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Speech by Second Minister Ng Chee Meng at Ministry Of Transport’s Committee Of Supply Debate 2017 on 8 March 2017

08 Mar 2017 Speeches

A Smarter, Greener and More Inclusive Transport System for a Better Quality of Life
1.     Madam Chair, Minister Khaw spoke earlier about the immediate improvements we are making to our transport system. I will share how MOT plans to transform it over the longer term.

2.     Singaporeans can look forward to a future transport system that will be (i) smarter, (ii) greener and (iii) more inclusive. 

Smarter Transport: Smoother Journeys, More Options
3.     Let me first share how we will leverage: big data, mobile technology, and automation, to make our transport system better and smarter. 

Big Data 

4.     We will use big data and analytics to improve train reliability. We will be deploying condition monitoring tools on our trains and equipment to collect data more extensively and on a real-time basis. All 66 new trains that Minister Khaw mentioned for the North-South East-West Lines and our new power supply system will be equipped with monitoring sensors and they are going to be deployed across all of these trains. We will also be deploying a new-generation Automatic Track Inspection System for the Downtown Line. Imaging sensors and lasers will be installed on revenue trains to scan the tracks of the entire Downtown Line to detect anomalies, so that we can arrest any faults early. 

5.     With such data, we will be able to improve the maintenance of our train system. We will adopt a more proactive, predictive approach to maintenance, and away from the current model of preventive maintenance. To enable this transition, we will need to build an integrated asset management database, so that we can better monitor and predict the health of the entire rail network and all its components. 

6.     Data analytics are also helping us improve other aspects of our transport system. For instance, the public bus operators track the location of all their buses, and they are applying analytics so that they can instruct their bus captains to either slow down or speed up, to avoid bunching with other buses, all in real time.  

7.     This will in part answer to Mr Melvin Yong's concern. And this is only the beginning. LTA is building an analytics system which will fuse data from various sources such as fare cards, wi-fi and CCTV systems, and also cellular data from telcos. This will enable LTA to better model commuter flows in our public transport network, and improve its overall planning capabilities. We can then also respond more effectively to ground developments, such as by injecting additional bus and rail capacity to cope with unexpected crowd surges or even train delays. In time to come, we will be able to integrate private transport data as well. Using Global Navigation Satellite System technology and through the in-vehicle units that are in all vehicles in Singapore, we will get aggregated, comprehensive and real-time data on road traffic.  We can use it to improve traffic flows, for instance by providing motorists with access to real-time traffic data to decide on the fastest or least congested route, and to enable our traffic light system to respond more intelligently and optimally to different real-time road conditions.  

Mobile Technology 

8.     Apart from big data, mobile technology is another key enabler for the transport sector, and this is already benefitting commuters tremendously. 

9.     In particular, just-in-time, demand-responsive transport has become more pervasive. For example, all of us know, just until a few years ago, if we wanted to book a taxi, we had to speak to an operator over the phone, and had access only to the taxis of that one company, and not including all the holding time. This was clearly not efficient nor convenient. Today, we use a single app, like GrabTaxi, to book taxis almost instantaneously from any taxi company. Commuters are better served because there are now more taxis that are reachable, literally at our fingertips. 

10.    But the greater disruptive change by far, enabled by mobile technology, has been private hire car services.  PTC's recent survey suggests that almost one in two point-to-point trips are now served by private hire cars. At the same time, it seems that many more commuters are taking point-to-point transportation, both taxis and private hire cars.  

11.    I am glad to see that commuters are using these mobile technologies, and are satisfied with both taxi and private hire car services. 

12.    Mr Zaqy Mohamed and Ms Cheng Li Hui expressed concern about dynamic pricing. I am glad that taxi companies and drivers are rising to the competition. Taxi drivers have improved their services. Customer satisfaction improved from a year ago. Taxi companies are also rethinking their business models. Some have lowered rental rates and introduced innovative rental schemes. More recently, they have proposed dynamic pricing as one more option for booked trips. This is similar to the way fares for private hire car services are determined. The Public Transport Council is currently discussing the details with the taxi companies. Meanwhile, my view is that we should let the taxi industry innovate and adapt to the new market conditions and competition. Our taxi drivers have to make a living too, and we should not restrict their ability to compete effectively. On the other hand, I understand some commuters' concerns about dynamic pricing. Fares indeed will likely vary according to demand and supply, sometimes higher, sometimes lower, depending on peak hours or low-peak periods. But importantly, before any journey begins, commuters will know exactly how much their fare would be. They can then choose to accept or decline the offer. For commuters who prefer more familiarity, they will have the traditional option to book a taxi. The taxi companies, I understand, intend to retain the traditional metered fare system even as they introduce dynamic pricing. But ultimately, taxi companies should ensure that dynamic pricing improves, and not worsens the matching of demand and supply.

