Wanted — An Ambitious Vision for Singapore’s Public Transport

In order for public transport in Singapore to compete with the lure of private cars, a radical overhaul in regulation and organisation may be necessary.

Date Posted

1 Apr 2007


Issue 2, 14 Apr 2007

Momentous issues lie behind the apparently dry choices facing the experts now reviewing Singapore's public transport arrangements. As a large, compact city, Singapore is approaching limits to road capacity expansion. Increasingly, public transport will be called upon to compete with cars for customers who have a choice. To do this successfully, Singapore will have to adopt a much more ambitious approach to the organisation and regulation of public transport. Existing arrangements are almost certainly not up to the task and fine-tuning them will not be enough.

This article discusses a bold yet feasible vision for public transportation in Singapore. It proposes the introduction of real competition to the public transport market. At the same time, it requires a stronger role for the public sector in planning a highly-attractive, comprehensive and well-integrated transport system.


Singapore's public transport has done quite well even without a very ambitious vision. It aims to be a basic utility, providing no-fuss mobility to the masses who do not own cars. Since the 1970s, this modest ambition has combined very well with efforts to contain car ownership and usage. In the process, a steady stream of improvements, including the expanding Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) network, has been successfully delivered to a customer base of mostly non-car owners who have become increasingly middle-class in profile.

This approach, however, will soon face growing tensions. Social and economic changes and shifts in vehicle tax policy are reducing the number of captives to public transport. For example, as car usage costs go up while cost barriers to car ownership go down, we are likely to see larger numbers of relatively low-income car-owning households. At the same time, larger numbers of relatively high-income households may choose not to own cars, encouraged by the expanding MRT network and the boom in centrally-located premium housing options that serve an increasingly attractive "cosmopolitan" inner-city lifestyle. These and other "choice" users of public transport will have high expectations of public transport. They are more likely to demand a higher frequency of services and shorter waiting times.

The authorities have already expressed concern that public transport needs improvement, but do not seem to be considering a fundamental restructuring of the system. This article argues that the institutional and regulatory arrangements to support public transport in Singapore require significant changes, if it is to meet the changing needs of its customers.


Seoul in South Korea has a large subway and, until 2004, had a bus network run by numerous private operators with poor coordination. Since the mid-1980s, it has faced the challenge of rapid increases in car ownership. Pucher et al3 described reforms in 2004 that reorganised Seoul's bus services. Inspired by integrated urban public transport systems in Scandinavia, Germany and Switzerland, the changes focused on improved, more customer-oriented service, integration and a shift to a hub-and-spoke network structure. Regulatory reforms were also a key feature.

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Where should we look for role models of superior public transport? Certainly not to automobile-dependent cities in North America or Australia, where public transport has largely admitted defeat and retreated to "niches", such as serving radial work trips and providing welfare service for people without alternatives.

Public transport "paradises", such as Hong Kong and Japan's large cities, certainly offer some lessons but, surprisingly perhaps, not when it comes to the challenge of competing with private cars. The huge rail systems and tiny endowment of road space in Japan and the congestion and extreme urban density of Hong Kong (it has triple Singapore's population per urbanised hectare) limit the appeal of cars and help to protect the role of public transport. Strenuous public transport promotion efforts are less necessary in such places than they would be here.

It is in places where the private car is a real threat and where public transport refuses to accept defeat that we find the most intense public transport innovation efforts. Some of the most energetic efforts have been in the inner cities of Central and Northern Europe, but Seoul and certain Latin American cities, such as Bogotá, have also taken dramatic steps. The best of these cities aim to make public transport a real competitor for cars in order to halt the loss of market share to private transport.


Infrastructure, such as urban rail systems and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), is a key aspect of efforts to improve public transport. The most ambitious approaches, however, also involve excellent, highly customer-oriented integration. In an integrated public transport system, the private car — and not other public transport operators — is seen as the primary rival. Highly-integrated public transport systems are planned and marketed as a unified whole and presented as a single brand image to the general public. Stockholm pioneered this approach in the 1960s and Zurich has taken it further.1

It is in places where the private car is a real threat and where public transport refuses to accept defeat that we find the most intense public transport innovation efforts.

