At 6 a.m. one weekday morning, 64-year-old taxi driver Koh Chia Hock set out to ply Singapore’s roads when it started raining. So he turned around and went home.
“If I go and fetch a customer, it’s very risky,” said Koh, as the heavy traffic raises the chance of an accident that could leave him without earnings while the car is repaired. “I don’t have the stomach for it. I don’t want to drive when it rains.”
Cab drivers like Koh are avoiding the traffic jams that have become a hallmark of Singapore’s tropical rainstorms after a jump in the city’s population and a surge in vehicles clogged roads. As the government shuts the center of the city this weekend for the annual Formula One street race, residents are bracing for even more delays.
“This is a problem that has been accumulated over many years -- infrastructure investment has not kept pace with the demand,” said Irvin Seah, a senior economist at DBS Group Holdings Ltd. in Singapore who was part of the nation’s economic review committee in the early 2000s. “With the congestion, time will be lost in traffic jams and that’s essentially money.”
Singapore’s roads are trying to cope with a population that has jumped by more than 1.1 million since mid-2004 to 5.3 million. Taxi waiting times of an hour or more are tarnishing the city-state’s reputation for efficiency as the government works to turn the island into a regional center for industries such as biotechnology and wealth management.
The 1996 transport system white paper planned for a population of 4 million by 2030. A government report this year said the number of people on the island that’s less than a third of the size of Luxembourg may grow to 6.9 million by then.
Singapore closed roads on Wednesday in the city center for six days for the Formula One night race and related activities, according to the Land Transport Authority. The closures add to the congestion downtown, said Song Seng Wun, an economist at CIMB Group Holdings Bhd. (CIMB) in Singapore.
“It is an annual inconvenience,” said Song.
Singapore is spending S$60 billion ($48 billion) on new subway lines and at least another S$12 billion on buses and highways to try to rein in the congestion and allow for future growth. While those projects will roll out over the next 17 years, overcrowding and delays are beginning to affect the image of a city often considered a model in the world.
Singapore’s place on the IMD World Competitiveness Ranking has fallen to fifth in 2013 since topping the list in 2010, as its marks for basic infrastructure and business productivity and efficiency fell. Singapore ranked below Kuala Lumpur and New Delhi in a survey of commuters’ experience based on speed, cost of travel and overall comfort, released in 2011 by Frost & Sullivan Inc.
“New rail lines typically require a long lead time,” said Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew in e-mailed answers to questions. “As a result, we are experiencing overcrowding at the moment in our public transport network.”
To try to curb the increase in traffic, the government has cut the growth in licenses for new cars to 0.5 percent, from 3 percent annually between 1990 and 2008. The number of licensed vehicles on the roads increased 35 percent from 2001 to 2011.
Simon Yeo, a business development consultant, now wakes up at 6 a.m., two hours earlier than he used to, in order to beat the traffic on his 21-kilometer (13-mile) commute.
“I lose a lot of sleep, but I still don’t feel as tired in terms of how strenuous it is getting stuck in major traffic,” said Yeo, 32.
Road congestion costs Asian economies an estimated 2 percent to 5 percent of gross domestic product a year due to lost time and higher transport costs, according to the Asian Development Bank’s website.
“There are too many cars,” said taxi driver Koh, who says it takes twice as long to get to the city center than when he started driving cabs a decade ago. “It’s not that there are too few taxis, it’s just that if they are not occupied, they are caught in jams.”
“Reputational damage will come when it seeps into the minds of visitors, that they see better infrastructure elsewhere and they don’t see the same in Singapore,” said Wai Ho Leong, a Singapore-based economist at Barclays Plc who helped analyze the city’s tourism projects when he worked at the Ministry of Trade and Industry. “I think it’s slowly seeping in.”
That’s the case for Hong Kong-based Tsang Hin Cheng, a senior executive at a U.S bank who visits Singapore once a month.
“I love Singapore, but there’s always that hour you waste trying to get a taxi,” said Tsang, who has been coming to the city-state for 10 years. “It’s diabolical how bad the taxi situation is in Singapore. Remind me never to move here.”
The government’s Land Transport Authority says the average waiting time for a taxi in the city center during peak hours in March was 4.1 minutes and average traffic speed in the central business district in 2012 was 28.6 kilometers per hour (18 miles per hour).
Paul Barter, an adjunct professor of urban transport policy at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore who has advised city governments in China, Indonesia and Columbia on transport policy, says the figures don’t tell the real picture.
“Averages are very misleading,” said Barter, who has lived in the city-state for 12 years. “Things are not quite as bad as some people have been saying, they’re not quite as rosy as the government has been saying.”
ComfortDelGro Corp Ltd. (CD), Singapore’s biggest cab operator, estimates that almost 95 percent of its 16,300 fleet is in service during wet weather, the company said in an e-mail. Many taxis are caught in traffic jams when it rains, it said. The island has about 137 rain days a year, according to government data.
The figures from Comfort and the government are little consolation for office workers waiting hours to get a taxi.
“If it rains, I never get a cab,” said Nitin Damodaran, a private banker based in the city’s central business district. “Try getting a cab on Friday evenings. It’s impossible. I don’t know where all the cabs disappear to.”
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