Can Singapore's public transport keep up with real estate development?

As the pace of larger real estate developments in the city-state has risen, its MRT infrastructure has come under increasing pressure.

January 23, 2018

Singapore’s famously efficient public transportation hit a snag last year when its metro system was embroiled in a series of train incidents.

From frequent disruptive signalling faults to flooding in the tunnels, 2017 proved to be a challenging one for rail operator SMRT.

It calls into question whether Singapore’s aging rail infrastructure is able to cope with the pace of larger real estate developments in the city-state, especially in the wake of a frenzy of collective sales of en-bloc sites in the residential market. According to estimates from the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), the redevelopment of these sites will add another 16,700 units to the market, and pile the pressure on existing road networks.

As such, the URA mandated the submission of a Pre-Application Feasibility Study (PAFS) for en-bloc residential developments in November 2017. The study will assess the traffic impact of the new development on the area and propose car-lite measures, traffic demand management initiatives and feasible transport improvement plans to support the redevelopment proposal.

In reality, however, the need for transport impact assessments has been in place for more than a decade. “Developers have been required by the planning and land transport authorities to conduct transport impact assessment for sites that meet specific conditions such as developments which will yield 700 or more residential units and those seeking a direct vehicular access,” explains Tay Hueyying, Head of Research, JLL Singapore.

“The latest announcement brings forward this requirement to before outline or development applications and provides stakeholders with a realistic view of the development potential of a site on which to base their sale and purchase decisions.”

Ensuring infrastructure capacity

Despite the new developments, Tay observes that Singapore’s sound town planning framework, which is regularly reviewed to take into account changing conditions, should ensure pipeline developments remain at a level that does not overtax the public transport system.

For instance, Singapore government is trying to develop commercial clusters in different nodes on the island outside the Central Business District (CBD) to encourage decentralization of economic activity. These include plans to develop a second business district in Jurong in the western end of Singapore and a new commercial hub at Paya Lebar Central in the east.

“These are steps in the right direction as it allows for more sustainable development. By bringing commercial activities closer to homes outside the city, it would reduce the time traveling into the CBD and reduce congestion on the roads and trains leading to it during peak hours,” says Tay.

More, of course, could be done. For example, the government could provide greater transparency on aspects such as train and bus ridership patterns, roads and parks utilisation rate and patterns, as well as home buying and leasing patterns.

Tay adds: “This could facilitate various stakeholders and/or market players, including potential home buyers and developers, in making informed decisions and help to redistribute demand for real estate. In so doing, over-straining of public infrastructure in any particular locality could be avoided.”

The car-lite model

The authorities are heavily pushing a car-lite future for Singapore’s growing population by allowing bike sharing programmes to flourish and increasing cycling networks. The Land Transport Authority is currently constructing new lines, the Thomson-East Coast Line, Circle Line 6 and North East Line extension to achieve its goal of eight in 10 households living within a 10-minute walk to a train station by 2030.

But public confidence has been shaken by repeated rail failures. “An efficient, reliable and safe public transportation system plays an important role towards encouraging the population to reduce reliance on cars,” points out Tay. “The frequent rail breakdowns and incidents have eroded some confidence the population has on the rail system as a reliable and safe public transportation system and this could regress the nation’s progress towards a car-lite future.”

One way which authorities could prevent overtaxing infrastructure is by ensuring that the city state’s economic plans are made alongside infrastructural plans.

“It is important for Singapore’s future development that the government has a coordinated approach in managing the economy and the supporting infrastructure, including real estate and public transport,” she concludes.