If you go to Melbourne, there is a "circle tram" that goes round the perimeter of the heart of the city. Rides on the tram is free[Link]. If you were a tourist, you save a few Aussie dollars out of the thousands you spent there but you leave the city with such a great memory of going to so many places taking free rides on this circle tram, you go home and tell your friends what a great city Melbourne is. This free public transport service adds to the charm of this city which is voted the most livable city in the world and it does the equivalent of millions of dollars spent on advertising to promote tourism. Giving something free can result in plenty of indirect payback for a country or city. However, to do this, you have to break this principle of no freebies, no "cross subsidy" and think of system and nation level benefits.
The PAP govt has always had a problem with giving out something for free because they imagine that people will abuse it so it is refreshing to hear one of the PAP MPs suggesting:
"On Tuesday, MP for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC Dr Janil Puthucheary suggested free travel on public transport before peak hours to ease peak-hour congestion and change commuter travel patterns." - [Link]
A few days ago MP Puthucheary suggested making public transport free just before peok hours to reduce rush hour load on our trains.
Today's public transport problems cannot be fixed quickly by spending of billions of dollars on transport infrastructure because it will take years to build the new infrastructure. The PAP is opposed to freezing the number of foreigners here so the pressure on our current infrastructure will keep rising. If nothing is done, there quality of service will remain right about where it is or gets worse while we wait for new infrastructure to become operational. Last year Minister Liu requested for a billion to be spent to help bus operators because they won't improve unless this money is there. Minister Liu hinted last year that fares would have to increase for operators to improve their service. This is an unpopular move among Singaporeans who are struggling with rising cost of living and several MPs have suggested that fares should be increased only after the quality of service has been improved.
What we need is to get out of all these constrained arguments and look for breakout ideas. Making public transport free for the period before peak and after evening peak hour is an example of breakout idea that should be examined more closely. The govt is ready to spend billions on new infrastructure and this idea looks a lot cheaper to implement and will yield faster results. The scheme can be ended once new infrastructure become active. We should change our mindset and look at overall savings and benefits instead of money spent giving something away for free. By shifting a a significant number of commuters that contribute to the rush hour crowd, our transport infrastructure has to cater to a small peak for rush hour. The idea may result in overall cost savings....and better overall allocation of resources to meet the needs of the people - those who need to save money get up earlier and those who want to save time pay for it. We should view these free rides as incentive given to people who help to reduce strain on our infrastructure ..and the need to keep adding infrastructure.
A far more radical idea I have in mind for sometime is to use the full amount collected in COE to fund public transport infrastructure and fares. When the COE scheme was started, the PAP govt told us that was not intended to be a revenue raising scheme i.e. we should not expect COE revenue to cover any part of govt expenditure....if necessary, the govt should fund any increase in expenditure by raise taxes preferably progressive taxes on high income earners and corporations. If you think about it, COE goes up when people find public transport inadequate ...creating an aspiration for car ownership. There are places in the world like Geneva and Munich where the public transport is so good, it makes little sense to use your car for most purposes - hence it is often said that a true 1st world country is one where even the rich happily take the public transport with everyone else in the society. We are not there yet and we are not on the path to get there. High COE prices represent a hindrance in the path to the middle class only because we view public transport as "peasant transport" due to the poor quality of service. We find the solution by using high COE prices to reverse the situation and make public transport more desirable reducing the demand for cars bring about a virtuous cycle of net happiness for our society ...instead of the vicious cycle of overcrowded strained public transport and never-ending rise in COE prices.
Another idea I have in mind is to emulate the mini-bus system in Hong Kong. These small buses that complements to the govt operated buses and trains to provide a convenient alternative for commuters. Everyone has a seat on the mini-bus that can stop for a passenger to get down at any point along a route not just at the bus-stops. The govt can help make such a complementary mini-bus system viable by giving tax incentives, take out requirements for COE but control them with licenses as they help to relieve the present bottlenecks in the system. Such buses deployed along the most heavy routes for public transport can quickly relieve our existing problems.
Whether we re-nationalize the public transport, pump in money or try some other ideas, something has to be done to break out of the current vicious cycle of over crowded public transport feeding the demand for cars causing a rise in the COE. In the end nobody's happy due to unmet needs and the high cost of cars. Recent moves to limit financing for cars can force down the price of cars but it also forces many who were willing to over-leverage just to avoid taking public transport back onto crowded trains and buses they really do not like...it forces people to be prudent but in the end creates no "net happiness"...because their needs are not met.