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The Big Read in short: Love for cars endures despite pandemic-induced shift in commuting patterns

Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into the trends and issues that matter. This week, we look at how the demand for cars in Singapore remains robust even as Covid-19 has made remote working the norm. This is a shortened version of the full feature.

The Big Read in short: Love for cars endures despite pandemic-induced shift in commuting patterns

While the pandemic is keeping people off the streets and the roads, it doesn’t seem to have put a damper on Singaporeans’ long-running love affair with cars: Demand for cars — long seen as status symbols here — still seems to be as high, if not higher, than before Covid-19 hit Singapore’s shores in late-January last year, according to car dealers TODAY spoke to. 

Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into the trends and issues that matter. This week, we look at how the demand for cars in Singapore remains robust even as Covid-19 has made remote working the norm. This is a shortened version of the full feature,​ which can be found here.

  • Car owners here have generally been clocking lower mileage since Covid-19 made remote working the norm
  • But demand for cars — long seen as status symbols — remains robust, as evidenced by high COE premiums and growing private car ownership
  • One car broker describes it as a “strange” phenomenon, with car sales and prices continuing to head north 
  • Experts say Covid-19 has caused much disruption to travel patterns and forced a relook of tested transport strategies
  • The demand for cars may not bode well for Singapore’s car-lite ambition, though improving public transport and exploring alternative mobility devices are just as key, they say

 

SINGAPORE — Auditor Kong Kian Siong, 41, used to drive to work daily but since the Covid-19 pandemic hit almost two years ago, he has been working mostly from home and only sometimes returns to the office. 

With his children’s tuition lessons having gone hybrid now — with some sessions being conducted online — he also uses the car less frequently to send them for classes. 

Like Mr Kong, many working adults in Singapore have been cutting down their car use since Covid-19 made remote work the norm, especially during periods of a spike in infections. Out of 10 car owners TODAY spoke to over the past week, all but one said that their weekly mileage has been reduced, even if these days they may make more short trips to run errands.

Traffic congestion at major roads also appears to have eased. Electronic Road Pricing rates, which are adjusted to manage the traffic situation during peak hours, are now charged at 12 gantries compared to 77 gantries pre-pandemic. The most expensive gantry now charges S$3, down from S$6 before Covid-19.

With daily Covid-19 cases in the thousands in recent weeks, some people have also been reducing their time outside. 

But while the pandemic is keeping people off the streets and the roads, it doesn’t seem to have put a damper on Singaporeans’ long-running love affair with cars: Demand for cars — long seen as status symbols here — still seems to be as high, if not higher, than before Covid-19 hit Singapore’s shores in late-January last year, according to car dealers TODAY spoke to. 

At CarBiz, car sales have gone up by about 20 to 30 per cent since June last year, following the end of the two-month circuit breaker here. Prices of Certificates of Entitlement (COEs), for the right to own and use a vehicle, have soared to multi-year highs. 

Experts around the world had earlier predicted that the pandemic would reshape urban travel patterns in cities as employees return to the offices less frequently for work. The post-Covid-19 transport landscape scenarios include having fewer cars on the road as more people embrace walking and cycling for their commute.

In Singapore’s case, transport analysts told TODAY that it is hard to tell whether car usage here has altered significantly, and whether commuters will begin returning to the roads en masse once Covid-19 restrictions are completely lifted.

But with the large disruption to travel patterns caused by the pandemic, it may be worth relooking at Singapore’s transport strategies — which include its vision to be a car-lite nation — as the economy gradually reopens, they said. 

PANDEMIC’S IMPACT ON PUBLIC TRANSPORT, CAR USAGE 

The tightened movement restrictions last year saw bus and train ridership falling to their lowest levels in more than a decade. 

In September, Transport Minister S Iswaran told reporters that public transport ridership was at about 60 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. 

For some who have been mostly working from home over the past two years, some have found themselves using their car more frequently despite not needing to travel for work.

One car owner, 38-year-old IT professional Mark, who wanted to be identified only by his first name, said while he has been spending less time on the road now, he takes more frequent drives to buy food or fetch his children from school. 

Associate Professor Walter Theseira from the Singapore University of Social Sciences said that although there is little data on individual travel patterns, the low ERP prices indicate that the overall car usage has been down significantly during peak periods.

“However, the data also suggest that as Covid-19 restrictions are lifted, people have been quite eager to return to the road.”

Excise tax for petrol revenue collected for the last two months of 2020 was at comparable levels with that of 2019, reflecting similar consumption levels, he said.

For those who have been mostly working from home over the past two years, some have found themselves using their car more frequently despite not needing to travel for work. Photo: Raj Nadarajan/TODAY

CONTINUED ROBUST DEMAND FOR PRIVATE CAR OWNERSHIP

In many cities around the world, including London and New York City, public transport ridership has similarly plummeted during the pandemic. At the same time, people are also relying on their cars more than before, some international reports have suggested. 

A similar situation playing out in Singapore may not bode well for the Government’s push for a “car-lite” nation.

In 2018, a landmark policy was also introduced to freeze the growth rate for cars and motorcycles under the COE system, which was meant to last until January this year but was extended until 2025. 

The only exception is for vehicles under Category C — which comprises goods vehicles and buses — which is allowed to maintain a 0.25 per cent population growth.

Data from LTA showed that the car population had fallen from about 607,000 in 2013 to a low of 547,000 in 2017. Since then, that figure has been consistently on the rise every year. 

Even as the pandemic raged, the car population — which excludes taxis and private-hire cars — grew from about 556,000 in January last year to 577,000 as of September this year.

