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Lessons in traffic management from a small island

Sep 04, 2011 Management, Sunday Nation

I was fortunate enough to sit atop the Singapore Flyer recently – the world’s biggest observation wheel. At its apex, the Flyer is as high as a 42-storey building, and offers unparalleled views of the famous Singapore skyline, its busy port – even of neighbouring Indonesia, across the water.

Being a Peculiar Kenyan, however, I chose to look at…the traffic.

It was 7.00 pm on a Friday, the busiest rush hour in any city. And as I watched long lines of headlights, I could see Singapore has plenty of traffic. It packs, after all, five million people into a small island. But here’s the thing: that traffic kept moving. There were no logjams, no gridlocks, no unmoving lines anywhere. From my privileged perch, I wondered: how can this be? Singapore has a huge population density, one of the highest per capita incomes in the world – but no traffic jams?

A few days later I had worked out why. And perhaps I can share the insights into traffic management with my fellow Nairobians who have probably forgotten what smooth-flowing traffic looks like.

The first thing is something Singapore is famous for: rules. People behave on Singapore’s roads. If they don’t, they face punitive fines. Just tossing litter out of your car can lead to a fine of 1,000 Singapore dollars (nearly Shs 80,000). Repeat offences are punished with compulsory, humiliating road-cleaning community service, and even imprisonment. So the traffic moves because people don’t jump red lights, mount pavements, overlap, or do any of the idiotic things Kenyan drivers regard as routine.

The second reason is this: Singapore limits car ownership. I was astonished to see adverts for small Suzuki compact cars for the equivalent of Shs 7 million – believe it or not! This is because Singapore has something called a Certificate of Entitlement (CoE) – a document that allows you to own a car for 10 years, but which will cost you between Shs 2 and 4 million. This is a deliberate recognition that a small island cannot allow unfettered car ownership.

Most people cannot therefore afford their own car. But this is not a problem, because Singapore also provides world-beating public transport: modern buses, mass-transit trains, trams, reasonably priced (and regulated) taxis – even cable cars! The majority of the people use these fast, efficient and cheap means every day. And those CoEs pay much of the bill.

A third reason: Singapore is one of the pioneers of road pricing. In 1992, I was a consultant in London helping London Transport devise a road pricing scheme – and we were studying Singapore’s very advanced electronic system as an exemplar even then. Today, gadgets installed in every vehicle automatically log your entry onto priced roads and calculate your bill. Intelligent use of peak/off-peak tariffs further aids traffic management.

That’s it. Singapore’s leaders clearly understand many things. They understand the economic concept of externalities – that private road usage imposes costs on society in the form of congestion and pollution, and that the user must pay most of that true cost. They understand that investing in proper public transport is much more efficient than allowing unregulated private chaos fueled by cheap, ramshackle cars. And they understand that roads must have strict rules attached, and that enforcement of those rules must be ruthless and done without exception.

So there you are. If we are serious about fixing our traffic problem, we have to go beyond just building more roads. Only a proper car pricing and road pricing scheme will work, done in tandem with a new mass-transit public transport system and very strict behaviour enforcement.

But who is going to do that for us, Kenyans? Sit in your 24/7 jam and think about it.

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