On 1 January 2017, the Independent Subway System (IND) Second Avenue Line, more commonly known as the Second Avenue Subway (SAS) in New York City that was already planned since 1919 finally opened to public after decades of delay. While Singapore is far luckier in that delays in extending the MRT network are more on construction issues such as on the Circle Line (CCL) after the 2004 Nicoll Highway collapse and the delays on completing Downtown Line stage 2 (DTL2) that eventually sped up as a result of a contractor going bust, we can still take lessons from the progress of the SAS in planning and executing new MRT projects:
1. Economic hardships can sabotage new MRT projects.
Planning of the SAS was well underway in the 1920s and by 1929, the New York’s transport authorities had approved the new IND extension with the line to tentatively open by the end of the 1930s. Real estate prices along the proposed route also soared as a result. Unfortunately the Great Depression that followed made construction costs prohibitively expensive and the city and the state were unable to fund the project. Even with the line scaled down, plans were postponed and eventually sidelined with the outbreak of World War II.
Even today, times of economic crisis can harm urban rail projects as seen with the death knell of an elevated road and rail project for Bangkok with the Asian Financial Crisis (AFC) of 1997 or the withdrawal of contractor Hitachi from the monorail project in Kuala Lumpur. Even in Singapore, which came out relatively unscathed by the AFC, it slowed down the development of the MRT, which was normally planned far in advance in coordination with new housing projects by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) as highlighted by the 1991 Concept Plan. However, with the fall in demand for property, the HDB slowed down construction of flats and new towns such as Seletar Regional Centre to reduce the excess supply of property (cue the ghost towns of modern China). As a result, the LTA also slowed down the development of the MRT as it was now less economically viable to build new MRT stations and lines without the corresponding demand from nearby developments and property. Unfortunately, the slowed down developments on the MRT network did not help with a burgeoning population in Singapore that hit 5 million by 2010. The breakdowns on the MRT network that followed into the decade further highlighted that the existing infrastructure of the MRT was inadequate for a more-than-5 million population of Singapore, hence spurring the government to further propose further extensions for the MRT network. In 2013, the Land Transport Master Plan of 2013 was revealed to public and called for new MRT lines such as the Jurong Region Line (JRL), the Cross-Island Line (CRL), a North East Line (NEL) extension to Punggol North, closing the loop in the Circle Line (CCL) and the extension of DTL stage 3 to Sungei Bedok.
2. Public funding has to be directed to all the appropriate infrastructure for the better of a city.
One particular figure one would love to hate in the history of urban development of the Big Apple would be Robert Moses, the ‘master builder’ of New York City:
Born in 1888 and educated in Yale, Oxford and Columbia, he came to be a key urban planner in New York City, being the brainchild behind the extensive parkway network in Long Island and numerous bridges such as the Triborough Bridge. He was the mover behind Shea Stadium and Lincoln Center, contributed to the United Nations (UN) headquarters and was also a key figure behind the organisation of the World’s Fairs of 1939 and 1964.
However, his contributions and actions also came with a very high cost on the very city he helped to reshape. Public transport was sidelined heavily by Moses and was even compromised in the name of improving traffic flow. Some of these examples include the close-down of New York’s tram lines and making key locations in New York like Idlewild Airport (today’s JFK International Airport) unreachable by public transportation. More importantly, the Second Avenue Subway project could not resume as public funds were withheld by Moses who instead directed it to major road projects that caused the reverse of the intended outcome of reduced traffic jams. In fact, the New York City Subway actually deteriorated throughout his career from one of the best to one of the worst.
In contrast the Singapore government has instead taken a holistic approach to developing the Singapore city. Throughout the 1960s to the present day it also aggressively expanded the expressway network of Singapore, from the development of the Pan-Island Expressway in 1964 to the more recent development of the North South Expressway to improve the roads in Singapore. Even then, the government has also acknowledged the downsides of over-reliance of cars and roads and have worked on improving the public transportation system in Singapore, with improvement of public buses through means from the 1971 bus reorganisation to the more recent Bus Service Enhancement Programme (BSEP) and Bus Contracting Model (BCM), the building and expansion of an MRT network since 1987, promoting cycling towns with Park Connectors and bicycle lane-cum-pedestrian pavements and researching into new modes of transportation such as autonomous electric vehicles to solve the last mile problem faced by public transportation.
In other words the government has to take an all-rounder approach when it comes to the question of land transportation in a city. For example, the government has to put effort in improving public transportation and ensure that it is comprehensive enough so as to allow for convenient access to any part of the city anywhere, whether it be going from Bedok to the schools in Bukit Timah or be from Jurong West to Changi Airport. However, it also needs to be aware of the needs of pedestrians and cyclists and thus, provide the necessary infrastructure like pavements and car-free zones to make a city more livable and at the same time, also be aware of the needs of road users like logistic companies transporting cargo and improve the roads for this.
3. Long-term commitment is required to get a rail project done, up and running.
One of the reasons behind the massive delay of construction of the SAS can be traced to the lack of full commitment to the project, which can be seen with the frequent granting of funds from the government to construct the line only to see such funds withdrawn, plans being drawn up only to be cancelled or shelved or construction commencing only to halt. Even now, the second phase of the SAS could well be pushed back to the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA)’s 2020-2024 capital plan with the MTA not being able to secure the tunnel boring machine (TBM) by 2019.
In Singapore, while such a problem is not evident in the LTA or the Transport Ministry (MOT), even they have been forced to cut back on many of their ambitious plans laid out in 1996 in the White Paper such as the MRT links to Lim Chu Kang (a remaining rural region in Singapore), Pulau Ubin or Pulau Tekong (where the Basic Military Training Centre is located and also a proposed site for HDB development) due to economic hardships as stated above. The rail operator SMRT also somewhat lost their focus on the maintenance regime during the same period as it was incorporated and listed on the Singapore Stock Exchange and diversified into retail under its then-CEO Saw Peck Hwa. It was only after the multiple breakdowns in 2011 and 2012 that got them back to their feet and led to the aggressive expansion of the rail network from 2013 onwards and the renewal of the NSEWL (sleeper replacement, signalling upgrade, third rail replacement, etc) by SMRT.