13.    I thank Mr Zaqy Mohamad for his comments on our approach to managing the changes in this evolving industry. Our light-touch approach has served commuters well so far. The new regulations for private hire drivers and vehicles are aimed at protecting commuters' interests, especially safety. From July 2017, private hire car drivers must obtain a vocational licence. To get the licence, they must undergo relevant training and pass requisite tests on road and passenger safety, and be subject to background and medical checks. 

14.    We intend to maintain some differentiation in privileges and regulations between taxi and private hire car services for now, given their different roles. For instance, we intend to continue to allow only taxis to serve the street-hail market. Taxis also enjoy COE concessions. They pay the Category A Prevailing Quota Premium even though many taxis are larger Category B vehicles. So while we try to ensure that competition is fair, it is not always possible or desirable to impose the exact same regulations on both sectors.

15.    There are likely to be further disruptions afield. The recent trend is ride-sharing among unrelated commuters. UberPool and GrabShare offer commuters the possibility of sharing a private hire car trip if they are headed in the same direction, which is cheaper than taking a ride on your own. We also have SWAT, a local start-up that aims to provide on-demand bus services. The company uses a routing algorithm to pick up and drop off passengers on demand, while dynamically optimising the route in real-time so that the bus has the most efficient route in managing fares and passengers. This could potentially transform how bus services are operated in the future, including public bus services in areas where there is lower ridership, and maybe during low-demand hours. 

16.    Mobile technology is also re-shaping bicycle-sharing. A few years back, we studied the schemes in cities like London, Paris and New York. These are the traditional ones with docking stations. We thought they could potentially work in Singapore. But they were, however, not sustainable commercially and required financial subsidy. We took some time to work out how to fund this, and eventually, LTA put out a tender last year for a bicycle sharing service, starting small with Jurong Lake District. 

17.    However, as Mr Ang Wei Neng has observed, in recent months, this has been almost disrupted. We have seen the emergence of dockless bicycle sharing systems here in Singapore. These dockless systems allow users to hire and return a shared bicycle at any location. There are obvious advantages: lower infrastructure costs, more convenience. The downside, however, is indiscriminate parking, or potential indiscriminate parking. It is still not clear yet whether these new systems or the traditional ones will work better for Singapore.  

18.    So LTA will study carefully both the docked and dockless systems. We will study whether to proceed with our plans, and whether to extend them to other towns. As Mr Ang Hin Kee has pointed out, Ofo and Obike are already rolling out their services independently of LTA's tender. 

Automation: Self-Driving Vehicles

19.    Let me move on to the topic of automation. We are focusing on self-driving technology in a big way because they have the potential to dramatically improve public transport. For instance, we could have a fleet of shared self-driving pods or shuttles that can be called upon to bring us from our doorstep to the MRT station. Self-driving buses, on the other hand, could address our problem of driver shortage.

20.    Of course, significant technology challenges have still to be overcome before self-driving can take off in a big way. But we are working towards such a day, by facilitating the development of such technology and mobility concepts in Singapore. We have embarked on trials of self-driving pods. Initiatives are underway to develop self-driving buses and to explore how the technology can be applied for use in freight transport and utility vehicles.  We also launched the Centre of Excellence for Testing & Research of Autonomous Vehicles-NTU (CETRAN) in August last year, to establish a set of safety and performance standards for our local environment as well as testing requirements and protocols. 

Preparing Workers for Change 

21.    The advent of these technological innovations and new business models worries our transport workers, quite understandably. As Mr Zaqy Mohamad, Mr Melvin Yong and Ms Cheng Li Hui all similarly expressed, I understand the concerns as well. But the right approach is to prepare our workers for these changes and not obstruct them. In any case, these technological advances cannot be stopped, and even if slowed, we will lose out on the many new opportunities that they also bring along.   