If public transport aims to become a comprehensive mobility tool in competition with cars, strenuous efforts are required to ensure that transfers are simple, quick and reliable. Easier transfers are vital if the full range of destinations is to be served beyond just the city centre. This requires either high-frequency, regular service on all provisions or a carefully-coordinated, "timed-pulse" approach to scheduling in lower density areas.

One way to increase frequencies at low cost is via a shift to a more thoroughly "hub-and-spoke" network layout. However, this obviously requires more transfers, which must be made as easy as possible. Clearly, integration will also enhance efforts to improve service frequencies.

The role of unified marketing cannot be dismissed. Unified marketing seeks customer loyalty to the system as a whole, often with the help of heavily-discounted season passes. In addition, it assumes that information for trip planning is consolidated for the entire system. To this end, integrated systems generally make available high-quality, comprehensive maps of the entire public transport network to their customers.

Singapore's public transport system falls short in several of these respects. In the 1990s, Singapore's transport planners proclaimed integration (or "seamlessness") to be a key goal in the improvement of public transport. Significant progress was made, especially on physical integration of the bus and MRT systems, and on common ticketing. However, integration improvements seem to have stalled.


Singapore's existing public transport regulatory arrangements involve two operators facing fare regulation and service standards overseen by the Public Transport Council (PTC), a public agency at "arm's length" from the Government. Each operator has a permanent monopoly within its own zone. The operators have considerable autonomy over the details of their routes and schedules since the service standards do not specify these in minute detail. Having two operators makes the PTC's regulation task slightly easier by allowing their performance to be benchmarked against each other. This so-called "benchmark competition" does not, in fact, entail any competition at all. In addition, numerous charter, school and shuttle services fall outside the main system — each with their own information, payment and marketing structures.

This arrangement has delivered a good basic transport system, but it presents a number of barriers to customer-oriented improvements. First, it hampers the creation of a more fully integrated system. In fact, rivalry between the two companies seems to be undermining existing integration, especially in information and marketing. Attractive season passes that cover the whole system seem unlikely. Each operator runs its own website and telephone service and neither provides substantial useful information about the services of the other.

Second, the existing arrangement allows only incremental steps to "raise the bar" and enhance service levels. Under the existing system, the Government cannot impose innovations, except indirectly via service standards. With only indirect tools available, it may be difficult to create a more ambitious, attractive and customer-oriented public transport system.

The problem of limited direct influence goes further because we may need to pursue cooperation beyond the public transport system. Public transport alone, even if truly excellent and highly integrated, may not be enough to dent significantly the appeal of private cars. Cooperation needs to be extended to all of the alternatives to private transportation. Since the late 1990s, in German cities such as Bremen and Hanover, and Swiss cities such as Zurich, cooperation has been expanding between public transport and its natural allies, namely car-sharing together with car-rental, taxis, home-delivery services, car-free housing developments, and the humble modes of walking and bicycling. At its most ambitious, such cooperation creates an "alternative mobility package" with the aim of making a non-car owning lifestyle an attractive alternative to the car-owning lifestyle. Such efforts would be difficult to encourage under Singapore's current public transport regulatory system.


If the existing arrangement of a regulated monopoly with "benchmarking" limits integration and discourages more ambitious reforms, does this mean that any increase in competition would be even worse? Certainly, the "free-for-all" approach of open entry to the public transport industry or "competition in the market" would destroy integration and be disastrous.

Nevertheless, there is a way to enhance competition that is compatible with improved integration and customer-oriented improvements. It requires "competition for the market", which involves competitive tendering for the right to operate different sets of public transport routes (see "Three Forms of Competition for the Market in Public Transport").

