The road is a big part of Orchard’s appeal, given its prime location. Not surprisingly, much attention has been given to street improvements, the latest being a proposal to fully pedestrianise the shopping belt.
That idea has several selling points. It allows people to reclaim physical and emotional space and to savour the ambience, without fearing the insistent rush of cars, motorcycles and buses. There are local ecological benefits as well in freeing crowded city areas from the competing needs of motor vehicles.
More spaces for walking and compatible forms of urban mobility would enhance the overall liveability of the city.
However, a key question is whether expanding the remit of car-lite Singapore would help to rejuvenate the shopping district.
Mobility plays a part in attracting shoppers, of course. Those who are active and tourists might prefer to walk, while others might want comfort and convenience. Thus, Orchard Road will have to cater to different travel needs in order to keep drawing the crowds.
Connectivity is another consideration. Links between buildings and across the road need to be enhanced to create a smooth, navigable flow. People still complain about a confusing maze of paths and obstacles that can make movement arduous.
If the private sector is unable to make significant improvements to overall connectivity, the authorities might have to lead the effort and find equitable means of funding the infrastructure.
As much as Orchard Road is synonymous with top-drawer shopping, it is also an important component of the road network in the central area. Hence, any moves to reduce or close lanes have to take account of how traffic might be diverted so spillovers on nearby roads do not lead to congestion there.
Periodic road closures, as seen in the Car-Free Sunday initiative for the Central Business District and Civic District areas, are less of a problem. However, a permanently pedestrianised Orchard Road would demand a higher order of traffic planning and execution.
Looking beyond the street, one must also recognise that a reinvented Orchard Road would need much more than the reduction or absence of motor vehicles to revive its former shopping glory. Access matters but there are streets elsewhere that keep drawing crowds despite cluttered pavements, minimal shopfronts and chaotic scenes.
That’s because the heady mix of wares and services offered is enticing. Orchard Road’s challenge is to create a buzz of its own in its gleaming surroundings. Its iconic brands – global and home-grown – and its tailored shopping experiences must stand out from what is found in other places.
Essentially, it’s all about fulfilling the desires of today’s shoppers with tangible offerings that are tempting enough to make people stop in their tracks. Street life and commerce will both thrive when consumers outnumber strollers.
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