22.    So we will help our workers to upskill and re-skill, so that they can take on the new jobs that will come as the industry evolves. The Government has put in place the institutions to do so, with the Singapore Rail Academy and the Singapore Bus Academy. We are working closely with our tripartite partners through platforms such as the Public Transport Sectoral Tripartite Committee chaired by SMS Josephine Teo. This committee will identify the relevant skills, build local capabilities, and develop the curricula to nurture a future-ready workforce. For taxi drivers, as Mr Ang Hin Kee suggested, some incentives to get more taxi drivers to ply the road by waiving their licence renewal fees. Today, active taxi drivers pay only half of the Taxi Driver's Vocational Licence renewal fee, i.e. $20, every three years when they renew their licence. We will consider Mr Ang's suggestion, but I think what will be more meaningful in the longer run is for the National Taxi Association to work with the taxi operators to innovate to meet the competition from private hire cars. I trust that our workers will rise up to the challenges and find a way to adapt. They always have, and like some of our bus captains I met in Punggol, they have upgraded themselves to take on interchange and operations control centre roles which allow them to continue improving the commuter experience in other ways, and also upgrade their own incomes and responsibilities. As I have shared earlier, taxi drivers have also been improving services in response to competition, and I look forward to the evolving situation with improved overall point-to-point services.

Greener Transport: Cleaner Air, Healthier Lifestyles 

23.    I have talked extensively about smart transport. The second feature of our future transport system is that it will be greener. 

24.    Emissions from motor vehicles are one of the largest sources of air pollution. Vehicular emissions contribute about half of locally produced PM2.5 pollution, and diesel vehicles are the main culprit. A study postulates that nitrogen dioxide produced by diesel vehicles is linked to around 23,500 deaths in the UK a year. London is setting up a Low Emissions Zone in its city centre to address this, and is replacing most of its diesel buses with hybrid and electric ones. 

25.    In Singapore, we are enhancing our Carbon Emissions-based Vehicle Scheme (CEVS) to incentivise a shift towards the purchase of lower emissions vehicles. The current CEVS grants rebates or levies surcharges based on a vehicle's carbon emissions. To more holistically account for the health and environmental impact of vehicular emissions, we will include other pollutants such as carbon monoxide and particulate matter into the criteria of the scheme. This will encourage buyers to choose models that are not only more fuel-efficient, but also emit less air pollutants, and thus improve the ambient air quality and public health. Our colleagues from MEWR will elaborate on the enhancements to the scheme. 

26.    We will also make a shift towards a greener public bus fleet. By procuring buses which meet more stringent emission standards, we have already been greening most of our diesel-powered fleet. But really, no emissions is better than low emissions. That is why we have been trialling an electric bus on Service 17 and now Service 119. Mr Daniel Goh asked about the results of this trial. The initial feedback has been encouraging; while more costly, commuters enjoy the quieter ride and the bus has been fairly reliable. LTA intends to expand the trial, and will be calling tenders to procure 50 hybrid buses and 60 electric buses this year. We will have three bus services which are fully served by electric buses.  

27.    However, a problem with pure-electric technology is that it is not fully proven yet for tropical climates, in part because vehicles operating here consume a lot of energy for air-conditioning. The electric car sharing and electric taxi trials that LTA launched recently will also help us better understand the application of this technology in our climate. 

More Inclusive Transport: Transport for All 

28.    The third feature of our future transport system is that it will be more inclusive. It must be designed thoughtfully to serve the needs of vulnerable groups, such as: People with disabilities; Families, especially those with young children; and An ageing population which is likely to be less mobile. 

29.    Our journey towards fully barrier-free public transport is almost complete. All MRT stations and bus interchanges are now barrier-free. 92% of our public buses are wheelchair-accessible; and this will increase to 98% by the end of next year, and 100% by 2020. I agree, however, with Ms Sylvia Lim that there is always room to improve, and we plan to do more within what is affordable.

30.    Ms Sylvia Lim also asked about derailment contingency. Rail staff will assist to evacuate any people who need help, and SCDF will also be called on-site to help further. Regular exercises will be conducted. If I recall correctly, late last year, there was one done for staff and SCDF to familiarise themselves in case of such detrainment. 

31.    One idea that has been suggested occasionally in this House is to have audio announcements on our buses to help passengers with visual disabilities. LTA will start testing this as an enhancement to the new passenger information display system currently being trialled on Service 106.

32.    LTA plans to collaborate with SG Enable, for SG Enable to 'adopt' Redhill MRT station, which is the station nearest to the Enabling Village and used by many of the disabled community who travel to the Village. Redhill station then can be a test-bed for new mobility technologies and infrastructure designs that can make public transport more accessible for persons with disabilities. So this move can hopefully enable all to co-create solutions with people who are affected, including the Enabling Village community. The journey from Redhill station to the Enabling Village is a challenge for persons with disabilities, because of the hilly topography and the 400-metre distance. So I have challenged LTA and SG Enable to come up with a solution to improve this last mile, and hopefully apply such similar solutioning to future projects.

