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Beyond Expanding The Road Network

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Road traffic congestion is arguably the number one complaint among motorists and commuters everywhere. Building more roads and expanding expressways seems to be a quick fix for many urban environments, but this needs to be complemented by other measures to create a more effective system overall.

Traffic congestion is the unfortunate consequence of a growing economy. It is estimated that 68% of the world’s population will be living in urban areas by 2050. With rapid population growth, cities like Singapore need to find ways to deal with the issue of traffic jams and clogged roads to help keep the economy running smoothly and efficiently.

The simple solution, it seems, is to build more roads and expressways to tackle the problem head-on. But that’s far too easy to be realistic. Traffic congestion is too complicated and difficult a problem to address with only one solution. The classic Downs’ law of peak-hour traffic congestion states that “on urban commuter expressways, peak-hour traffic congestion rises to meet maximum capacity”. Even though this was published back in 1962, it still holds true today. It seems that the more roads you build, the more cars there will be to fill them up!

So why do cities still build expressways? There’s no denying the immediate attraction of an expressway. As the name suggests, it’s an express route for road users to travel quickly to their destinations. The expressway has the ability to connect large communities like industrial estates and residential districts across a city, and this infrastructural marvel has made expansion possible for major cities across the globe.

The success of the expressway and road planning was evident in the early days. Cities like Melbourne enjoyed success in easing congestion when it built freeways in the early 1990s.  During the 80s and 90s, Singapore added on more expressways and roads while improving existing ones in anticipation of an increase in its population. The idea was to move people away from the overcrowded city centre to satellite towns situated further away to ease traffic congestion.

Expressways have controlled access, where a vehicle can enter and exit it through limited access points, and no other road merges or crosses the expressway at any time. This gives motorists a quick and straightforward commute from one urban area to another in the shortest possible time. Unlike a highway, an expressway has no traffic lights, no immediate crossing junctions, and no interconnecting lanes.

In the construction of the PIE here, road planners added flyovers to do away with the need for traffic light junctions. They also added grade-separated interchanges, which are in essence underpass and overpass separators, to improve traffic flow into and out of the PIE. To support the PIE and other expressways that were built, existing arterial roads were widened and improved to increase their capacity.

However, as good a first step as it was to expand roads and build expressways, Singapore and other major cities like Milan and London understood the need to supplement this with other measures to be effective against congestion. By taking advantage of technology and introducing measures such as the tweaking of import duties and taxes, and implementing the Certificate of Entitlement (COE) and Road Pricing System, Singapore has arguably managed to find a balanced road system to fight congestion.

The COE is perhaps the first major hurdle to vehicular ownership local drivers will have to cross. The COE places an additional cost barrier on car ownership with its prevailing mechanics of obtaining one. Car owners or dealers will bid for it during exercises that take place twice a month. The number of COEs that could be bidded for each round is linked with the Vehicular Quota System (VQS) which caps the number of new vehicles that could be registered. As one may logically deduce, the prices for each COE category will only go higher under the bidding system.

The higher monetary costs of car ownership with the VQS does put a considerable amount of constraints on the number of vehicles on local roads and thus, have the arguable effect of alleviating road congestion. The Government has announced in May 2023 that there is a planned increase of COE quotas as LTA will be bringing forward and re-distributing guaranteed deregistrations of five-year non-extendable COEs which are due to expire over the next few quarters. This is expected to positively impact both COE

Categories A (a 24% increase in quota) and B (a 15% increase in quota) and is expected to ease volatile supply.

Even with the projected increase, the Ministry of Transport (MOT) also revealed that the COE system remains an integral policy and will continue to play a part in realising Singapore’s vision of a car-lite society as well as achieving zero-net emissions by 2050.

It will be tough to miss the Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) gantries that are scattered across some of the island’s busiest roads. Together with COE, the ERP is the other monetary pillar that places pressure on local drivers’ wallets to make them think twice about driving through certain roads toward peak hours.

Replacing the previous Area Licensing System in 1998, the ERP system boasts a more flexible charging system based on prevailing road conditions. It also uses the Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology as a means to collect the road usage fee electronically from any vehicle passing under the gantry during its operating hours.

The rates charged are based on speeds detected on the roads covered by the ERP. ERP rates are determined based on traffic conditions. The Ministry of Transport (MOT) defines the optimal traffic speed range of 45 – 65 km/h for expressways and 20 – 30 km/h for smaller roads.

As one might guess, if the speeds of the roads concerned should rise above 65 km/h on expressways and 30 km/h on roads, the ERP charges will be consequently reduced. Conversely, ERP rates will be increased if traffic moves slower than 45 km/h on expressways and 20 km/h on roads, inferring that a slower traffic speed implies the presence of a congestion.

Plans are already in place to roll out the next version of the ERP. Tentatively named ERP2, the MOT announced through their website that the new system is set to provide even more flexibility in managing traffic congestion. It will achieve this by going for distance-based road pricing, where motorists are charged according to the distance travelled on congested roads which is seen to be a more equitable form of payment as the same rates are being currently levied on all road users regardless of the amount of distance travelled.

The efforts taken by the Government over the years has led to Singapore being ranked 127th in TomTom’s2022 Traffic Index ranking of 390 cities, with an average of 56 hours lost on the roads during the year due to congestion. This compares favourably to 2015, when Singapore was ranked 45th most congested city in the world.

The fight against traffic congestion is neverending for cities, and it is up to their respective governments to find a good balance of well-planned road infrastructure together with flexible measures custom-fit to their city’s needs. A good road network is essential for the continued growth and development of any urban area, especially in land-scarce places like Singapore.

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