Lessons from the lion city

It’s 11 pm on a Monday, bars are still open, and public transport is still running. After waiting only a few minutes, I board a bus and tag on with my mobile phone, walk up the stairs to the second level, take a seat and keep an eye on the LCD signage for my stop, which is providing real-time updates. No, I’m not in the future; I’m in Singapore.

Singapore passengers exiting train with platform screen doors.
Passengers exit the MRT through the platform screen doors, the first advanced train system in the world to implement such features. Photo: Liam Murphy.

Past Exmouth, across the Indian Ocean, over Bali and the islands of Indonesia, you will find this city-state, which many consider to be the most futuristic in the world. With 5.4 million people crammed into an island nearly nine times smaller than the Perth metropolitan area, Singapore’s population density is insanely high. Yet despite this, getting around by public transport is highly effective, particularly in comparison to Perth.

As the climate continues to change and governments around the world look to transition away from our reliance on fossil-fuelled cars, our relationship with public transport is in the spotlight as researchers and scientists continue to investigate how we can increase public transport usage.

Professor of Sustainability at Curtin University and coordinating lead author for the United Nation’s IPCC on Transport, Peter Newman, believes there is much to learn from Singapore’s public transport system.

“Singapore is the smartest city in the world. There’s no question. What they have, you won’t find anywhere else in the world as well developed as that.”

Professor Peter Newman

“It’s an important city that has gone the way of building itself, not around cars. We have built our city around cars, and that is changing, but it’s hard to do because it’s so inbuilt into the culture of the place, and into the culture of the agencies that manage it.”

Singapore’s fully driverless mass rapid transit train system consists of 134 stations, six lines, 231 kilometres of track, as well as 43 stations on three light rail lines. Its bus fleet has around 5,800 vehicles, which is nearly four times larger than Perth’s. But it’s the innovative technology features used in and around the system that has made the network a shining example.

Singapore train system map.
A map of Singapore’s MRT system which is still rapidly expanding. Photo:

A comprehensive 2018 report conducted by consulting firm McKinsey found out of 24 major cities around the globe, carefully selected based on equal merits, Singapore’s public transport was the best in the world. The report ranked each city on five different metrics, public availability, affordability, efficiency, convenience, and sustainability, with Singapore coming out on top ahead of Greater Paris, Hong Kong, and London.

Hayley Teo, the spokesperson for Singapore’s Local Transport Authority, the government body responsible for planning and managing the public transport system, says the current 2040 Land Transport Master Plan aims to further improve the system. Teo says the plan intends to increase productivity in all areas while also creating smoother, more reliable, and safe journeys, which is the main priority for the LTA.

“We want a Singapore that is a ’45-minute city with 20-minute towns’. Which means journeys to a resident’s nearest neighbourhood centre with everyday amenities such as shops, parks, food courts, and schools can be completed in less than 20 minutes by walking, cycling or taking a ride on public transport,” Teo says.

“To achieve this vision, we will continue to expand our rail network, improve bus speeds and work with other partner agencies to bring jobs closer to homes.”

Singapore’s LTA currently has plans in place to electrify half of its bus fleet by 2030, with the goal of reducing peak land transport emissions for the whole city by 80 per cent, before 2050.

When Singapore’s MRT opened in 1987, it became the first heavy metro system in the world to have platform screen doors. Now seen in train networks around the world, these screen doors increase safety for passengers, reduce cooling costs and noise pollution, and now feature on every station platform in the country.

Other technology features on Singapore’s public transport system include complete access to mobile networks at all depths, passenger load information LCD monitors telling you what part of an approaching train is full to ease passenger transfer, active route map information on all services with real-time route progress and updates, as well as the acceptance of contactless bank cards and mobile wallets on all bus and train services.

  • Photo of people on a train platform in singapore underneath a passenger load information screen.
  • close up on train smart map
  • wide shot of people queing for a train
  • Mid shot of Singapore train lcd screens
  • Close up of PLI screen
  • close up of tag on train terminals
  • close up of platform safety screens.

Professor Newman wants to see some of these technology features implemented in Perth.

“It’s not as though we’re not wealthy. We can do these things [in Perth] if we wanted to, but there’s this reticence to make any change, and that’s the culture here that needs to alter,” he says with a clear sense of frustration in his voice.

Professor Newman describes how crucial urban planning decisions in the 1970s took the two metropolises in different directions.

“Both cities, Singapore and Perth, were looking to create different futures for themselves. So, Perth built what was called the Stephenson plan, which was based around a modernist idea, but the modernist movement of that time was very much about building around cars and oil, and they built that into the whole plan of our city,” he explains.

“In Singapore, they realised they didn’t have the space for that and began to look at how they could build a rail system and fix their congestion and mess. They decided to go with the electric trains and fund it themselves because the World Bank had said no.”

He believes this decision made the city world-leading in the transport industry. 

“Singapore became the shining knight because not only did it work well, but everybody also said, ‘we want to do what Singapore is doing’.”

Professor Lynette Cheah is an Associate Professor of Engineering Systems at the Singapore University of Technology and Design and is currently managing research into sustainable transport with the aim of translating modelling and data research into real-world impact and policy change. She is also a current member of Singapore’s Public Transport Council.