Correspondingly, the number of private-hire cars and taxis had gone down, with private-hire cars falling from about 77,700 to 68,400 over the same period, and taxis falling from about 18,500 to 15,400.

Despite the cap on vehicle population growth, Assoc Prof Theseira said that there may be year-to-year fluctuations in the total vehicle population because of the way the COE system works. 

In response to TODAY’s queries, an LTA spokesperson said that between 2013 and 2016, there was an overall fall in total vehicle population as there was a rising trend of deregistration for Categories A and B, which comprise cars up to and above 1600cc or 97kW respectively.

After 2016, however, the deregistration trend reversed and began falling each quarter, leading to a rise in total vehicle population even though the total vehicle growth rate for cars was frozen.

“It is expected that the lag effect will even out over time,” the spokesperson said. “This can be seen from the fact that although the 2020 vehicle population is higher than 2018, it is still less than the population in 2013.”

The spokesperson added that another contributing factor to the rise in the private car population is that COEs for Category E (Open category) are often used to register cars in Categories A and B.

Instead of focusing on car numbers, Assoc Prof Theseira said that a better indication of demand would be to look at people’s willingness to pay for COEs and recent prices indicate that there is “robust demand for private car ownership”. 

Since February last year, COE prices for Category A and B have trended upwards and in recent months, surged. 

Car dealers said that except for the period when Singapore was in partial lockdown last year, the demand for cars has remained strong amid the pandemic. 

While the pandemic may have forced a change in commuting patterns, people seem to be buying cars for the same old reasons. Three car dealers told TODAY that their buyers over the past two years were usually young families or existing car owners wanting an upgrade.

Mr Abel Eng, general manager of CarBiz, said that during the pandemic, his car sales have shifted towards luxury brands such as Mercedes Benz, Audi and BMW, as customers who buy these cars are the ones who can afford the high COE prices.

“People are buying, sales are moving,” he said. “The fact that people can’t spend money travelling overseas plays a part in them buying their next toy locally.”

EV FAD PARTLY FUELING DEMAND FOR CARS?

Over the past year, the car market has seen a shake-up following the entrance of electric carmaker Tesla into Singapore. 

Mr George Foo, an executive at a digital marketing agency, was among the many Tesla fans who ordered their Model 3s on the same day Tesla launched its sales portal here in February.  

His car arrived in September, and he got it after trading in his Lexus GS Turbo 200. 

“With the Government pushing for electric vehicles, I want to be an early adopter,” he said.

After about a decade of adopting a start-stop approach to the mass adoption of electromobility here, the Government in 2020 began placing a significant bet on electric vehicles (EVs) and launched a slew of policies to promote its adoption here.

Under the vehicle emissions scheme and the EV early adoption incentive, an electric car buyer may receive as much as S$45,000 in tax breaks.

While the pandemic, which has resulted in job losses or reduced incomes, has led many to rethink their finances, it has not dissuaded some from getting their first car. 

Mr Nicolas Mok, 25, became a car owner in June, not long after he graduated from university. 

As the co-founder of Belly Empire, a business that funds and helps food establishments in their expansion, he used to take an average of six private-hire rides a day which cost him about S$90. In a day, he would often need to travel to the office, then to the food outlet and to meeting with clients.

Sometimes, he would also have to make a trip to a shop to get equipment or supplies for the outlet.

So, he found that the S$26,000 he paid for an eight-year-old Hyundai Elantra was reasonable. 

“It's definitely still a bit more expensive when you have a car after you add the road tax and petrol, and other costs. But overall, I think it's quite affordable for the added convenience,” Mr Mok said. 

Mr Nicolas Mok, 25, became a car owner in June, not long after he graduated from university. He found that the S$26,000 he paid for an eight-year-old Hyundai Elantra was reasonable. Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY

TAKING STOCK OF S’PORE’S CAR-LITE AMBITION

While the private car population has indeed risen during the pandemic due to the various factors at play affecting the COE quotas, experts stressed that the zero-growth policy means that the number of private cars will eventually level off. 

The COE quota for November 2021 to January 2022 has been set at 10,590 — the lowest in more than seven years. 

Beyond managing car ownership, Singapore’s push towards a car-lite society also entails improving and expanding the public transport system as well as providing alternative means of transport, the experts said.

Despite the public’s negative perception towards electric personal mobility devices, urban transport expert Tham Chen Munn said that Singapore has the opportunity to accelerate its car-lite vision by embracing these devices. These devices could be in the form of modern electric bicycles, which have shown themselves to be less accident prone than e-scooters in other cities .

“Once you accept electric bicycles into the equation, it’s no longer just about first-and-last mile travel. The range is much longer,” Mr Tham said. 

Covid-19 has also forced a relook of tested transport strategies, said Mr Menon, the transport engineering consultant. 

Whereas older strategies are aimed at meeting the peak period demand of bringing people to work and home, the pandemic has shown that it is possible to work from anywhere and at flexible hours. 

Dr Fan said that the pressing issue now is to observe whether the current travel patterns will stick.

“This is an odd situation where the private car population has increased but the road usage has actually declined. So in terms of actual emissions, I think we are actually doing well,” he said. 

He reiterated that the “real question” is how people will behave when life gets back to some semblance of normalcy.   

“You can arbitrarily limit the number of cars, but will people step back onto the trains and buses as they used to in the same packed densities as pre-pandemic levels?”

And if not, he questioned: “Then what are the alternatives?”

 

Related topics

car car-lite COE Covid-19 coronavirus public transport

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