In 2020 Singapore will launch a new satellite-based road pricing system. The change is needed to keep its 5.6 million people moving in a land area of just 720 square kilometres. Kian-Keong Chin, chief engineer of the Singapore Land Transport Authority, told delegates at the Infrastructure NZ Building Nations Symposium how the system has evolved and the key considerations behind each step of the way.
When Singapore gained independence in 1965, it had a resident population of around 1.8 million people and some 160,000 vehicles on its roads. Fast forward to today, and the population has trebled to 5.6 million while the number of vehicles has multiplied six times to around 957,000.
In a land area of just 720 square kilometres – and a current population density of 7800 people per square kilometre – the rate of growth for the number of vehicles is unsustainable. Something has got to give.
That was a central message from Kian-Keong Chin, chief engineer of the Singapore Land Transport Authority.
Kian-Keong stepped delegates at the Infrastructure NZ Building Nations Symposium through the country’s transition from its initial paper-based transport charging system in 1975, to its first electronic road pricing scheme introduced in 1998.
Now, he says, the country is working towards rolling out a new satellite-based electronic road pricing system. Migration towards the new scheme could start as early as the end of next year. The launch is scheduled for 2020.
Kian-Keong recalls studying economics at school. It was, he says, all about demand and supply. “For the past 25 years or so in my working career at the Land Transport Authority of Singapore I found I was also dabbling with demand and supply,” he says. “It’s just that they don’t call it economics: they call it road pricing.”
Back in the early days of independence, it didn’t take long for authorities in Singapore to recognise that lack of land would always put pressure on any transport system. Public transport – either in the form of buses or trains – would be necessary.
A lack of manpower to drive the large number of buses required has led to the adoption of trains – many of them driverless – as the favoured mass public transit system.
Even today, four key challenges for Singapore remain:
- Increasing demand to travel due to population increases, intensive development and lifestyle changes;
- Land constraints: 12 percent of the total land area is used for road and land transport infrastructure;
- Manpower issues: there is a shortage of truck and bus drivers; and
- An ageing population: 30 percent of Singapore’s population will be aged 65 or over by 2030.
When it comes to private transport, authorities continue to work to reduce both demand for car ownership and demand for usage of those vehicles.
Area licensing scheme
As far back as 1975, Singapore started on its journey to reduce travel demand. The first system was manual, says Kian-Keong. “In 1975, technology wasn’t very sophisticated.”
The 1975 Area Licensing Scheme (ALS), as it was known, applied to defined zones within the city area. Before entering these areas, a driver of a car or taxi was required to buy an ALS paper coupon from kiosks, community stores or post offices dotted around the city and display it on their windscreen.
Enforcement officers kept track of the system at entry points to the restricted zones.
Electronic road pricing
In 1998, the ALS was replaced by an electronic road pricing (ERP) scheme. Thirty-six ERP overhead gantries were placed at entry points to specified pricing zones. The gantries, which are still in operation today, are equipped to detect electronic tags as vehicles pass beneath them. Payment is taken via a stored-value smart card, while enforcement cameras record the licence plates of any vehicles attempting to travel without payment and a back-end system manages fines to ensure compliance.
Kian-Keong says the ERP system answered four main needs. It:
- Reduced the need for manpower;
- Provided improved enforcement;
- Ensured equitable pricing by charging each time a vehicle entered the designated zone – under the previous paper-based system, motorists could make multiple journeys in a day at no extra cost; and
- Enabled authorities to vary charges, depending on traffic congestion levels at the time.
The ERP system, which is still in use today and had expanded to 78 gantries, enables authorities to review charges every three months and during school holidays to ensure optimal use of road space and control congestion.
“Larger vehicles such as lorries and buses are equipped with devices that allow us to charge them a higher rate,” says Kian-Keong. “Motorcycles are given a weatherproof device and they are charged at a lower rate because they occupy less space and therefore contribute to lower congestion.”
Studies to correlate the speed of vehicles and the ease at which traffic flows identified a desired speed range of between 45 to 65kph on free-flowing roads, such as Singapore’s Expressways, and 20 to 30kph on other roads.
Prices to travel within the zone are raised or lowered to encourage motorists to move at the desired speeds.
Attempts to make payment for travel more convenient have met with mixed reactions. The ERP system initially took payment only from a stored-value smart card. Later, the system also allowed a payment to be deducted from a linked credit card or bank account.
“This was based on requests from some motorists,” says Kian-Cheong, “but it wasn’t so popular because I think people were so used to using the stored-value smart card that they just continued to do so.”
Over time, however, the ERP system has evolved for other uses. The stored-value smart card has superseded conventional paper-based ticketing processes at some car parks, for instance.
Kian-Cheong says a lot of people have commented that it makes their lives much easier. “So much so that when they travel to neighbouring countries that don’t have these systems they have found themselves waiting, hoping for a [car park] barrier to open before they realise they must collect a ticket.”
Next-Generation System (ERP2)
Now, almost 20 years after it was first launched, the current ERP system is nearing the end of its life and is due for a major and costly upgrade.
The cost to expand the current scheme by installing new gantries is prohibitive. And even if the funding could be justified, existing underground utilities sometimes prevent installation at desired locations.
Kian-Keong says the Singapore Land Transport Authority sees opportunities to harness any new, and upgraded, technology for:
- Equitable congestion management;
- Additional value-added services to enhance motorist’s travelling experience; and
- To eliminate the need for intrusive heavy infrastructure that would mar the streetscape.
The selected new system, which should be fully operational by 2020, sidesteps the need for a network of overhead gantries by connecting in to the global navigation satellite system (GNSS).
Kian-Keong says the new system, which he calls ERP2, should be more targeted, flexible and equitable. Importantly, it can absorb additional value-added intelligent transport system (ITS) applications and services.
Kian-Keong says the Land Transport Authority investigated three pricing structures: point charging; cordon charging – which is already possible with the current system; and a new alternative based on charging for distance travelled.
“When we announced the start of this GNSS system, we were very careful to position it so that the motorists would be receptive to it,” says Kian-Keong. “I recall when the Minister at the time announced it, he was positioning it as a technology refresh. He took pains to say that on the day the satellite-based system comes into use the charging points will all be the same as today.
“He left it open to the scheme migrating to distance-based pricing at a later date. This is important, because getting acceptance of any new scheme is really necessary.”
Key features of the new system will include:
- Mandatory on-board units for motorists: Motorists will be required to have working on-board units in their vehicles to connect to ERP2. Kian-Keong says that, unlike the current system where all the pricing points are fixed at particular locations where enforcement cameras can be installed, the new system will use a variety of fixed and mobile cameras. The latter will mean motorists will not know where the enforcement points are.
- An off-peak-hour scheme: Under this scheme, people can buy a car at a lower registration cost but are restricted to only using it during off-peak traffic periods which are normally after the evening rush hour and before the morning peak hour. “There is a clause that allows the owner or driver to use their car during peak hour,” says Kian-Keong. “But they must pay a higher daily charge and we would be using this system to track and identify their presence on the road during peak hours and post that off-peak charge.”
- Collection of traffic information: The system collects data from each individual motorist’s on-board device. When collated, it is fed back in the form of traffic alerts and advice, enabling motorists to decide if they want to use a particular route or take an alternative one.
- Interface with traffic lights: Similarly, information on traffic flows could be used to change the timing of traffic lights. Kian-Keong says this is a possibility but it’s use has not yet been confirmed.
- Usage-based insurance: The authorities in Singapore are also talking with the insurance industry about creating tailored insurance policies based on how much, and when, a specific vehicle may be used. Again, this application is still being discussed.
This article was first published in the March 2018 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.