasant commute, the crux of the matter is that for those with a long commute, standing for an hour or more causes enough discomfort to send them running to car dealers. When you’re already exhausted from work, trying to balance on the steps of an overcrowded bus or having to grab for the poles as the driver makes yet another emergency stop can take its toll.

With office decentralisation already starting to happen and the government making efforts to improve the capacity of the public transport infrastructure, let’s hope this problem gets solved someday.

Do you have a car and why did you buy one despite the high cost? Share your reasons 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.