In 2003, Seoul’s then mayor Lee Myung Bak went on a “car-lite” strategy to rejuvenate the capital.
He proposed the removal of a major elevated highway in the city to restore a river beneath it – a highly unpopular move back then, but one which turned out to be a brilliant project that is cited by planners worldwide.
The Cheonggyecheon River today flows with crystal clear water teeming with aquatic life, and its banks are a bustling thoroughfare for pedestrians as well as a popular oasis for residents and tourists.
Mr Lee also overhauled the confusing public bus system, transforming it to become one of the best in the world.
But a lesser known decision he took was to crimp parking. Leading by example, he slashed City Hall parking by 90 per cent.
Parking spaces went from 400 to just 50. Now, this must have meant a great inconvenience to many government officials and civil servants. But he did it anyway, to put his money where his mouth was.
Will Singapore have the political will to do something similar?
At the recent committee of supply debate, both National Development Minister Lawrence Wong and Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan hinted that Singapore’s parking policies were too generous and would have to be tweaked.
For instance, parking charges here were lower than in many developed cities. Taking 2011 rates as an illustration, the season parking in Tokyo and Hong Kong was around $920 per month. For London, it was nearly $1340. But in Singapore, the average price of parking in the Central Business District was $278.20.
Those of us who have driven in cities like Melbourne, New York, Paris and Frankfurt will attest to this. Parking charges are far higher in those places than in Singapore.
In fact, as a proportion of car cost, London’s season parking per year is almost equivalent to half the price of a new Toyota Corolla, which is why only the very wealthy have season parking in the city’s financial district.
In Singapore, annual parking in the CBD worked out to be only 3 percent the cost of a Corolla (2011 comparison).
Therein lies one difficulty in pursuing parking as a driving deterrent here. Parking charges in the CBD would have to be raised 14 times higher to $3955 per month to match London’s parking-to-car cost ratio.
Not only that, Singapore already has multiple anti-car measures – namely high taxes, statutory vehicle lifespan, quota system, congestion pricing, fuel tariffs. The other cities which adopt a stricter parking regime do not apply these other deterrents as extensively nor half as harshly.
Ironically, the high upfront cost of cars here also makes usage charges less effective than elsewhere. As illustrated above, parking charges may have to be prohibitively high if we were to adopt London’s example.
The other way would be to make parking scarce. In the past, Singapore mandated developers to have a minimum parking provision. That was a pro-business decision, so the city was not slowed down – as it were – by indiscriminate and illegal street parking. Or by motorists circling to look for parking, thereby contributing to congestion.
Transport researcher Paul Barter, who has done extensive studies on parking, points out that cities like London and Berlin have abolished minimum parking requirements.
Dr Barter says having sufficient parking encourages people to drive. He is right, of course.
Singapore is starting to ease up on this requirement. In fact, the Urban Redevelopment Authority is considering future zero-parking developments in the new downtown.
But we have a long way to go.
The Land Transport Authority, whose headquarters in Hampshire Road is served by two MRT lines and several bus services, has at-grade parking as well as additional spaces in a four-storey carpark.
It recently converted one floor of the multi-storey carpark into office space, but this was more a response to its fast-expanding staff size than a desire to rethink its parking policy.
Elsewhere, developers of the newly-completed National Gallery provided two levels of its basement to carpark lots, even though the place is accessible by MRT. In fact, there are plans to pedestrianise the part of the civic district near where the historic building stands.
Not only that, there is already ample sheltered parking in nearby places such Suntec City, the Old Parliament House and Funan Centre.
Yet, it will not be easy for Singapore to go “parking-lite” like the Western cities. At least, not without reviewing all the other measures we have in place that deter motoring.
In fact, we will have to tread carefully, lest we end up with parking charges climbing 14 times higher, which would be an extremely bitter pill for consumers to swallow, and which will impact Singapore’s business competitiveness in no small way.
Much promise lies with the upcoming satellite-based ERP 2.0, which would be able to charge motorists for the distance they clock. If applied well, it should allow Singapore to strike a proper equilibrium between the cost of acquiring a car and the cost of using it. (Right now, the cost is heavily skewed towards acquisition.)
For instance, we could have a mileage-based COE, rather than one that lasts 10 years. Assuming the lifespan of a COE is limited to 100,000km (about 40 percent lower than the current average), motorists will automatically drive far more judiciously than they do now.
Michael Manville, assistant professor of city and regional planning at Cornell University, says: “In principle, the best way to reduce driving is by charging people directly to drive, and to vary the price with demand.”
That is what the ERP system has been doing since 1998, and what ERP 2.0 – which is slated to be up by 2020 – will continue doing, but in a more refined manner.
If that is so, we may not even have to tweak our parking policy much.
Nevertheless, we would still do well to take stock of our urban form if we want Singapore to remain high on the liveability ranking. There are of course, numerous ingredients in the ever so varied recipe for liveability, but having more roads is usually not one of them, especially if the roads are occupied by old-tech vehicles powered by combustion engines.
Several cities have, in fact, torn or pared down highways, to great effect. In the same vein as Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon project, we see others like San Francisco’s Embarcadero, Portland’s Harbor Drive, Madrid’s M30 and Seattle’s Alaskan Way.
Will Singapore be bold enough to scrap the North-South Expressway project (which has been renamed North-South Corridor)?
Will we dare to reopen the Orchard Road canal and convert it into an ABC (active, beautiful, clean) waterway? Will we put trams on Marina Bay’s broad boulevards?
Will there be a champion like Lee Myung Bak?
Incidentally, Mr Lee went on to become South Korea’s tenth president in 2008. Of course he did not win the office because of his urban renewal and transport projects.
Rather, it was because he had the tenacity, vision and purpose – qualities that made it possible for him to pull off an audacious project like Cheonggyecheon – that made him a winning candidate.