Saturday, 24 November 2012

The things that work

by Tom Benner, Published TODAY, 22 Nov 2012

I moved from Boston to Singapore a few weeks ago, and I can't help but compare the two places. As someone who is interested in public policy and how it can enhance quality of life, I noticed a few things right away that work on Singapore's behalf.


In Boston, the much-maligned mass transit system is immortalised by the old folk song Charlie on the MTA, about a man who boarded the subway but didn't have the nickel to pay the exit fare. So he rode the subway for good, his wife throwing a sandwich through an open railcar window to him each day at the Scollay Square station. He was, as the song goes, "the man who never returned".

Investing in affordable and efficient mass transit just isn't as big a priority in Massachusetts - too much competition and political influence from the suburban car crowd who insist on highways that are well paved, well maintained and well patrolled. 

While government officials wrote a blank check for the "Big Dig" road-tunnel project, notorious for its billions in cost overruns, subway and bus fare increases are a regular thing in Greater Boston, which hit hardest low-income earners who rely the most heavily on mass transit.

And this is the city US News and World Report ranks fourth in terms of best public transportation systems; in much of the country the situation is far worse in terms of cost, coverage and convenience.

In contrast, Singapore has a highly functional mass transit system. The bus and rail system is a pleasure to use, very reasonably priced, and gets you seemingly anywhere. I know there are Singaporeans who won't agree with this and will point to Hong Kong for an example of an even better mass transit system. But any breakdowns and inconveniences here cannot compare to those in Boston.

Public policy in Singapore - smartly, I think - makes it far more attractive to use mass transit or the cabs (inexpensive by international standards), than to own a car. It can cost some S$80,000 just to get a permit to buy a car, before you start pricing a set of wheels. That's a lot of cab rides and MRT passes. In the US, where a presidential election can hinge on prices at the gas pump, such a fee would be met with a modern-day Boston Tea Party.

Singapore was the first city in the world to introduce congestion pricing back in 1975; in the US, where the national psyche equates the car with individual freedom, drivers just won't be told when they can drive. Or even where they can drive.

I remember the uproar in one New Jersey county over the creation of high-occupancy-vehicle lanes, designed to promote carpooling and ridesharing. It was too much social engineering for that crowd - after a trial run the carpool lanes, largely unused, were opened to regular traffic.

Fewer cars mean less carbon emissions, a plus to our environment; and more pedestrian-friendly streets for walking to work or the MRT station, a plus to our health.


An important recent book on how cities work best and how we need to rethink our urban space in the 21st century is Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier, by Harvard economist Edward Glaeser. He argues forcefully for vertical cities.

Taking a lift downstairs is the best work commute of all, Glaeser points out. In Singapore, private high-rise apartments far outnumber landed homes, while some 85 per cent of Singaporeans live in public housing estates - generally with first-floor void decks to promote social interaction, and with built-in amenities including schools, clinics, recreational facilities, grocery stores and food centres.

Such in-person social interaction enriches the community, leading to better-connected individuals and an engaged citizenry. In his great book Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital, Robert D Putnam warns against the pitfalls and downsides of social isolation, and the tug it exerts on the social fabric. Most Singapore residents own their HDB flat, adding to their sense of responsibility and community pride.

With so many vertical communities, Singapore can call itself a garden city, integrating the environment and urban development. 

In the US, the tax- deductibility of mortgage interest is an incentive for Americans to buy a house with land around it, the bigger the better. My hometown used to have farms all around; now cookie-cutter houses and McMansions have replaced the open fields. 

The lack of forward thinking on land use in the US inadvertently caused suburban sprawl, congested roads and seemingly interminable commutes from home to workplace and back. Singapore sets an example in urban development for other places to follow.


I won't begin to compare the litter situation in Boston to Singapore. Still, enough people have noticed an increase in litter to prompt a redoubled educational campaign to reinforce clean habits and exert peer pressure among the public.

The "broken windows theory" first floated by social scientists James Q Wilson and George L Kelling in the March 1982 edition of The Atlantic Monthly argues in favour of fixing urban problems when they are small. Allow the broken windows in a building to go unfixed, and trespassers, looters or squatters eventually will appear. Accept litter in the streets, and you welcome further litter and new forms of neglect and decay. 

This is how little problems escalate into big problems, how lax behavioural and societal norms are set. Better to fix the broken windows and clean up the litter.

In fact, a 2010 National Environment Agency survey found one-third of Singaporeans would litter if they could get away with it. And so strategies to curb littering, including public shaming, make good policy sense.

Great mass transit. Smart land use planning. And a willingness to work on the little things. Singaporeans may take these policy priorities for granted, but to a newcomer they stand out as some of the things that make Singapore work.

Tom Benner is a freelance journalist who covers public policy, culture and business. Before relocating to Singapore, he served as bureau chief in the Massachusetts State House and as a long-time editorial writer for daily newspapers in the US.

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