Tanjong Pagar Railway Station

As an avid hiker and trekker, I have taken the KTM train from Tanjong Pagar to the rural areas of Malaysia. The train often was a more direct means of getting to those places than the buses were, since it passed through many small towns that could be reached by bus only after transferring buses at a major city.

As someone who trekked as a means of escaping the stresses of city life, I thus associated Tanjong Pagar Railway Station as the gateway to relief from my oppressive ordinary life. Once I stepped into the station, I could look forward to a few days of “simple” living, where my primary activity would be putting one foot in front of the other. I would be uncontactable by phone. If anyone wanted to come and get me to do things, they would have to walk to me through a few days of leech-infested jungle. That element of physical obstruction made me feel further away from my ordinary life than I would have if I’d flown to Tokyo.

For a few days, I would not have to observe daily the expressions of desperate and earnest striving written all over the faces of the workers and students of Singapore. For a few days, I would be exposed to a wider variety of sights than I had been in the entire year before. Not just the natural sights, but the more inhomogeneous look of Malaysian urban areas, compared to Singapore’s.

The tidiness of Singapore’s urban scenery becomes oppressive after a while. When everything is orderly, one wonders what terrible things have been done to the disordered. One gets bored from the predictability of things. Why do I prefer trekking on an obstacle-strewn jungle trail to walking on a smooth concrete pavement? Because I get bored walking on the latter. In a similar way, even negotiating the broken, dirty sidewalks of Malaysian cities becomes a fresh stimulus to my dulled mind. For once, I have to look where I’m going, because there might be something unexpected. The unexpected has no place in Singapore.

This mental association of Malaysia with escape from mind-numbing dullness strengthened over the years to the extent that even seeing the railway tracks would send a warm fuzzy feeling through me. When I worked in Biopolis, I would cross the railway tracks every day walking to and from Commonwealth MRT. There was a more ‘civilised’ route to Buona Vista MRT, but I loved the ‘back route’ to Commonwealth because there was a very short trek on a muddy path down a steepish hillock to the railway tracks. Even this short section of ‘greenery’ (by Singapore’s standards) lifted my mood a little. Across the tracks were the Tanglin Halt HDB flats, some of the oldest in Singapore. Their age and striking difference from the newer flats turned them in my eyes into a symbol of resistance against homogenisation in the name of development. Going to and from work, I would expose myself to these symbols of resistance, each time nursing a kernel of sadness at the thought that they could not resist for much longer; that Development would soon be victorious. I have not been back in Singapore for two years. I have no idea if they are still there, and I do not really want to know, for fear that they are not.

The moment I mounted the high kerb of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, I would feel that I was ‘in Malaysia’. In Singapore, the kerbs are all of a uniform height, so that one’s legs grow accustomed to it and one does not bother to mentally register the height of any particular kerb that one is stepping on or off from. Just as one’s mind grew accustomed to following instructions in a predictable environment, one’s legs grew used to the features of a predictable physical environment. So the mere fact that one had to mind the height of the kerb at the railway station would, every time, send a jolt through my mind that told me: “You’re somewhere different now.” Then I would enter the main station hall, espy the scruffy yet oddly charming decor, and it would hit me: I was effectively in Malaysia. I would shortly be in a queue in Customs, and I would get into a metal snake that would take me away. Away from the routines that had so numbed me for the past year.

Scruffiness. Another of my primary impressions of the railway. Walking up Rifle Range Road on my way to Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, I would observe the railway tracks by the road. On one side, orderly terrace houses. On the other side, shopping complexes, in the middle, these dilapidated colonial-era tracks, surrounding by exuberant vegetation. A little tube of unruliness cutting through this spick-and-span island.

To this day, I enjoy hearing the hoot of trains and watching them pass. And I wonder if it’s because I associate trains with KTM trains, once my means of escape from homogeneity and predictability.


I’d read this comment on Singapore’s urban planning before but I’d forgotten how good it was as a reminder of the drawbacks of Singapore’s conscious decision to plan its land use along modernist lines:

It seems that everyone has focussed excessively on what is wrong with the public transport system while ignoring the bigger contextual paradigm shift.

Much of Singapore’s planning is based on the mid 20th Century modernist precept of division of zones, ideal cities as friction-free environments with smooth transport accessibility – and a large part of the urban thinking behind present-day Singapore was based on a 1963 UNDP report of 3 urban experts.

