The Second Minister for Transport in Singapore, Lim Hwee Hua, has remarked that long distance services for buses may be abolished in favor of a hub and spoke model.
I take public transport, and buses are my main mode of transportation. I like long distance services. The main reason for this is that the closest subway station to where I live is a 15 minute walk away (or a 7 minute bus ride, including waiting time). So taking the MRT is hardly a convenient option.
It helps also that I live in a smallish estate, where all the buses that serve us are long distance buses. We have at least 9 long distance bus services within a 5 minute walking radius. From where I stay in the Dover area, I can reach as far west as Boon Lay, as far north as Woodlands and as far east as Tanah Merah with just a single bus ride, no transfer hassle required. Notably, town (meaning Orchard) is accessible with just a quick 20 minute direct bus ride when traffic conditions are light.
Better yet, I generally don't have to put up with the crowds onboard MRT trains, and getting a seat is usually not a problem.
Which is all a very long-winded way of disclosing that I am in favor of the current system and not too enthused about a shift to the hub and spoke system. So take what I am going to write in the rest of this post with a grain of salt.
Do I think moving to the hub and spoke system is a bad idea? Not per se; it could improve the public transportation system as a whole. Shorter bus rides to a central transport depot, where the MRT is the preferred mode of travel, will certainly exhibit lower variability in transport time. And trains in general can run more on schedule than buses (although bus lanes help to ameliorate this weakness of motor transport).
Reducing the variability in journey time is an unalloyed "good thing". But what concerns me is that our public transportation system may not be completely set up for a hub and spoke system. Oh it's all very well for Lim Hwee Hua to talk about how "it is a way that most of the other cities which have successful public transport systems have survived on." But unless she is serious about investing in a profound overhaul in our current public transportation system, this change is going to risk looking like a token effort to assuage complaints about public transport, which could lead to a worsened situation for public transport.
If hub and spoke has worked for other cities, a reasonable question to ask is what characteristics of these other cities has allowed such a model to work.
From my own travels in other cities, I posit a few requirements for hub and spoke to work:
- A denser network of transport nodes. Frankly, our rail network is not dense enough. Urban city cores in most cities have denser rail networks. In London, for instance, it's frequently possible to step out of a tube station onto the street and literally see the next one a stone's throw away (e.g. the Charing Cross and Embankment stations). If we're going to rely primarily on MRT, we had better have more stations and stations that are more closely spaced together. Otherwise, people that live between hubs (like myself) will lose the benefit of long distance services but not gain the convenience of 'hubbing'.
- More trains running more frequently. Like, duh. If hub and spoke means funneling people onto already crowded MRT trains, we definitely need more trains running more frequently. Somehow, knowing the government's propensity for "efficiency", I sort of doubt that they would pre-emptively increase the frequency of trains dramatically to forestall complaints. It's more likely going to be a reactive, add just enough trains after the citizenry become vocal enough, approach.
- Express versus local services. Just about every large city I've been to that relies primarily on the subway has express and local subway services. If this is to be implemented, we need a massive public education campaign. Most Singaporeans would be unfamiliar with such a system. This, by the way, also requires more railway tracks and heavier investment in infrastructure (which I am not certain our current MRT network meets).
- Very, very frequent and regular intratown services. If the government wants a hub and spoke system, it had better not stinge on the spokes, or it's going to make a lot of people very unhappy. Not sure how this is going to work out for the bus companies; it sounds like a money losing business. That could generate problems.
- Ultra-high reliability. The flipside of increased efficiency in a system is often reduced resilience. Part of the strength of Berlin's transportation system is its diversity. If we're reducing diversity, the primary services of MRT have got to be extremely reliable. They can't just break down and cause millions in lost productivity. Since the renewed emphasis on productivity, stingeing on reliability would be a case of being penny wise pound foolish.
- Synchronized scheduling. This sounds like a no-brainer, but in a system with multiple transfers, you absolutely need synchronized scheduling. Otherwise, all the gains made in journey time will be offset by waiting time for transfers. What do I mean by sychronized scheduling? I mean trains leaving the station just a few minutes after buses release their passengers at central hubs. In an environment where we have one major bus company and one major rail company, coordination between the two for sychronized scheduling is going to be a bit more difficult than if one central authority was handling everything.
- Seamless connectivity. By and large, we already have this. A single public transportation system and network with a unified payment system. Bus interchanges colocated with MRT stations (and shopping malls and town centers). But it bears repeating here. Tokyo, for instance, is unusual in having more than one subway company.