Professor Cheah believes that although Singapore’s transport infrastructure is world-leading, she can see it being transcended by others in the future, which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.

“Every city is unique and different, and in different stages of development, but there are lots of opportunities, even for cities that are still growing their public transport offerings, to maybe even leapfrog [Singapore’s public transport system].”

An Infographic of statistics comparing Singapore and Perth's transport networks.
The essential statistics that make up Singapore and Perth’s transport networks. Graphic: Liam Murphy.

Professor Cheah explains that due to taxes on vehicle ownership in Singapore, due to scarce land, Singaporeans have had no choice but to adapt.

“Density issues drive a lot of the decisions that we make. We need to move away from private car use because there’s not enough space for everyone to be in them. We’re so limited in space, every square foot has to be planned very carefully, so we have to encourage the use of public transport,” she says.

“It’s especially not easy for [countries with low population density], like Australia, to expand a network so that it can accommodate residents who live in the suburbs but offering options will be really important in new or old cities. As long as they’re growing, we will need to expand the public transport network accordingly.”

Professor Newman agrees a city like Perth shouldn’t wait for density to build up and wants to see different types of transport infrastructure built to accommodate the masses in the metropolitan area.

“To get public transport to work well, you’ve got to be able to not just run heavy rail down the long corridors, but you’ve got to be able to get to it across the corridor. And that’s trackless trams,” he says.

The 2021 Australian census revealed that just 8.5 per cent of people used public transport to get to work in Perth, with 68.8 per cent of people preferring to travel by car. In contrast, Singapore’s 2020 census showed that 57.8 per cent of its resident’s usual mode of work travel was public transport.

Tamara Dinneen believes Perth is lagging extremely far behind. Photo: Supplied.

Perth expatriate Tamara Dinneen moved to Singapore from Australia five years ago for work and hasn’t looked back. Along with the food and vibrant culture, services like the Mass Rapid Transport system impress her the most, completely removing the need to own a car.

“If I have to wait three minutes for my MRT, it’s a long time. In Perth, if I get a bus within 30 minutes, if there exists one, then that’s pretty quick,” she says with a laugh.

“The coverage of the public transport is the worst thing about the way Perth Transport operates. I think I had to wait 20 minutes for a train when I went [to Perth} last time; I couldn’t believe it.”

Based on data collected by Moovit insights, the average amount of time people wait at a stop for a train, light rail, bus, cable car, or ferry in Singapore was just eight minutes on a weekday.

While data on wait times for Perth transport is not available, the PTA’s 2021/22 annual report shows that only 80.38 per cent of metropolitan and regional bus services provided by the PTA arrived within four minutes of their scheduled time, 4.62 per cent lower than their intended target.

Despite the irregular service timetables, Professor Newman’s frustrations with the transport system provided in Perth are focused on the lack of basic planning around the infrastructure.

“I’ve got a friend who came over from Melbourne to ride our new train airline, and the guy actually loves Perth’s system because it’s so clean and attractive, but he and my son said the same thing, ‘when you get out of the plane, you’re not quite sure where it is’,” he says.

“It’s like the airport doesn’t particularly want you to use it, and the reality is they don’t.”

He believes that there are external factors influencing common-sense decisions.

Singapore bus contract model was directly inspired by Transperth’s system. Photo: Liam Murphy.

“You got to see the politics of this. It’s not just rational planning.”

Perth and Singapore’s transport authorities already have close connections, with Singapore basing its bus model contract primarily off the Transperth system after a number of significant engagements between the two parties in 2012, a relationship which is still ongoing, according to the PTA’s spokesperson David Hynes.

“This relationship has continued over the years, with Transperth liaising with [Singaporean LTA] representatives earlier this year about strategies to facilitate an ongoing competitive tendering environment,” Hynes says.

Hynes explains that the PTA is currently in the process of implementing some features seen on Singapore’s public transport system and should be fully operational by the end of 2023.

The new C-series railcars will be the first new Transperth trains since the B-series (pictured) first arrived in 2004. Photo: Liam Murphy.

“Flexible payment with open-loop (EMV) media will be part of the upgraded system, providing passengers with the ability to tag-on and tag-off Transperth trains, buses and ferries using a debit or credit card, smartphones or wearables,” he says.

With 130 electric busses being made in Perth and 246 new C-series railcars expected to arrive in late 2024, Perth commuters can expect to see some level of new features on-board some of their public transport in the future.

“The new C-series railcars will have improved energy efficiency and reliability, three doors on each side of every railcar for easy access, modern passenger information with counting systems to provide passenger loading data, and regenerative braking to reduce energy consumption,” Hynes explains.

“The first locally manufactured [electric buses] will roll off the assembly line in 2024-25 and will be used in the Perth CBD, with the remainder of the buses to service the Perth metropolitan region.”

Singapore’s public transport system is now the backbone of the country. Video: Liam Murphy.

The 2022 Curtin Journalism Singapore Study Tour was funded under the federal government’s New Colombo Plan scheme.