The verdict then was that Singapore (inner city) would be congested if it only grew along traditional corridors to its periphery. (Queenstown, being relatively ulu in those days). Hence congestion would be alleviated if we had expressways linking new towns out in the suburbs into the city centre. (Which if you remember, in the 1980s, Singapore’s CBD was pretty lifeless at night).

Most of us who have travelled to other cities would note that such a modernist ideal of separation of zones, planning, strict land-use, does not exist in such stark terms because they depend very much on a pedestrian city block. People walk as a means of transports along busy streets with retail life to their nearest metro or even to their workplace. If you lived at CLementi Ave 6, think of how many shops and fellow pedestrians you would walk past on your way to Clementi MRT. (answer = none, because of trees, because you have to take a bus to the MRT station)

To give another analogy, metropolitan Paris within the peripherique is equivalent in area to Raffles Place extended out to Toa Payoh. (or not much further beyond) and it is humanly possible to walk through most of Paris in an entire day. My point is that as a result of decisions and choices made in the early days of Singapore’s physical development, the scale of Singapore’s planning and where most Singaporeans live, almost everyone who cannot afford a car needs to rely on public transportation (over long distances) to get to where they need to get to.

The infrastructure for pedestrians is purely utilitarian – in terms of covered walkways, air-conditioned underpasses in the shopping district – is purely a means of accessing the main stations. As such, walking as a means of transport is not enabled. (Because we do not have tight streets and blocks lined with shops, sidewalk interactions, etc…that used to characterise our now sanitised five-foot-ways.) By contrast, for example, New Yorkers walk a lot… and many walk long distances. (arguing about our climate is a different matter)

So in a sense, Singapore’s scale is such that it relies so much on either the expressway or the MRT (or the bus through very circuitous routes) to get from one place to another. When its population faces a sudden spurt in away that was not planned for, it becomes obvious that the entire transportation system comes under duress.

While our climate is foreboding, I find that we rely too much on transportation itself as a way of life. That it is close to impossible (maybe except for those lucky few who live in Tiong Bahru, chinatown or Outram) to walk and easily access different places and amenities sans public transport. Nor is there any cycling infrastructure or dedicated (and shaded, since our weather needs it) cycling paths..

We seem weirdly proud of our urbanism and ready to export our ‘solutions’ to places like Rwanda or China when really, without understanding the inherent humanism in cities in a more down to earth way. (read Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities) We have so much more to learn from other more human cities that are not only in Europe, but in more ‘backward’ places like Bogota in Colombia (which has an extensive network of cycling paths connected to transit) or Mexico City.

Whenever someone claims that Singapore’s planning problems are in any sense inevitable, ask yourself how far those problems were due to the conscious decision to embrace modernist planning.

Curb white-collar driving on roads

(Because this is too good not to be parodied. I have left his grammatical errors untouched.)

THE explosion in the number of adults taking up driving on public roads, who are also usually well-educated, has swayed public opinion.

Drivers have managed to paint other road users, particularly cyclists, as irresponsible, especially in according drivers the right to endanger cyclists’ lives.

Yet every day, scores of drivers occupy all the lanes along Upper Thomson Road and other roads.

It takes only a single driver with his “reasonable” appeal to be allowed to emit noise and air pollution to disrupt optimum usage of a public stretch for other users.

It does not make sense to encourage driving on public roads.

I can sympathise with the poor blue-collar worker commuting daily from Johor Bahru but not the white-collar worker who lives an easy train ride away from her workplace. To those who still insist on driving, kindly stick to your video games at home.

It is safer and in the best interest of the public.

The original:

Curb recreational cycling on roads

THE explosion in the number of adults taking up recreational cycling on public roads, who are also usually well-educated, has swayed public opinion.

Recreational cyclists have managed to paint other road users, particularly motorists, as irresponsible, especially in according cyclists the right to use public roads.

Yet almost every morning, scores of cyclists occupy a full lane along Upper Thomson Road and other roads.

It takes only a single cyclist with his “reasonable” appeal for a 1.5m safe distance from a motorist to disrupt optimum usage of a public stretch for other users.

It does not make sense to encourage recreational cycling on public roads.

I can sympathise with the poor blue-collar worker cycling to work but not a recreational cyclist. To those who still insist on cycling, kindly use your stationary bike in your home or gym.

