From driving around beautiful circles to driving under monstrous gantries.

17 02 2010

One of the things that I would be reminded of as a child was how difficult it was to get me to sleep. The only thing I was told that seemed to work for me was a late evening drive around the neighbourhood. I suppose this was possible at a time when traffic conditions permitted a cruising around in the car without the many stops and starts that would be a feature of a drive through the same neighbourhood these days. Then, traffic controlled junctions would have been much less of an irritation to drivers as it can be to the drivers of today. In the absence of traffic lights then, many of the busier intersections were built around what was the fashion in the intersections of those days: the roundabout.

Roundabouts would be found across Singapore, with many of the larger ones adorned with beautiful fountains, another feature that was pretty fashionable back then. On the many evening drives that my father was fond of taking when I was maybe little older and having outgrown the need to be driven to my dreams (perhaps developing the habit from the evening drives that seemed a necessary part of the daily routine when I was younger), I would often be kept occupied looking out for these fountains, many of which would have been beautifully lit.

Tanglin Circus, 1966.One of the many roundabouts adorned with fountains

In keeping with the fashion, the new satellite town of Toa Payoh where I had lived in, was conceived as a town without traffic lights. Large roundabouts dominated the two main intersections distributing traffic to and from the Lorongs of Toa Payoh and the exit points which were flyovers that led to Bradell Road and Jalan Toa Payoh. I can’t really remember when the first traffic lights were introduced in Toa Payoh, but driving around the town these days, it would be hard to imagine a time when there were no traffic lights.

Thinking back to what it was like back then, one can’t help but wonder how we have got to where we are in terms of the traffic situation that exists today. Despite the introduction of the many highways (or expressways as they are known here), the widening of many of the arterial roads, measures to curb the number of vehicles and the introduction of congestion charges over the last 40 years or so, being stuck in traffic seems to be as fashionable these days, as roundabouts were back in the 1960s and early 1970s. Just the mention of the Central Expressway (CTE) brings to mind not just the seemingly exorbitant Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) charges, but also the slow crawl throughout much of the day, one that the introduction of the ERP is supposed to alleviate.

So, how did we get to where we are today? When the first motor car arrived in 1896, things were slow and easy. Rickshaws would have been the means by which most got about and distances travelled would probably have been small. It took perhaps a quarter of a century or so before the motor vehicle population started taking off: from a population of 535 cars in 1913, the number of cars tripled five years later. By the time I was being rocked to sleep in the back of my father’s Austin 1100 in the mid 1960s, the population of the island had grown tremendously and the number of vehicles on the roads had increased by some one hundred times. It was thought that the vehicle population would hit one million by 1990 based on a Ministry of National Development (MND) forecast, and with the limited land resources available, and the need to redistribute population centres as well as industries to the outer reaches, plans were put forward in the early 1970s to improve the road system and for the construction of a mass transit system. The plans for the improvement in the road system were the catalyst for the expressway network that we see today.

The vehicle population has grown from 160,000 around the time of independence to close to 1M at the end of 2009.

The construction of new roads have not been able to keep up with the growth in the vehicle population, seeing a 50% increase in the number of vehicles per kilometre of roads since the introduction of the Vehicle Quota System (VQS) in 1990.

By the time the mid 1970s had arrived, demand for cars had driven the vehicle population up by some 75% since independence, despite the price of oil quadrupling almost overnight during the 1973 oil crisis. With increasing congestion on the roads in the city centre, the Area Licensing Scheme (ALS) was introduced in June 1975. The ALS was of course the predecessor to the ERP, or as some would have it: “Every Road Pay”, scheme we see today. Entry into a designated Restricted Zone (RZ), which covered the Central Business District (CBD) was controlled on Mondays to Saturdays between 7.30 am and 9.30 am (being extended to 10.15 am three weeks after implementation). This required drivers of vehicles intending to enter the RZ to purchase a daily license costing $3, or a monthly license costing $60, at a booth outside the RZ. A new buzzword was born out of the scheme, “carpool” – people were encouraged to carpool, with cars carrying a minimum of 4 occupants into the RZ not requiring a license. 34 gantries were initially erected to mark out the entry points into the Restricted Zone and enforcement was carried out by Auxiliary Police officers manning the gantries.

An ALS gantry marking an entry point into the Restricted Zone. 34 of these gantries were initially erected in 1975 and were manned by Auxiliary Police officers.

The Restricted Zone at its inception in 1975, covered the Central Business District (CBD).

The Restricted Zone was extended to include Cuppage Road and Koek Road and also the Marina Centre in the 1980s.

While the ALS was effective in controlling traffic into the city, there was still the issue of the growth in the vehicle population. The population which stood at 280,000 in 1975, had grown to some 490,000 ten years later. Even with the construction of new roads and highways, the vehicle density had grown from 129 vehicles per kilometre of road in 1975 to some 184 vehicles per kilometre in 1985, fuelled by rising affluence and a growing population. In 1990, a Vehicle Quota System (VQS) was introduced, which required new car owners to bid for a Certificate of Entitlement (COE) before being able to buy a car. While the original intention of the VQS was to cap the population growth at 3% per annum, we somehow seemed to have lost our way of late. Based on the latest statistics, a big jump of in the number of vehicles over the last five years can be seen, with 170,000 more vehicles compared to the previous ten year period in which there was an increase of 113,000. The vehicle density now stands at 278 vehicles per kilometre compared to just 188 in 1990.

In 1989, the ALS had been extended to include evening hours between 4.30 to 7.00 pm and by 1995, the Road Pricing Scheme (RPS) had been introduced to include first the East Coast Parkway (ECP), and in 1997 to the CTE and Pan Island Expressway (PIE). In 1998, ERP was introduced and electronic gantries fitted with radio equipment, sensors and cameras, allowing automated deduction of tolls from a cash card slotted into an in-vehicle unit (IU), replacing the previously manned gantries. With this, administration of the system was much easier requiring much less manpower, and time based charges became practical, allowing gantries to sprout up on many arterial roads as well expanding the ERP network, as the 2007 Land Transport Authority map below would show.

Road pricing map today, as seen from a 2007 LTA map. The road pricing net has spread to the outer cordon and even beyond that with the help of ERP (Source: Land Transport Authority, LTA).

Electronic ERP gantries have replaced the manned ALS and RPS gantries thereby allowing time based charges and the ERP network to expand towards many other roads outside of the city.

With the increase in the vehicle population, it seems that there is no wonder that driving isn’t a very enjoyable experience. Much of the crawl seems now to extend towards many of the outer reaches of Singapore. With the ease with which road pricing can now be implemented, it is probably inevitable that ERP would soon take on the meaning that Singaporeans have given it: Every Road Pay.