‘Change’ and Driving In Singapore

Singapore’s transportation system is world-class. It really is. World-class does not mean the best. In fact, no country can claim to have the best transport system because it is impossible to validate this claim. World-class can be defined as ‘of a very high standard of excellence’. What many people do not know is that Singapore’s transport system is highly regarded internationally. For example, our Electronic Road Pricing system is well admired and widely studied by many nations. Yes, the grass is greener on the Singapore side.

The Singapore government is renowned for its foresight and innovation capabilities. To keep pace with the raising population numbers, the government constantly introduces changes to the public transport system and infrastructure to ensure that the roads are always running efficiently. This is not easy. Given Singapore’s limited land space, there is only so much that can be changed.

It is normal for the public to react to any change introduced by the government. This happens everywhere in the world and Singapore is no different. People respond to change either positively or negatively. Here in Singapore, when changes are introduced to the ‘road’, we tend to see more of the negatives. And here are three examples and let’s see what we can learn from them:

Electronic Road Pricing (ERP)

The Singapore government recently announced that it would change the ERP from a gantry system to a pay-as-you-go system. The idea is to charge drivers based on the distance they travel rather than the route they take. Is this a good change? Would the roads be less congested? Would this be a fairer system for drivers? More importantly, would this help the government achieve its vision of a car-lite city? The fact is, nobody knows. In any change initiative, nobody can accurately predict the future. Historical data could offer some insights into what might happen, but nobody is able to paint the future in absolute certainty.

If so, why do we see some negative responses on social media on this proposed change, even though nobody knows for sure how it would affect them? Would this new system actually reduce the ERP charges for many on the road? Would this new system change drivers’ behaviour and travelling patterns, resulting in less congested road? Nobody knows for sure. So why the negative reception to this proposed change?

Interestingly, the current ERP system is the source of disgruntlement for many drivers and often cited as a reason for the high cost of car ownership. So, shouldn’t the idea of changing something that people do not like be met with at least some level of optimism?

Key takeaways from this example:

1 – The natural reaction from most people towards change is often negative, even though they have no idea how they would be affect by it.

2 – All systems are opened to changed, even those that are working well. It takes a lot of courage to change good systems but it is better to initiate change than to be forced to change.

Marina Coast Expressway (MCE)

When the MCE was opened on 29th Dec 2013, it was a field day for the complain kings and queens. People were complaining about how badly the roads are designed and how confusing the road signs were. MCE was even labelled as the Most Costly Expressway when one unlucky citizen posted his unusually high taxi meter charges (S74.20) on Facebook, caused by the congestion. The congestion was so bad that another commuted got off the taxi and walked to his office.

What the government should have done, which it admitted, was to better prepare drivers and commuters by releasing information earlier to the community. Information such as the design of the new lanes and how the exit points are connected would have help. It could also keep the older road operational to give drivers more time to adjust to the changes.

The interesting point is this, as the days pass, the number of complains get lesser. In fact, it wasn’t a gradual decline but a huge dip in the number of complains. This points only to one fact –the MCE is well designed. The problem lies not with the design of the new express way but how it was introduced to the commuters.

Key takeaways from this example:

1 – Introducing change in a gradual manner will reduce the discomfort and uncertainty that usually comes with change initiatives.

2 – Well designed changes seldom received the recognition they deserved. Why? Human beings are extremely adaptable and we adjust to good change instantaneously. Good change makes people feel normal and we are not wired to appreciate ‘normal’.

Certificate of Entitlement (COE)

COE is a quota licensing system that controls the number of vehicles on the road. It is an effective system because it serves its intended purpose well – to reduce the number of vehicles on the road, by keeping the cost of owning a car high. Singapore’s roads are relatively congestion free and this claim is further strengthened when you compare us with other major cities in South East Asia. In short, the COE system works.

The COE system, together with the ERP system, put fewer cars on the road. Just imagine what driving in Singapore would be like without these systems?

Here’s what interesting – if you were to ask 10 drivers in Singapore what are their top 3 wishes on driving in Singapore, 9 of them will probably list these:

  1. “ Fewer cars on the road ”
  2. “ Lower COE ”
  3. “ No ERP ”

Contradictory? Definitely.

Key takeaways from this example:

1 – People like change, so long as they are the one benefitting from it.


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