Governance of a City-State
Shifting travel demand

Recently, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) announced the extension of the Free Pre-Peak Travel scheme by another year to 30 June 2016. The Free Pre-Peak Travel scheme is part of the Travel Smart programme targeted at commuters and organisations with the objective of shifting travel demand away from peak periods. The introduction of off-peak monthly passes next month aims to further encourage travel outside the morning and evening peaks.

According to LTA’s 2014 figures, 2.6 million trips are made by MRT and 3.6 million trips by bus every day. There has been a year-on-year increase in average daily MRT ridership since 2002 and bus ridership since 2005. The trend is expected to persist as the population grows and more people switch from private modes of transport to buses and trains.

The LTA and public transport operators (PTOs) have been addressing the supply factor by purchasing new trains and improving the signalling systems, as well as rolling out the Bus Service Enhancement Programme (BSEP). However, efforts to increase capacity should not be the sole solution, since high costs are incurred to acquire additional vehicles, manpower and infrastructure. With more MRT stations and bus routes added to the network, we should also factor in induced demand, as people who might not have had a good public transport connection previously benefit from the new options.

The issue then turns to how we can achieve resource optimisation by better utilising existing capacity, especially during off-peak periods. During the morning and evening peak, journeys are often affected by the increased dwell time at stations and bus stops with a high volume of passengers boarding and alighting. By moving part of the crowd away from these hours, these knock-on effects are reduced and a smoother commute is possible.

Demand management measures and how they work

Launched in June 2013 as a trial, the Free Pre-Peak Travel scheme rewards commuters who change their travel patterns by offering free travel for journeys ending at 16 designated MRT stations in the city centre before 7.45am. Those who miss the cut-off time by 15 minutes are entitled to 50 cents off their fares. The Free Pre-Peak Travel scheme was funded by the Government at a cost of $10 million. It was extended by another year in 2014, with Downtown and Telok Ayer stations added following the partial opening of the Downtown Line, and again in May 2015.

This builds on a two-year pilot project, Travel Smart, which was initiated in July 2012. In the pilot, the LTA worked with 12 organisations to implement flexi-work arrangements so that employees could stagger their working hours. The success of the pilot led to the Travel Smart Network being launched in July 2014. The LTA now funds three main initiatives – Corporate-Tier Travel Smart Rewards, Travel Smart Consultancy Vouchers, and the Travel Smart Grant – to subsidise the cost of adopting flexi-travel arrangements.

Commuters also qualify for incentives for travelling earlier with the Incentives for Singapore’s Commuters (INSINC) scheme launched in January 2012. Additional reward points are awarded for travel on the MRT/LRT system between 6.15 to 7.15am and from 8.45 to 9.45am.

The off-peak monthly pass will be available for use from 5 July. It costs $80 for adults (compared to $120 for the normal monthly pass) and can be used for journeys commencing outside the hours of 6.30 to 9am and 5 to 7.30pm on weekdays.

Evaluating the measures

The results have been encouraging thus far, with a reported 7 to 8% decrease in the number of commuters during the morning peak since 2013. Besides, figures collated by the LTA indicate that the ratio of morning peak to pre-peak travel (8 to 9am versus the hour preceding it) for the 18 stations has fallen from 2.7 to 2.1. Over 50 organisations with a total of more than 120,000 employees have also joined the Travel Smart Network.

Such measures do not come cheap though. On top of the financial contributions to operators to make up for the loss in fare revenue, funding for the corporate Travel Smart Grant costs the Government up to $160,000 annually over three years per organisation, and up to $30,000 worth of Travel Smart Consultancy vouchers are handed out.

Compared with other major cities, Singapore is subsidising pre-peak travel to a larger extent. Commuters in Hong Kong enjoy a 25% discount in their fares when they exit any of the 29 designated core stations between 7.15 and 8.15am. In London, no outright discount is offered — rather, fares for the Underground are classified as peak and off-peak.

On the ground, the public might not perceive a notable improvement in comfort with the marginal reduction in passenger loading as a result of the shift. Even so, sometimes it can mean one less train to wait for in order to be able to board at crowded interchanges. It is important to bear in mind that behavioural change often takes time from the contemplation stage to action, especially for the starting phase of the programme. Hopefully, the results will translate into a marked difference given more time.

Perhaps the catchment of morning peak commuters can be widened. Currently, journeys to other regional centres designated as part of the decentralisation strategy in the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s (URA) Concept Plan are excluded from the Free Pre-Peak Travel scheme. The areas include Jurong Lake District, One-North, Woodlands and Tampines, which would account for a noteworthy proportion of the workforce. However, there could be implications in terms of fare revenues for the PTOs.

Moving on to the soon-to-be-introduced off-peak pass, I anticipate a lukewarm response for the initial months. People may be reluctant to commit to a monthly outlay, which largely restricts their travel options unless they possess a high degree of certainty over their travel plans. The target audience for monthly passes are commuters who make multiple trips per day on a regular basis. Hence, we are looking at a select group of people who fulfil both conditions of frequent travel and the flexibility to utilise off-peak hours.

Travel demand for work commutes is often inelastic, meaning that a big change in price is needed to influence the quantity (of the good) consumed. On the other hand, travel for leisure purposes is more sensitive to changes in price.

Furthermore, there is a partial overlap with the Free Pre-Peak Travel scheme for commuters who are able to benefit from it, diluting the appeal of the monthly off-peak pass for this group.

Concluding remarks

Demand management strategies will have an increasingly important role in the search for an optimal balance between the expansion of our public transport network and the rising ridership figures. Considering our space and operational constraints, such strategies may be a viable alternative to fleet expansion beyond a critical point. By achieving a more efficient utilisation of resources, the outcome would be a more even passenger load factor, which in turn translates to improved travel comfort and service reliability (with regard to schedules). This is essential as we strive to improve the modal share of public transport and move towards a car-lite society.

Leonard Chew has recently completed his Masters in Transport and City Planning at the University College London with a dissertation about car-sharing.

Photo from author

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