March 16, 2007

Trains and the quality of life

SIX and a half million people. That's where the population is headed. As Singaporeans digest news of a new MRT line, they should bear in mind that number. For housing more people is relatively easy. More difficult is ensuring that a larger population gets to work, school, the market and leisure sites just as easily as people today.

But even that isn't good enough. Singapore's planners have never sought only to keep pace, but to radically improve the quality of life. So the aim must be for 6.5 million people to traverse the city in a faster, more efficient way than the current 4.5 million. That brings the discussion back to the MRT: From our perspective, a steady expansion of the system is key to keeping Singapore moving. Certainly there will be increased costs, but there will also be collateral benefits. It's just the way to go.

Building train lines in urban areas isn't cheap. This must be conceded. The just-announced 3.4km downtown loop alone will cost an estimated $1.4 billion. And eventually, the line will stretch 40km - so just imagine. Because new lines are built by the Government, the expense will come out of taxes. This will cause some to gripe. New lines are also unlikely to be as well used as existing ones which go to the most populated areas, and so their financial viability might be an issue. But looking at the dollar price alone isn't helpful. MRT lines greatly increase property values along their routes, especially for housing near stations. As for commercial developments, there is nothing like being near a station or along an MRT route to generate increased traffic and hence business. These are tangible economic benefits that ought to be factored into the equation. But the most compelling reason is really one of necessity. The road network may simply be unable to cope with the increased number of cars owned by a 6.5 million population unless even stricter ownership quotas are imposed. But this will be acceptable to the general population only if public transport, which means an efficient and expanded MRT network, meets their increasingly high expectations.

Urban planning isn't only about housing. It also involves giving people the means to move about easily. And the larger a population gets, the more the equation between private and public transport becomes weighted towards the latter. While there are costs here, the benefits overshadow them. Quality of life can't be priced in dollars and cents. So look at the Circle Line, the Downtown Line and any other extension to come to the MRT system as milestones in better living.