Skip to main content



Getting Singaporeans to embrace a car-lite society

The Land Transport Authority’s recent announcement that the annual allowable car growth will be reduced to zero from February 2018 made headlines not only in Singapore, but across the world.

TODAY file photo

TODAY file photo

Follow us on Instagram and Tiktok, and join our Telegram channel for the latest updates.
Follow us on TikTok and Instagram, and join our Telegram channel for the latest updates.

The Land Transport Authority’s recent announcement that the annual allowable car growth will be reduced to zero from February 2018 made headlines not only in Singapore, but across the world.

Due to land constraints and competing needs, there is “limited scope for further expansion of the road network,” the LTA said.

Roads now make up about 12 per cent of land use, almost the same as housing.

LTA’s announcement came days after the Government announced that three new housing precincts would see fewer parking spaces as part of a push towards a car-lite society.

Such a push has been in the works for some years, and gained greater prominence with the unveiling of the Sustainable Singapore Blueprint two years ago.

It spelled out a 15-year plan for the Republic to reduce its reliance on cars and move towards public transport, cycling, walking and car-sharing services, by, among other things, expanding the rail transport network, infrastructure to promote safe cycling, and piloting an electric car-sharing scheme to allow residents convenient access to such vehicles without needing to own one.

LTA statistics show that the number of cars here has dropped three years in a row. Still, there were 552,000 cars on the road in 2016 - almost 90,000 more than the 465,000 in 2006.

What will it take for Singaporeans to give up their cars?

I think this is an attitude that will take some time to change.

I have a friend who does not leave his home without the car, even for the nearby gymnasium for his daily workout. He reasons that since he has paid so much to buy one, it would be a waste if he leaves it parked in his garage.

Yet another friend, an avid car user in his 60s, has neither applied for nor is aware that senior citizens have concession fare cards for travel on public transport.

What may account for attitudes of motorists like my friends?

Well, for the last three decades, owning a car has been among the so-called “5Cs” that Singaporeans aspire to. They scrimp and save and forgo other luxuries to be able to afford a car, and thus pander to their belief that it is a status symbol. Others have not known a life without a car, having been ferried about by their parents during school days.

There is no denying that the car offers freedom of travel - when to, where to and how to in the fastest way. This is especially so in Singapore, where, unlike many cities of our size, prolonged traffic jams are few and far in-between. To many, the car is an extension of the home, with the privacy it affords. It is no wonder that the average number of persons in a private car on our roads is less than two, compared with about 80 in a packed bus.

But unlike other cities, Singapore has not given the car free rein. There are disincentives to the widespread use of the car, including Electronic Road Pricing charges and high parking rates.

Car growth has also been managed by the vehicle quota system. In that sense, there has always been the intention to prevent the car from dominating the transport scene. The Government has long pushed for greater use of public transport among Singapore residents. The efforts in building an extensive MRT network and improving bus services are not without fruit. The majority of travellers use public transport, with close to seven out of 10 trips being made in that mode during the peak period.

It is a common misconception that car-lite means car-less or car-free. It only means drastically reducing car usage by substituting it for public transport, bicycles, personal mobility devices and even walking.

It is also wrong to demonise the car and car drivers. Instead, it is better and necessary to wean them off over-dependence on the car over time, and encourage them to try alternatives. This shift will be most effectively done by gradually making car ownership more costly and inconvenient, and keeping alternatives affordable and efficient.

For example, provision of new car park lots in the city and the housing estates could be sharply reduced over the long term. Car parking charges could also be increased. New car owners could be required to furnish proof of a car parking lot, in the same way owners of heavy goods vehicles are required to produce a vehicle parking certificate.

These will be unpopular measures, but they have proven to work in places such as Japan and Hong Kong, where, over time, people have come to accept such policies. Because car ownership is so prohibitively costly - both literally and figuratively - in these places, most people, including the upper middle income class, use public transport.

They do so too because public transport in Hong Kong and Tokyo is efficient and reliable. While public confidence in the rail system here is not high now, various measures being put in place by the Government and train operators are likely to improve reliability in a few years’ time.

A longer-term game changer will be the driverless car, which can provide travel on demand with comparable comfort, and thus represent a compelling reason for motorists to give up their cars.

Attitudes are difficult to change merely by logical reasoning. They change when the status quo changes. In the 1970s, buses were considered the transport of last resort for those who could not afford private means. But this attitude has changed over the years through improvements to bus services and policies such as ERP. Today, there is no longer a stigma attached to travel by public transport.

What else can Singapore do to get those who still regard the car as a status symbol or necessary evil to change their attitudes?

Since attitudes are formed at a young age, parents could stop driving their children to school unless there are special circumstances. Let them learn to use school buses, public transport, walk or cycle to school, and in the process become aware that the car is not the be-all and end-all mode of transport.

Public agencies and private firms could declare a car-lite day fortnightly, to get their car-owning employees to use other modes of transport besides their four-wheelers. Celebrities and public figures who do not drive should be used as car-lite champions.

When it becomes commonplace for most Singaporeans not to drive, we will be a step closer to being a car-lite society.


A P Gopinath Menon is a senior research fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering. He has more than four decades of experience in transport management and was previously the Chief Transportation Engineer at the Public Works Department and later at the Land Transport Authority.

Read more of the latest in




Stay in the know. Anytime. Anywhere.

Subscribe to get daily news updates, insights and must reads delivered straight to your inbox.

By clicking subscribe, I agree for my personal data to be used to send me TODAY newsletters, promotional offers and for research and analysis.