Singapore has a great public transport system. They’ve got integrated tickets for the bus and metro, they have public walkways over major roads . . . and a very low number of private vehicles generating traffic. It all combines to make one of the most efficient public transport systems on the planet. This much is apparent if you travel to Singapore and hang around for a few days.
However, the interesting story is how they got there. Let’s summarize the study we just linked: Singapore once had a traffic problem: so much so that traffic would reportedly slow to 20 kmph - not too different from conditions in Sri Lanka. From 1960 to 1970, the vehicle population doubled, spurred on by inefficient public transport. The railway system didn’t even exist.
In 1974, Wilbur Smith and Associates published a study on the dangers of of uncontrolled private vehicle ownership. The Singapore government, alerted by this, went about the problem in three ways:
- They made private transport steadily harder. A British colonial law called the Additional Registration Fee made it so that anyone buying a new vehicle would pay a percentage based on the vehicle’s market value. They increased the ARF over time, taking it to 150% by 1980. This made people buy secondhand vehicles instead, so they nuked the secondhand market by introducing a subsidy on the ARF if you had scrapped or exported a previously owned vehicle. They made it so that you could de-register an old vehicle - all the way up to a decade - and claim a reduction in ARF that scaled with the age of the vehicle; any vehicle older than a decade is not eligible. This is the birth of Singapore’s private transport system, which makes it difficult to buy a private vehicle, gives you a ten-year permit for using it, and gives you good reason to get rid of it at that ten-year mark.
- They nationalised and went hard on the buses and roads. The Singapore Bus Company was once four private corporations, welded into one, and heavily regulated. Quality of service shot up. They also began to increase roads: road density tripled by 1997.
- After ten years of studying the problem, they gave the green light for an MRT rail system in 1982. This system has been expanded over time, with buses and light rail feeding into it.
The important thing is that they didn’t have a perfect plan from the beginning, but set goals for themselves (like a traffic flow rate) and kept optimizing towards it. As a result, you have a city that makes our transport system look like a painful, long-running joke.
South Korea went the other way: they began with rail. The first Five-Year development plan (1962-1966) added some small highways, but was largely focused around rail. The second Five-Year plan brought airports and seaports - and a subway system to Seoul. In the 1980s, they electrified their rail system and moved hard into building serious road infrastructure.
It’s interesting to note how local their bus services are. Most Korean cities and towns are served by regional bus systems; they’re connected by red interregional “inter-city” buses. There’s a hierarchy of buses within this regional system - blue buses have routes that span a whole city, and green buses have routes that take commuters to stops near subway stations. The six major cities all have subways. Backing this up is a robust taxi network with low basic fares, tightly regulated and protected - for example, they banned Uber and seem to be slowly reducing red tape on local alternatives. In a gigantic flex, they have a locally developed maglev train that’s the second commercial maglev in the world running at Incheon Airport.
South Korea seems to have arrived at a pretty efficient public transport system with a very different starting point and direction, highlighting that perhaps countries don’t need Singapore-like conditions for things to work out.
Mind you, it’s not perfect. For example, in 2004, South Korea started building out its High-Speed Rail (HSR). It isn’t without critique, and what seems to be apparent is the phenomenon of ‘HSR corridors’ - highly interconnected regions that leave other provinces in the dust. Its taxi network doesn’t seem flawless either, with an aging labor force and less drivers signing up post-covid. Its history of policy is convoluted when it comes to encouraging local alternatives to Uber. Nevertheless, it seems to work better than ours does.
Thailand is a vision of how we might turn out if we continue in a haphazard manner. There are some similarities with Sri Lanka: just as Colombo dominates Sri Lankan transport thought, Bangkok does likewise in Thailand. Bangkok is 8 times larger than the next biggest city and hosts 19% of the population, being the center of economic activity.
Public transportation services are poor; most passenger transport are private vehicles; cars and motorcycles make up 75% of the vehicles on the road, and private vans bridge the gap between having your own car and taking public transport. By all accounts it’s also one of the most dangerous national transport systems in the world: Thai motorcycles and three-wheelers in particular have one of the highest fatality rates in the world.
There’s runaway urbanization, and for the last twenty years Thailand has been pumping money into roads. Electricity, water, transport. education, public health - Thailand’s government priorities since the 80’s read a lot like what Sri Lanka says it does, with an additional focus on exports and import-substitution industrialization. In a nutshell, this chaos - but at a smaller, potentially poorer scale - might very well be our future.
Most of Malaysia (more than 80%) lives in Peninsular Malaysia, so it makes sense that most of the transport is also focused here. For Malaysia, urbanization was rapid after 1970 and a boom in the economy meant motorization followed very closely.
To start with, Malaysia has a state-run railway that in km terms is quite comparable to Sri Lanka’s: the difference is the technology is much newer. Rapid-transit rail connects states together, and commuter and electric rail serve Kuala Lumpur and certain neighbouring states.
The primary backbone of expressways is handled by the Malaysian Highway Authority and largely built by private companies. Federal and State roads are largely built by the Malaysian Public Works Department, which is a sort of colonial-era body that has mutated over the years to handle a lot of things.
Despite the existence of rail, public transport in Malaysia is considered to be poor, with research showing that people really prefer private transport. Much of the concern around public transport is the same as you’d get if you talked to people in Sri Lanka. Reliability, safety, and quality of service are top concerns. Some areas see almost eighty percent of transport being done through private vehicles - and of course, with them comes the usual concerns of emissions, congestion, parking space and plenty of motorcycle fatalities. Ineffective government units, lack of cohesive planning and implementation - it’s better than Sri Lanka, but it’s still a case study in what could happen without a lot of planning, competence, and luck.