AN island approximately the size of Taveuni with a population of five million.
Crazy some will say. Others say it's downright impossible. At least that's what colleague and Taveuni native Nanise Loanakadavu said before I told her of Singapore.
I'm not sure as to how long I have been aware of Singapore. As a tertiary student, Singapore was synonymous with Lee Kuan Yew, the man acclaimed to be the father of modern Singapore. In leadership positions for over five decades, he was at the helm when this island nation grew from a colonial outpost with no natural resources into one of the economic Asian Tigers.
At the National Transport Consultative Forum organised by the Transport Planning Unit of the Ministry of Works last week at the Novotel, I heard one explanation as to how Singapore had made that leap.
Addressing the annual gathering was Loh Chow Kuang, the president and chief executive officer of Singapore Urban Transport International.
Loh told those who were present on the first day of the two-day forum: "Urban transport is a key pillar to a city or country. It enables residents to live, work, learn and play efficiently and facilitates them to access to opportunities open to them. It is also a key driver for economic growth.
"On the other hand, urban transport also impacts upon the environment and quality of life due to its negative consequences like pollution, congestion and safety issues. As such, an efficient and effective urban transport system will help contribute to a city's global competiveness, sustainable development, and liveability."
He said transport authorities the world over were facing a difficult task to better integrate with land use planning, speed up infrastructure development, source forfunding, reform institutions and strengthen capacity to address complex urban transport issues and challenges; while meeting the ever rising expectations of the travelling community.
In view of land and funding constraints, energy and climate change concerns, while recognising that no city can practically built more roads to solve congestion, Loh said there was a growing global trend towards promoting greater use of low-carbon, green transport, especially public transport, to ensure urban transport system was sustainable not only economically but also environmentally and socially.
Loh said the city-state of 700 square km with a population of five million had since the 1960s gone through rapid urban and economic development.
He said: "Despite the resident population has more than doubled, the vehicle population more than tripled; and the exponential increase in daily motorised trips, Singapore has avoided many negative consequences of urbanisation and social affluence typical in many major cities.
"Today, roads are congestion-free even during peak hours; and 60 per cent of the motorised trips are made on public transport."
He said Singapore had managed to control its vehicle population by introducing a very unpopular measure. Some of those who wanted to buy cars for personal use, found they had to pay up to $6000 in duty alone, if I remember correctly. And their government had improved the public transport system to such an extent it was "attractive" to the travelling public. These two measures coupled with political will, plus healthy capital injections, has resulted in what they experience today.
Loh said he could during a downpour, travel between his office and home, usethe public transport system "without a drop of rain on my shirt".
This is made possible by the kilometres of covered walkways that run between some residential areas, office areas and transport hubs.
He said that apart from the drive for excellence, meaning Singaporeans strive to be the best in the world in whatever they undertake, their comprehensive public transport system was the result of all the relevant government departments adopting a holistic approach to a people-centred service.
Apart from Loh, there were presentations over the two days from government, statutory bodies, the private sector and academics of which a few will be mentioned.
Caroline Waqabaca from the Reserve Bank of Fiji said the transport sector with its three subsectors, land, air and sea, accounted for 15 per cent of GDP, an increase from the 12 per cent in 1995. This gradual upward trend Waqabaca said was consistent with the resilience of tourism.
She said transport accounted for eight per cent of employment mostly in the male-dominated land transport. As a contributor to inflation, transport accounts for 16 per cent of any cost a consumer would have to pay. Waqabaca said the sector, with its heavy dependence on fuel, also accounted for 1/5 of imports.
Dr Mahendra Reddy Reddy of the Fiji National University put forward a case for an environmental fuel surcharge and congestion pricing.
This he said was necessary because "management of traffic is increasing becoming a challenge in a number of developing country towns and cities and Fiji is no exception".
Dr Reddy said traffic congestion was not just a menace to those on the streets but it also had an impact on the overall productively of our society and was a real threat to our development.
On how to deal with the threat he said: "But curbing the number of vehicles on our road may not be the correct strategy. This is because, increase in traffic on our roads are a sign of two good developments, one is that peoples income has risen and the second is economic activity is increasing and therefore, there is a need for more vehicles to assist in this process of increased economic activity. Hence we should not do anything which will have any negative impact on economic activity."
According to Dr Reddy, what we really want to deal with is to curb the use of private car. It is this category of vehicles that has clogged up our road network. And in this regard one cannot always focus on infrastructure but must also consider the supply side of things. About the surcharge he said: "It is well established in economics literature that imposing a fuel surcharge thus raising fuel price for luxury vehicle use is one way of discouraging luxury usage. It is suggested that we introduce a fuel surcharge at the pumps and the money collected goes to Ministry of Transport."
Expanding on his second suggestion, congestion pricing, Dr Reddy said: The other, well tested and effective strategy is to introduce Congestion pricing in Fiji's congested traffic ways.
"Congestion pricing is a concept from market economics regarding the use of pricing mechanisms to charge the users of public goods for the negative externalities generated by the peak demand in excess of available supply.
"Its economic rationale is that at a price of zero, demand exceeds supply, causing a shortage and that the shortage should be corrected by charging the equilibrium price rather than shifting it down by increasing the supply.
"What this means is imposing a toll during certain periods of time or at the places where congestion occurs."
Dr Reddy said congestion pricing was not to curb private vehicle use entirely but to urge for its more prudent use. He said this measure if implemented would only see road users paying only at peak hours and only where there was congestion. It would also spread the traffic.
Dr Sitiveni Yanuyanutawa of the Fiji National Council for Disabled Persons, said while their members enjoyed full bus fare concessions and taxi concessions, he highlighted the fact of there being no sea or air travel concessions and there were no public transport system provisions for disability access.
He said the way forward was through an integrated approach to have a public transport system that was disability-friendly based on a sound legal framework.
Next week: THE FUTURE