SINGAPORE – A HIGH-DENSITY CITY WITH SPORTING CHARACTERS
Chapter 8: The sporting lifestyle accessibility gap
Singaporeans like to poke fun at themselves for their obsession with the 5-Cs: Cash, Credit Card, Condominium, Country-Club membership and Car ownership – a handful of objects that are believed to inevitably define a successful life of each and every Singaporean. Most notably, the ‘Car’ has become a desirable object, which unambiguously determines someone’s status in Singapore’s society and symbolizes the city’s social divide between the haves and have-nots.
In Singapore the costs of car ownership are mind-blowing. Given that various taxes and fees are added to the usual market price of a motor vehicle, overall costs for purchasing a new, medium-size engine car can easily exceed the excruciating amount of S$ 150.000 (US$ 110.00 or € 99.000; at exchange rate in June 2016). Though it is true that most locations of interest are conveniently linked to the city’s first-rate metro train and bus network (global reports and indices on international cities regularly praise Singapore’s efficient and extensive public transport system), it also needs to be underlined that the sizeable proportion of households owning a car – around 42%, according to the latest official figure for 2012/2013 – is clear evidence that many Singapore residents are prepared to pay this exorbitant price in exchange for greater mobility, convenience and A/C comfort.
The latest official data published in 2014 reveal that in the bottom 20%-income group 14% of the households have a car, whereas the car ownership rate reaches 70% for the top 20%-income households. Thus it is evident that the likelihood of owning a private car is increased by virtue of higher income. As a result, the accessibility to sporting facilities improves with greater income levels too, simply because car ownership is strongly linked to the households’ earnings. As two thirds of public housing households do not possess a private car, provision of nearby sports facilities for people living in these key residential areas – in which 80% of Singapore residents live – is, by all means, crucial to ensuring equal sporting opportunities.
Despite exorbitant car purchase prices many roads in Singapore are usually jammed with private cars and taxis during peak hours.
Provision of an expressway network has been a cornerstone of the city’s planning strategy since the late 1960s – the origins of ‘modern’ Singapore. Extremely high purchase costs, however, have turned car ownership into a luxury good, dividing Singapore’s society along the income levels.
Despite the scarcity of official data on the preferred modes of transportation to sports facilities, it appears, based on qualitative observation on the ground, that local residents either walk or drive to the HDB-public sports complexes. As public transport is barely used by the users of these sports complexes, it could lead to the assumption that too many HDB-public housing estates lack convenient bus connections to their local sporting facilities. The same could be true of the city’s large parks, which are not always well-connected to the public transport system, resulting in time-consuming trips for carless residents wanting to visit these recreation destinations (to be fair, in the next ten years new train lines will be built, improving the connectivity to the four large city parks: East Coast Park, Bedok Reservoir, Bishan Park and Bukit Timah Nature Reserve).
It would also be worth exploring why HDB-residents – i.e., residents living in public housing – who do not live within walking distance to public sporting facilities are reluctant to make use of other available transportation options. For instance, 9% of the public housing households are in possession of motorcycles or scooters. Yet local residents show little interest in using this affordable and convenient transportation mode when accessing local sporting facilities.
Public cycling is another convenient transportation option. Given that sports complexes are located within cycling distance, local HDB-residents could be encouraged to choose a bicycle as an alternative transportation mode. They could cycle to their local sports facility, enjoy doing the type of exercise of their choice, cycle back home and take a refreshing shower. In this way, the extra bicycle trips could be added to the actual sporting activity, extending the total time of the individual’s physical activity. Besides, the personal discomfort of post-exercise perspiration, when having to take the bus or train back home, could be avoided (it is important to bear in mind that for some individuals this aspect of personal embarrassment could be a valid reason for shunning physical activities altogether).
Large numbers of visitors to the HDB-sports complexes use their private vehicles (Yio Chu Kang sports complex).
Driving back home after a run is certainly more convenient than having to take public transportation.
Bicycle parking area in the Bedok Reservoir Park. In Singapore only a small number of residents cycle to their local city parks, as driving remains the preferred transportation mode.
For residents with limited financial means a motorcycle offers an alternative transportation option (Bedok Reservoir Park).
To further improve residents’ accessibility to sports and recreation facilities, it would perhaps be worth conducting a feasibility study on the suitability of a ‘sports bicycle-sharing’ scheme, which would connect HDB-residential estates as well as commercial areas within HDB-districts with local sporting facilities and nearby city parks – such a scheme would require some major structural changes to the districts’ pavement design, though.
De-centralisation of sporting facilities is another way of improving accessibility. If additional amenities of smaller sizes were created across HDB-districts (in addition to the existing HDB-sports complexes), more within-walking-distance sporting options would be available to local residents. At the same time, a number of key facilities could be created closer to the commercial centres of the HDB-districts, improving their accessibility to the metro train and bus network. These recommendations would, of course, require some land-use planning alterations to the current zoning regulations.
Designated shower facilities next to a car park at the Punggol Jetty Park. Sweaty runners can take a shower before driving back home.
All of these above suggest that, at present, car owners have more sporting options to choose from, as they do not rely on the availability of facilities in their neighbourhood. Car ownership enables, for instance, cycling enthusiasts who live in the western parts of Singapore to transport their bicycle to the eastern and north-eastern regions, where large urban parks, an extensive network of park connectors and coastal bicycle trails offer a more enjoyable bicycle touring experience.
In recent years, however, a modest decline in private car ownership has been noticed – after reaching its highest level of 110 private vehicles per 1000 residents in 2010, according to the latest Land Transport Authority figures. This downward trend is largely due to some stricter car affordability measures, which were adopted by the government in order to regulate the increasingly chocked road traffic. By further raising the car purchase costs and by expanding its profitable ERP system (a pay-as-you-use Electronic Road Pricing system that generated S$152 million in 2014, according to an official announcement made in March 2015 by the Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew), the government can, at any time, utilize its well-established policy tools aimed at regulating the volume of motorized vehicles on Singapore’s roads.
Given the history of the government’s rigid car purchase policies, it is difficult to imagine that car ownership in Singapore will ever become more affordable. Improved car-independent accessibility to sports facilities as well as to large city parks will therefore become a critical aspect of Singapore’s sporting culture in the future to come.
The ERP is an Electronic Road Price system, which was introduced in 1998. The charges vary in price, depending on the levels of congestion.
There is virtually no free parking in Singapore. The Electronic Parking system has been implemented at all commercial sites, residential areas and leisure and park facilities, making car ownership in this city even more costly.
Singapore’s metro train system (MRT) is considered one of the most efficient public transport networks in the world. With more train lines being currently built, most of the large city parks will be accessible by train in the near future.
To the city’s credit, it has been continuously expanding its excellent metro train network; two more major lines, totalling 80km, will be completed by 2024. At the same time, Singapore has been investing heavily into its ‘Smart Nation’ initiative, which includes, among other things, the implementation of driverless transportation systems. Thanks to its compact and integrated urban layout (and the determination of its political class) the city may soon become the first World City to incorporate overlapping transportation systems and innovative technology into its future city living environment.
Much of this transportation technology, however, is still in formative stages. But once implemented, it is plausible that the city’s fully autonomous multi-modal transportation network could stifle the city’s car-fixated social hierarchy, resulting in more equal sporting opportunities. Thus transportation to sports and recreation facilities could become more efficient, narrowing the sporting lifestyle accessibility gulf that has emerged as a result of its costly private car ownership.
This report was first published in July 2016; updated in February 2017.
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