Fare hike: Why the hurry?

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By Vigenesh Louis Naidu

The headline figures are straightforward enough. Bus and train fares will go up by 3.2 per cent on April 6 this year. This is lower than the 6.6 per cent increase the transport companies had asked for and is below the expected national wage increase of  5 per cent in 2013.

Despite the lower than expected increase, it will still have an impact on some people. With that in mind, the government will subsidise the travel cost of these groups.

The happiest group must be the polytechnic students, who will finally get to enjoy the same concessions as their peers in junior colleges. NSFs will also enjoy concession rates which will be pegged to those enjoyed by university students. Full time students in private institutions will get to enjoy the same concessions as those enjoyed by students in government institutions.

Low wage workers and the disabled will now be eligible for special concession fares. All these will start on July 6 — three months after the fare increase kicks in. But the question then arises: Why not allow both the increase in fares and the subsidies to start at the same time?

Yes, the government needs some time to iron out the details for the concessions. Half a million potential applications for these concessions is not that big a figure for the government to handle.

So, why this hurry?

Taming the travel monster

The long-term strategy hidden in the announcement is the introduction of a new $120 unlimited monthly travel pass for adult Singaporeans and permanent residents. This pass could have a significant impact on Singaporeans’ travel behaviour.

Some years ago, a park-and-ride scheme was introduced to encourage car owners to use their cars to travel to regional town centres and use the MRT to get into the CBD. This scheme was necessary as feeder bus networks were not as comprehensive as they are today. Also, commuters would have to pay an additional charge if they choose to take a feeder bus. With the travel pass, commuters can now switch to taking feeder buses rather than driving to town centres. Some vehicle owners may find it more cost effective to convert their cars to weekend cars. This, if the communing public bites, would both free up parking spaces and reduce traffic congestion.

Many companies provide employees, who are required to travel for their work, a transport allowance. This is often a factor of the mileage covered by a worker during the month. Having this pass offers companies an alternative. For employees who do not need to travel to many places in a day, the travel pass would be a much more cost effective option. It also provides planning stability, particularly for smaller companies, as the cost is fixed.

A travel pass will provide Singaporeans with a fixed monthly travel cost. This may also encourage workers to take up jobs located in the outskirts of Singapore. Many workers are reluctant to accept jobs in the “ulu” parts of the island as it would entail an increased transportation cost. A travel pass could be provided by employers to entice workers to accept these jobs. Maybe with more Singaporeans adopting the travel pass, the central areas will get less congested as people are willing to commute further.

All this depends on human behaviour, something that  is difficult to predict. Yes, it is simplistic to think that a simple travel pass will help tackle the issue of congestion in the CBD and make satellite towns more vibrant and dynamic. Yet, it is a worthwhile experiment, a baby step to see if this travel monster can be tamed.