High-tech transit

Talk to most Singaporeans about the city-state's public transport system and you will be left with an impression of more failures than successes. Buses don't show up often enough, and when they do they are too full. Many of their drivers don't speak English, are sometimes rude, drive recklessly and may not know their routes. Trains too are overly crowded and of late have been prone to breakdowns.

Yet, Singapore consistently comes out tops in international surveys of transport systems. One such study, by management and technology consultancy Accenture, listed Singapore as a "stand-out performer in terms of overall performance" alongside London and Amsterdam. The research covered 12 cities of similar land transport standards, the others being Birmingham, Madrid, Oslo, Paris, Sao Paulo, Seoul, Shanghai, Tokyo and Toronto. Singapore, London and Amsterdam were found to have invested in technology and mobility solutions that allowed them to innovate.

Howie Sim, director of infrastructure and transportation at Accenture in Singapore, says the city-state ranks particularly well when it comes to inter-modality, technology and openness of information. While the inter-modality of our transit network (how easy it is to transfer from bus to train or vice versa) may not be as mature as that of some cities such as Tokyo, Sim says it is certainly ahead of most. He also lauds the government's recognition that giving third parties access to transport information and data can result in greater innovation.

So what's behind the disparity between general public perception and independent study? Sim thinks public dissatisfaction isn't so much with how the system works but rather how unpredictable it is. "All commuters want is predictability," Sim says. "Today, the problem that we face is trains breaking down. We are also facing some structural challenges as a result of having more people in our country. To resolve these issues, we can build more infrastructure. But infrastructure takes time to build and the commuter of today can't wait. If, on the other hand, commuters are given real-time information about transport and capacity, it will be a very useful service."

For instance, if a train breaks down, Sim suggests that commuters be notified immediately. They should be given information about affected routes and offered alternatives. Ideally, he says, real-time information on bus arrivals should be made available to commuters along with information about how full a bus is. Today, although commuters here can get quite a lot of information, Sim says information lacks granular detail on capacity and is also segregated by operator and transport mode.

Learning from Seoul

In some ways, Sim sees parallels between Singapore's transit system today and that of Seoul some years ago. Before a major overhaul in 2004, Seoul's subways and buses were having trouble attracting new riders. From 1996 to 2002, the mode share of the subway had increased only slightly from 29.4% to 34.6%, according to a paper by the Seoul Metropolitan Government. This was despite expansion of the subway network. Also, many of the new passengers were previously bus users — which meant the subway system was cannibalising existing transport routes rather than taking share from private transport modes. As a result, the bus operators began to lose revenue. They had to reduce their routes and some companies went bankrupt.

At the same time, Seoul was going through a period of rapid population growth and economic prosperity. Cars became more affordable and were seen as a far more attractive form of transport. The result was serious congestion and pollution. The congested roads slowed the buses down further and made them less dependable.

In his bid to make Seoul a greener city and get more cars off the road, Seoul's then mayor Lee Myung Bak — the current outgoing president of South Korea — set about overhauling the city's transport system. Building more metro systems is expensive and would take a long time but buses were a low-cost option and changes could be implemented quickly. The Seoul Metropolitan Government rationalised some routes, expanded others, added bus-only lanes and synchronised bus schedules with the subway. Bus routes and stops were relocated to facilitate short and easy transfers between the bus and subway.

Buses were also equipped with global positioning satellite systems to enable tracking and dynamic rerouting. And a bus-management centre was set up to monitor bus locations and speeds to allow it to adjust the number of buses assigned to any given route, communicate with bus drivers and provide real-time information to passengers.

While the initial result was chaos and a public revolt, dedicated troubleshooting led to significant improvements. The result was that bus ridership, which had been on a decline, began rising. And today, Sim says, Seoul has one of the world's best bus systems. "Seoul city's bus network is probably one of the most highly referred to by other operators or authorities in terms of how to run a bus network properly. It's fairly sophisticated."

Better bus integration

Sim says Seoul is a good parallel for Singapore because we now face challenges similar to those the former faced in the earlier part of this century: higher private vehicle ownership, road congestion and the need for a better bus service to complement an ageing and inadequate railway network that can't be expanded fast enough to meet the needs of a much larger population. "We are heading in that direction as well: looking at more buses."

Some of the elements of Seoul's system are already present in our transport system: stored-value fare cards provided by EZ-Link and NETS, online availability of bus arrival timings, and central route planning by the Land Transport Authority (LTA). Also, the individual bus operators SMRT Corp and SBS Transit already have the ability to communicate with their bus drivers and try to manage bus bunching based on real-time information.

However, Sim says the system could be significantly improved if there was a central body to collate information from all the parties involved in the transport network. For one thing, feeding real-time information on bus locations to a central system would result in better bus arrival predictions. "The bus arrival time prediction is based on an algorithm that takes into account speed, location, traffic and weather. If you are not centrally managing it, the interpretation can be different," he says.

And although there are third-party smartphone applications that have done a good job of collating information on bus arrival timings, Sim thinks that a better picture could be presented to commuters if there was a central body with access aggregating both arrival timings as well as other kinds of information. "You have a structural segregation of information," he says, noting that SBS and SMRT manage their information separately while ticketing data from fare cards resides with EZ-Link. "How can that information be holistic to you as a commuter?"

A central authority with access to bus arrival and usage information could also do more to monitor bus routes and improve efficiency. In Seoul, this central bus authority works to prevent the bunching of buses instead of relying on private operators. The central authority can also plan bus services that connect more efficiently with each other in terms of routes and timings, Sim says. "If I can't connect smoothly [from a bus to a train and back to a bus again], then I can't predict my journey time. It means I have no control of my journey. This is something we need to get better at."

Ongoing reform

Setting up a central body to collate, interpret and distribute transport information might place a heavier burden on the LTA. But Sim thinks it also represents an opportunity for the LTA to redefine itself. "The current president of South Korea made a name for himself reforming Seoul's bus system as well as transforming the city from a very industrial one into a green city," he says. So, while the LTA doesn't have profit as a motivator, Sim thinks that being able to stand out as a transport reformer should be motivation enough.

He is already encouraged by the LTA's commitment to reform. "It is increasingly looking into that, paying attention. It is already taking back central bus planning. The transport minister has said that it would be nice to provide more accurate timing information. I'm sure someone is already looking into that. And I'm sure it won't be long before they get the operators to collaborate and make bus information more commuter-centric."

Sim, who has an MBA in finance from the California State University in Sacramento, has more than 15 years of experience doing consultancy work in management, IT and business process outsourcing. Some 11 of those years were spent providing consultancy to the Singapore public sector. He joined Accenture in 1994 and has been part of the company's 200-strong infrastructure and transportation team in the Asia Pacific region for the last five years.

Of the various cities that Sim has travelled to and the public transport systems he has used, his favourite is Tokyo. "I was working in Tokyo for three months and I had to rely on public transport. And rain or shine, it's not a problem to use public transport to get from where I lived to work, or from work to the client's place," he says. That kind of integration is something he thinks the Singapore system should strive for, and it will be easier with better aggregation and use of information.

This story first appeared in The Edge Singapore weekly edition of Jan 28-Feb 3, 2013.

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