33.    Another frequent feedback is from families with young children.  They want to have public transport made more accessible for them. I hear them, and we will try. I know it is challenging to have to fold up strollers before boarding public buses. On the other hand, LTA and the bus operators have genuine concerns for the safety of children in open strollers, for example, if the bus, for whatever reason, has to brake suddenly or swerve suddenly, we are concerned for the child's safety. But on balance, we think we can move on this. Starting from 2 April, we will allow families to board public buses with open strollers. We hope this will make travelling with young children on public transport more convenient. Parents will have to be fully attentive and please take responsibility for the safety of their children, and hold on tight to the open strollers at all times. As we work towards a more inclusive public transport system, I urge other commuters to be patient if it takes a bit longer for families with open strollers to board our buses. 

34.    To improve pedestrian accessibility, we have been progressively installing lifts on pedestrian overhead bridges over the last three years. We have completed 23 bridges so far, and are working on another 24 to be completed by end-2018. However, lifts are not always the most optimal solution. They are expensive.-It costs $4 million in capital cost per pair of lifts, and to maintain them takes about $40,000 a year. Two, if either of the lifts need to be shut down for maintenance or repair, the crossings will no longer be barrier-free. So these are some of the setbacks.    

35.    I think a better solution is to implement at-grade pedestrian crossings where safety is not an issue and the impact on traffic not excessive. These are more convenient for the elderly, and faster to build. With our Green Man Plus programme, the elderly and persons with disabilities can get more crossing time. 

36.    Another way in which we are making streets safer for the elderly and the less mobile is through the Silver Zone programme. Currently, we have 9 Silver Zones and feedback has been positive. The programme will be expanded to another 41 locations island-wide. Mr Png Eng Huat asked about the design and public education of Silver Zone features, including courtesy crossings. Before building Silver Zones, LTA works closely with grassroots leaders to ensure that the design and safety features meet the needs of the residents. As part of the public education process, LTA distributes posters and brochures, and also makes use of community events to address residents' concerns face-to-face.

37.    Indeed, pedestrian safety must always be a primary concern for MOT, and in this regard, I agree with Mr Dennis Tan and also with what Mr Png Eng Huat has raised on the importance of safe path-sharing. We are working to improve the safety aspect of our infrastructure design. Where possible, LTA will widen the narrow footpaths with high pedestrian volumes, from the current 1.5m or less, to 1.8m or more. The location mentioned by Mr Tan is part of our plans to do so within the next two years. Besides infrastructural improvements, we have introduced new rules to protect pedestrians sharing footpaths with bicycles and PMDs, such as a speed limit of 15 km/h, as well as the maximum width and weight and top speed of devices. We have also introduced a new code of conduct to guide cyclists on how to share paths safely. But more than infrastructure upgrades and rules and regulations, we need the cooperation of all users in order to have shared spaces and make them safe.  We need to develop a culture of gracious sharing, through education efforts, amongst others. 

38.    Such education efforts are being expanded to more groups of users and in more languages, in line with what Mr Lim Biow Chuan has suggested. At the last Car-Free Sunday, we announced that the new Safe Riding Programme will be expanded to riders of personal mobility devices and power-assisted bicycles. And the programme curriculum can be found on the LTA website, with translations in Mandarin, Malay and Tamil to be available soon. 

39.    To ensure compliance with the new rules and code of conduct, LTA has stepped up enforcement against reckless cyclists and personal mobility device users. Since May last year, LTA's team of Active Mobility Enforcement Officers has conducted more than 1,100 operations and issued advisories to more than 1,300 riders for unsafe riding. While the enforcement team is not very large, as Mr Lim has pointed out, they work very hard, and intelligently. Enforcement officers are deployed to hotspots, which are identified using data and importantly from public feedback. In addition, the number of volunteers has increased to more than 700, and they are supporting our enforcement officers well. In addition, the Traffic Police and NParks also step in to help enforce. Going forward, we will be augmenting our enforcement efforts with technology such as CCTVs and body cameras. 

Smarter, Greener and More Inclusive: Intelligent and Sustainable Transport System for All   

40.    Madam Chair, let me conclude. We are investing heavily in upgrading our transport system. But investing in hardware is not sufficient. We depend on those who serve in the transport industry to make our everyday commutes better, and I want to thank them for their hard work and dedication. 

41.    Our future transport system will be one that is smarter, greener and more inclusive. We aim to give every Singaporean a variety of mobility options to meet different needs at different times, and at different stages of their lives. We can count on having more convenient and reliable journeys. We will enjoy cleaner air, and safer shared services and space. I look forward to these improvements which will bring about an intelligent and sustainable transport system for all Singaporeans.