Commentary: Singapore's impending urban mobility revolution

Commentary: Singapore's impending urban mobility revolution

The future of transport will see commuters get more convenient, accessible and comfortable options to get to their destination, says Permanent Secretary for Transport Pang Kin Keong.

Concept of a future town centre in Singapore with autonomous Vehicles in the day. (Source: Ministry of Transport)

SINGAPORE: Disruptive technologies are redefining urban mobility. New options such as on-demand buses, autonomous pods and aerial taxis are set to transform the way we travel in the future. What kind of transport landscape can we look forward to, come 2030?

In our vision, transport options will be need-responsive. Recommended routes and travel modes can be pushed to your smart-phone ahead of time, anticipating your travel through your online calendar and travel pattern. 

Think of it as your virtual transport butler – who will proactively arrange for an autonomous pod to ferry you from your doorstep to the MRT station at your usual time every morning, or for an on-demand bus service to bring you from your office to an external meeting.

You will board and alight without having to tap in and out. You just need your travel card or a smart-phone with a travel app somewhere on your person. You will pay for these transport expenses via a single monthly bill, like how you settle your credit card payments

Since 2016, Nanyang Technological University has put driverless vehicles like this minibus to the test. Such test-bedding and experimentation are helping to accelerate the rate of technology adoption.

How will this pave the way for a car-lite Singapore? To be sure, car-lite does not mean no cars. Rather, it embodies our aspiration to make public, shared and active transport so convenient, accessible and comfortable, that it becomes the choice mode of mobility for our daily commute.

DRIVERS OF CHANGE

To have some idea of what the future of mobility could entail, we looked at key driving forces behind disruption in the transport sector. First, there are rapid advancements in and proliferation of big data, robotics and artificial intelligence. Real-time analysis of big data from diverse sources can yield valuable insights into commuter behaviour and travel patterns for instance, enabling the design of more effective transport policies and better use of resources.

Second, commuter expectations are changing, in part brought about by advances in mobile technology. The demand for just-in-time, demand-responsive transport has grown, in tandem with growth in public expectations for higher service levels.

At the same time, we cannot forget Singapore’s constraints in land and manpower. There is limited scope for further expansion of the road network. What little land we have should be prioritised for other needs like homes, community spaces, parks and employment. Hence the pressing need to encourage greater use of public, shared and active transportation. We are also not finding it easy to recruit drivers, whether for buses or trucks.  

A VISION FOR FUTURE MOBILITY

We can achieve a car-lite Singapore as we deliver a transport system that is defined by high quality public transport, more choices for personalised shared transport and the seamless integration of these services into a single platform that will be able to anticipate and arrange our transport needs.

Trains will remain the backbone of our transport system, offering unparalleled connectivity, as we expand our rail network at an unprecedented pace of about one kilometre every month. By 2030, eight in 10 households will have an MRT station within a 10-minute walk. Our trains will be smarter, equipped with condition monitoring tools and advanced analytics to monitor and predict the health of the rail network, akin to the sophistication we find today in airplanes. This will enable us to fix faults before they occur.

An artist's impression of the platform of the upcoming Keppel MRT station on the Circle Line. (Image: LTA)

Empty public buses during off-peak hours and in more remote locations would become a thing of the past. With real-time capabilities and autonomous technology, they can be deployed according to live commuter demand and routed dynamically based on where commuters are waiting, instead of plying fixed routes and fixed schedules as they do today. 

Journeys on our roads (mostly for public and shared transport, and the occasional private car trip) will be smoother. Leveraging Global Navigation Satellite System technology in our upcoming next-generation ERP system, which will give us aggregated, real-time and comprehensive data on all road traffic in Singapore, we are re-developing our traffic lights management system to make it much more intelligent and capable of better optimising traffic flows. Real-time, targeted traffic updates will be pushed to vehicles’ on-board ERP units, recommending alternative routes that are less congested and which optimise road usage.

With enhanced vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications enabled by this next-generation ERP system, vehicles will be more aware of their surroundings, improving road safety.

MORE CHOICES FOR PERSONALISED SHARED TRANSPORT

Commuters will be able to book autonomous pods to travel in comfort from their doorstep to the MRT station. This will dramatically improve first- and last-mile travel, in particular for vulnerable groups of commuters such as the elderly, families with very young children and people with disabilities.

At the same time, walking and cycling will be a breeze, with a 700 km-long island-wide cycling path network in place and as we continue to expand our covered walkways linking homes and offices to transport nodes.

A dedicated cycling lane on Tanah Merah Coast Road. (Photo: Elizabeth Neo)

Equally exciting, with the rapid advances in unmanned aerial systems (UAS) technology, urban mobility will no longer be about surface transport. You can hop onto a passenger drone, or hail a flying taxi. These aerial vehicles will ply dedicated aerial corridors, with different altitudes designated for different routes.

Drones will also deliver parcels to households and offices quickly and efficiently, while heavier goods will be transported via autonomous truck platoons. Utility vehicles performing functions such as road-sweeping and watering of roadside greenery will also be autonomous, further reducing reliance on labour.

With such a plethora of mobility modes, the paradigm for urban mobility will evolve into procurement of services, away from today’s mindset of owning your own transport assets such as a car. There will be less inclination to do so and be restricted to one mode of transport, when instead, you can choose from a wide range of options which are convenient and ideal for different travel needs.

FORGING AHEAD WITH DEVELOPING AN EXCITING FUTURE FOR MOBILITY

We will work with partners from the public and private sectors, local universities and research institutions to implement our vision for future mobility. In the process, we will develop and transform our industries to take advantage of economic opportunities, elevate the skills and capabilities of our workforce, and create new and better jobs. For instance, bus and truck drivers can be up-skilled to become fleet managers overseeing the deployment of fleets of autonomous vehicles and earn a better wage.

Concept of a future town centre in Singapore with autonomous Vehicles at night. (Source: Ministry of Transport)

Our future towns will feature even more lush, open spaces that can be enjoyed safely by pedestrians, rather than a landscape blighted by roads, car parks and cars. For those who still insist on driving, we will provide roads, but underground, as far as possible.

We look forward to developing this exciting future for mobility in Singapore and improving the quality of life and the living environment for Singaporeans.

Pang Kin Keong is Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Transport and Chairman of the Committee on Autonomous Road Transport for Singapore and the UAS Committee.

Source: CNA/sl