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Car-lite doesn't mean car-free: A closer look at the controversial term among Singaporeans shows that it isn't as extreme as it sounds.

24 Aug 2021

As the Dover Forest debate heated up again a few weekends ago with confirmation that its eastern sector was to be used for public housing, one of our garden city's recent pet phrases quietly found its way back into the conversation. 

"Future residents will enjoy a green living experience set within a car-lite precinct amidst nature", declared HDB in its press release. 

Growth rates for Singapore's vehicle population will remain frozen until January 2022 
Chances are, most of us - especially drivers - have grown acquainted in some way with the concept of going "car-lite" in recent years. If you haven't heard of it, you've at least felt it.

Our little island made international news in 2017 when the Land Transport Authority (LTA) announced it was freezing vehicle population growth rates, reducing them from an already measly 0.25% to 0%. How's that for being cold to motorists? 

Which all means to say: The term hasn't had the best rep locally, and there are good reasons why, to be fair. But hold on - let's take a few steps back and few breaths in before we charge ahead with our pitchforks. 

Fine line between car-lite and car-free

Institutes like the CLC insist that car-liteness is aimed purely at improving the liveability of cities
You may be surprised to learn that proponents of a car-lite vision do not set out to make cars the enemy - at least not immediately. Instead, the leading principle is to invert the pyramid such that infrastructure is people-centric rather than car and road-centric. 

A report by our Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC) makes it clear that there is a difference between going car-lite and cutting cars out completely. The opposite of "car-liteness" is not the existence of cars, but rather, a state of being "car-heavy". And there are valid negatives - the unholy trinity of congestion, air pollution and traffic accidents - which arise with car-heaviness. 

Oslo is a shining example of how car-liteness can prove beneficial. Over the past decade, it has aggressively pursued "Vision Zero" - zero pedestrian and cyclist accidents - and managed to achieve just that in 2019. The process involved slowly removing on-street parking, pedestrianising the inner city, and lengthening and widening bicycle lanes. As a bonus, air pollution also plunged and with the space saved, its streets were revived with more amenities and activity. 

New Mobility-as-a-Service apps like Whim offer versatility and optimisation in commuting
On the other hand, fellow Nordic city Helsinki recently adopted Whim, a revolutionary mobility service provider that combines multiple transport modes under a singular monthly subscription service. (The extent of options available to users depends on the subscription tier.)

Just imagine, for example, that with one Grab subscription, you could unlock a shared bike, and use a shared car, and also take the MRT and bus. Want to drive across the island? Grab. Need a bicycle to the MRT? Grab. Taking the MRT after that? Grab again.

Make no mistake - it would be naive to simply point at Oslo or Helsinki and say "Eh, they can, how come we cannot?" Singapore is both larger and far more densely populated. Furthermore, society here is also not ripe for change yet (a bit more on that later). But we can draw lessons from these success stories. The common thread running through them is a commitment to raising the quality of life of city-residents through safer and more optimised commuting.

The case for cars in Singapore

Driving is the most comfortable and efficient way across the island - but even this still takes a while
To be clear, cars do have a legitimate place here. We joke about how small we are, but sometimes forget that driving from Boon Lay to Changi still takes more than half an hour. We're small, not tiny. Despite our extensive and generally reliable network, public transport is also by no measure a breeze.

Cars hold an advantage in this regard, especially now in a pandemic, where private space is precious real estate. For the parents out there with the itineraries of three different kids to balance, or for caretakers who regularly ferry their elderly folks around, losing their sets of wheels would likely also be a painful and stressful stab of inconvenience.

One doesn’t marvel at the Avante's bold looks and think, hmm let me try to justify why I like this...
And who's to say we can't enjoy cars for their tangible comforts too? When visiting friends in the West, I am always thankful that my parents sank their hard-earned money into our hatchback. It means zipping back to the North-East in half an hour-ish, especially when I leave past midnight; in fact it means actually being able to leave past midnight without second thought.

It also means family outings, all five or sometimes six of us driving out together for good food and coffee. And then there are some of us who had wall posters of Lamborghinis as wee children, and who still have Tomicas of Type Rs and GR-Yarises now as adults: car-lovers, simply because. 

Why the idea of going car-lite has gotten pushback locally

Not hard to imagine our neighbours laughing in ringgit at local prices of the latest Jazz e-HEV
There is good reason why the term "car-lite" continues to rub people the wrong way. The issue is particularly sticky here because of our unique relationship with cars; driving is ridiculously expensive, full stop. 

With affordability as the backdrop, the income gap between the ultra-rich and everyone else often peeks its head into the discussion. Middle-class Singaporeans - who comprise a significant proportion of car-owners - have always paid out of their pockets for their cars even though the financial decision is not easy to make.

As such, waving car-liteness around while clamping down with more taxes cannot help but feel like yet another slap in their faces. Facebook comments responding to a Todayonline report about LTA's rebuttal to Tesla CEO Elon Musk in 2018 were, unsurprisingly, mostly negative. The top one reads, "Car lite? More like car elite where only the rich and privilege can drive car (sic)".  

Enhancing the OPC scheme may help make car-liteness a more convincing proposition 
The distrust among Singaporeans towards a car-lite vision should be sympathised with. Among the many steps that we have to take to change that, upgrading our transport network is key.

Commuters shouldn't feel forced into non-private transport modes because they can't afford a car, but because these alternatives are the best and most sensible, at least in certain zones.

In tandem, civic-mindedness also needs to increase so that shared cars aren't disgusting places to be in, and so that shared bicycles don't get randomly dumped in canals. Perhaps the OPC scheme can also be made more attractive to give drivers the option of reducing car-use while not having to completely relinquish their cars.

Envisioning car-lite Singapore in the next 10 years

The upcoming Tengah estate: a litmus test for Singapore's car-lite vision
We haven't heard of countries going car-lite, only cities, because cars are still important and still useful to society. (Furthermore, proclamations of their demise have long been disproved; their electric future is intoxicating, endlessly exciting. But that's for another story.)

Singapore, however, is a special place. 

In our weird case, it just so happens that we're both country and city. While driving certainly brings unparalleled joy to many, it would be selfish to resist better connectivity for the larger majority of people who never intend to own a car. 

Having said that, the jury is still out on whether car-liteness here can succeed, and not just from a governmental perspective. It will be interesting to see how Tengah, pegged as Singapore's first car-lite estate, pans out as a first foray into proving that life with fewer cars (not no cars) isn't some joyless dystopia. Another obvious test-bed is the CBD; Marina Bay has been shortlisted while Orchard Road remains an exciting space to watch - recall the Car Free weekends of the pre-pandemic era. I remember my surprise late last year, driving down Somerset Road to discover that my favourite parking spot, Grange Road carpark, had been permanently closed to pave the way for an events space. 

Increased pedestrianisation along Orchard Road promises less traffic, better shopping experiences
Experts suggest that when prodded by incremental incentives (e.g. better cycling/walking infrastructure) and disincentives (e.g. reduced parking in the CBD), our relationship with cars can be slowly reshaped. That reality is still far, far away, and car-liteness will be restricted to places like Tengah and the CBD for the foreseeable future anyway.

But the point remains that implementing car-lite infrastructure should make sense for the populace. Saying that Tengah (which will be built from scratch) should be car-lite is different from saying that the CTE should be demolished for bicycle lanes. 

We need to have faith that small steps will help to foster a new, collective intuition about when and where cars make sense - about when and where they are welcome, but also when and where they aren't. 

Remember: a car-lite future doesn't mean a car-free future. Now that we've established that, it shouldn't be so scary to lay our armour down and gingerly open our arms to embrace it.

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