From February 2018, motorists have had to contend with zero growth allowance in the vehicle quota system. The move to lower the allowable annual growth rate from 0.25% currently to 0% reversed what former Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew had previously pronounced.
Mr Lui had indicated that a small and controlled growth was necessary to meet the car-owning aspirations of Singaporeans. Well, that was before the “car-lite” slogan became a mantra among policymakers.
What does zero growth mean? At first glance, it does not look like much. After all, the current growth rate is already 0.25% (down from as high as 3% during the first half of the 27-year-old vehicle quota system). But it is a big deal. And not just from the ideological perspective which Mr Lui shared.
Zero growth will in fact shrink the car population further. Even at 0.25%, the car population has been contracting. From the peak of 607,292 cars in 2013, the population has fallen by 10.4% to 543,991 (as at September 2017) – the lowest since 2008.
Why the shrinkage? Simply because there is a three-month lag between the time a car is deregistered and its COE is recycled back into the system.
In the past, the growth rates were large enough to mask this lag. But at 0.25%, it is no longer able to do this. The clawback of some 17,600 oversupplied COEs five years ago contributed to the shrinkage, but it does not account for the population contraction of 63,301 cars.
Zero growth will accelerate car “depopulation” – a term Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan used in Parliament in March this year.
How big will the impact be? Let’s look at Department of Statistics and Land Transport Authority figures for an answer.
When Singapore’s car population was at its peak in 2013, 42.1% of households had a car. That meant 494,465 out of 1,174,500 households. The latest car ownership figure won’t be available until next year. But it is quite clear that with the car population having already fallen to its lowest since 2008, fewer households have a car today.
How many households have had to give up their wheels?
We can look to 2008 statistics for the answer. In 2008, 38.3% of households – or 418,657 out of 1,093,100 – had a car. In other words, 75,808 fewer than in 2013. Based on 2013 figures, that translates to 15% of car-owning households giving up their car – voluntarily or otherwise – in recent years.
With zero growth, it would not be a stretch to say more than 100,000 families who had a car in 2013 will no longer have one by 2023. And if one household had four people, we are talking about over 400,000 people losing access to private transport.
That will no doubt fuel the Government’s ambition to have more people take public transport
At a conservative 2.5 trips per person, the 400,000 “car-less” people will contribute to more than one million additional trips on buses and trains per day.
But what will it mean for those with car-owning aspirations? Alas, they will have to come to terms with the fact that no more than 30% of households will have a car in the near future. With Singapore’s resident population continuing to grow, the near-term figure could be nearer 25%, and in the long-term, 20%.
So, those who want to own a car by, say, 2030, will have to be the top 20% earners. That will be the new reality, if policymakers continue their “car-lite” push.
The Government, of course, says this is necessary, given that land is scarce in Singapore, and roads already take up 12% of surface space today. Without a doubt, Singapore cannot be a city for cars.
But can it be viable with such a strong anti-car policy? Will this policy lead to a brain drain as young and upwardly mobile people look elsewhere to set up a family? Will foreign investors be put off by, say, $200,000 for a COE (an almost certainty if only a small fraction of the population can own cars)?
The Government is of the view that people need not own a car to have access to a car. It seems to think the explosive growth in private-hire car services, and the looming emergence of autonomous cars, will see to this.
When Mr Khaw used the “depopulation” term in March, he indicated as much. “There will be less need to own cars,” he proclaimed. “It is about a lifestyle change, a mindset shift, and improving the quality of life for all.”
He also said: “New technology, disruptive business models and commuters’ demand for higher levels of service are transforming the way we move about. History is truly in the making. Where these will lead us, we cannot be sure. But it sure is exciting!”
Clearly, change is upon us. But whether it will be “exciting” or “terrifying” remains to be seen.