The simplest way to shift competition in the market may not necessarily be the best answer. Singapore could quite easily adopt the franchise system used for Hong Kong's mainline buses, which is very similar to Singapore's bus arrangement, although the former has competitive tendering. In both places, operators largely determine their own routes and schedules in accordance with broad guidelines. Such a change would probably offer efficiency gains through competition, while it might also offer the opportunity to increase service standards substantially at tendering times. Unfortunately, a shift to competitively tendered franchises would do little to improve integration. Franchises would probably maintain separate public identities, information services, and marketing approaches, and would have little incentive to cooperate with each other. Hong Kong's level of integration is certainly not poor, but as a public transport "paradise", it does not need to strive in this area, as Singapore probably does.

In Singapore, the Government could consider "service contracts" and, in particular, "gross-cost" service contracts. This alternative approach to competition is most compatible with both a high degree of system integration and a more ambitious, customer-oriented planning mechanism. Service contracts have been widely applied but it is in Scandinavia that the combination of competitive tendering, excellent integration, and ambitious targets for system improvements has been most notable.2 This approach involves assigning a single public agency with responsibility to integrate the planning of routes, timetables and pricing, in accordance with a unified vision for the public transport system. Private operators compete via periodic tendering for the right to operate routes specified by the agency. In addition, the gross cost approach involves the central pooling of fare revenues and payment to operators on the basis of performance and services delivered.

This model requires a more "hands-on" approach to public-sector planning and monitoring which would mark a significant change from Singapore's relatively hands-off regime at present. Service contracts may not work in countries that lack the necessary institutional capacity. Singapore, however, could clearly muster the administrative capacity to succeed and benefit from the improved policy options that this approach allows.

Singapore may be too concerned about the size of its public transport market to attempt competitive tendering. However, because public transport plays such a significant role in Singapore, the market is far from tiny, with total demand comparable to that of the whole of Australia. Nevertheless, the need for sufficiently competitive tendering may eventually prompt a gradual opening up of the local public transport market to international players. Fortunately, there are many precedents to learn from. While opening up the local public transport market may cause concern, it is in line with Singapore's desire to encourage local operating companies to venture into international public transport markets — a process well underway.


Gross cost contracting has been used successfully for procuring bus services in a number of developed cities. It transfers the production risk to private operators but shields them from the full commercial risks. This has the advantage of facilitating integration and enlarging the pool of competition, which is particularly important in cities where there has been a long tradition of public provision and public transport markets are weak. Cost saving over public monopolies in the range of 20% to 30% is not uncommon with this type of competition.

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Singapore needs a more ambitious, customer-focused vision for public transport that will appeal to everyone, including affluent people with choices, and that will become a central component of a high-quality "car-free" lifestyle.

No regulatory system is a panacea since all have their strengths and weaknesses. This article has suggested a model well-suited to Singapore's current imperatives and strengths. It demands a more intensive role for the public sector in planning public transport but with continued private-sector operation and the introduction of real competition via competitively tendered gross-cost service contracts.

Such a model should help Singapore to reap efficiency benefits from competition, while also enabling an accelerated effort towards a much more ambitious and highly-integrated public transport system.


Paul Barter, Assistant Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, researches urban transport policy. The views expressed here are those of his own and do not reflect those of his employer.


  1. Mees, P., "The "Zurich" Model: Planning and Integration as an Alternative to the Market." in A Very Public Solution: Transport in the Dispersed City. (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2000), 120-151.
  2. Hidson, M. and M. Müller. Better Public Transport for Europe through Competitive Tendering - A Good Practice Guide. (Freiburg, Germany: ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability, 2003).
  3. Pucher, J., H. Park, M. H. Kim, and J. Song. "Public Transport Reforms in Seoul: Innovations Motivated by Funding Crisis." Journal of Public Transportation Vol. 8, No. 5 (2005).
  4. Halcrow Fox. Department for International Development, Review of Urban Public Transport Competition, Draft Final Report. (London, UK: Halcrow Group Limited, 2000), 3

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