It is safer and in the best interest of the public.

Dr Terence Teoh

New Urbanists Who Admire Singapore’s Urban Planning

I just learned, via this blog, that they exist. I’m frankly astonished. I suspect few of these admirers have actually lived there. Superficially, Singapore may seem to align with New Urbanist ideals because of the high ownership taxes on cars, which have slowed down the growth of the car population, but it fails in a major way on these other fronts:

  1. Road design. While it is very expensive to own a car, if you do own one, you get treated to infrequent stop lights and many, many wide arterial roads and expressways, so cars can go much faster than they would in American cities of similar sizes. There are no traffic calming measures that I know of. This makes being a pedestrian or cyclist very uncomfortable. Furthermore, it is very difficult to find alternate routes for walking or biking on, because arterial roads are rarely interrupted by minor roads, so you’re often forced to take arterial roads just so you can cross yet another arterial road.
  2. Walkability. As mentioned in 1., there are few intersections, so pedestrians often have to walk a long way to cross roads, and the roads are wide, so it takes a long time to cross. Traffic light crossings at wide roads also mean waiting a really long time, in scorching 90 degree weather with 90% humidity. Also, most people live in high rise buildings, which gives an appearance of ‘density’, but they are built in clusters widely separated by empty land that the state is keeping for future development. If you live in a cluster far from the local urban center, you may be completely reliant on infrequent feeder buses or a private car to run routine errands. Or, you can brave the roads on your bike, which few are willing to do.
  3. There are no mixed use neighborhoods. None. The “new towns” most people live in consist of high rises with little or no commercial development on the ground floor, with commercial developments clustered at the nearest subway station. If you live a more than walkable distance from the subway station, good luck. Rich people live in terrace houses or bungalows, but these similarly are not interspersed with commercial developments — since these people are rich, they can drive to town centers to run errands, so the lack of walkability does not bother them.
  4. Very little variety of dwelling types. Most people live in high-rise public housing that looks very homogeneous.

I grew up in Singapore and have since lived in Chicago and Pittsburgh, and I found the latter two cities far more livable, and closer to fulfilling New Urbanist ideals, than Singapore is.

In Paris, bus lanes = bike lanes

Bus lanes in Paris are physically separated from car lanes, so that motorists are less tempted to cut into the bus lane, but if the street has only one car lane, the dividers are low enough so that emergency vehicles can cut across lanes to get ahead. Furthermore, the bus lanes are wide enough to let two-wheeled vehicles pass stopped buses. Two-wheeled vehicles are allowed in the bus lanes even though some roads have parallel bike lanes.

Human Transit has pictures and more.

As a comparison, some Singaporean drivers seem to think that 1) cyclists shouldn’t be in bus lanes, and 2) if a cyclist is in a bus lane during the bus lane hours, it’s OK for cars to violate traffic law, cut into the bus lane and pass the cyclist at a dangerous distance.

A good sign?

There have been calls for Singapore to turn the current KTM railway into a kind of bikeway/nature corridor. Perhaps tellingly, buried in this New York Times article on NYC’s High Line is this:

Recently a team from Singapore (Is there really anything old and rusty in Singapore?) spent time on the landscaped walkways that stretch from Gansevoort Street to West 20th Street.

It just so happens that we do have something old and rusty that will not be used anymore in about a year’s time! It’s heartening that Singapore sent a team to NYC to study the high line — brings some hope that the nature corridor proposal might actually come through.

Intersection density and walkability

In my feedback for URA’s Concept Plan 2011, I followed up on the suggestions of the focus group to improve walkability. From comparing my own experiences walking in Singapore versus elsewhere, I found that I enjoyed walking much more in cities with frequent intersections. It means you don’t have to walk a long way to the next intersection if you want to cross a road, and it also slows down traffic, thus increasing the pleasantness of the environment for walkers. Apparently there’s now a study supporting my intuition.

In terms of friendliness to cyclists, too high an intersection density might prove annoying unless there is a “green wave”. But too low a density, as is the case in Singapore, means that the few intersections there are tend to be large and high traffic. These tend to be more dangerous for cyclists. The parts of my Singapore commute I dreaded most were the tricky intersections. After many hours of staring at maps I was still unable to purge them from my commute, and any commute from the northeast to the west of Singapore remains woefully unconnected by any park connectors.


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