Sunday, August 9, 2015

Singapore's government built transit infrastructure, and the infrastructure built Singapore

Today is the 50th anniversary of Singapore's founding, and a day of massive celebration. As part of the festivities, everyone gets free rides on public transit today. The government keeps buses and subways very cheap here by any other First World city's standards, so it doesn't make much of a difference. You can go from one end of the island to the other on the subway for under 2 US dollars, with shorter journeys under $1. But it's been fun to watch people board city buses and smile a little about getting something literally for free.

Western media sometimes describes Singapore as having a fundamentally capitalist economy. I wish they'd tell people that everyone rides elephants to work here instead. That would be equally false, but much more entertaining. From transit to health care to food to housing, the best things about this island have been built with a great deal of government involvement and planning -- often at levels unheard of in the US. Going into detail about health care, food, and housing (80% of Singaporeans live in government-owned public housing!) would prevent me from watching National Day festivities with my friends and drinking whiskey, so I'll just talk about transit for now.

Public transit systems everywhere are government projects, and Singapore's Mass Rapid Transit system (the subway) is no different. As far as I can tell, the hero of the MRT was a Minister named Ong Teng Cheong, who convinced the government to spend billions of dollars building it in the early 1980s. Here's Mr. Ong at the time, talking about what was to come:
"this is going to be the most expensive single project to be undertaken in Singapore. The last thing that we want to do is to squander away our hard-earned reserves and leave behind enormous debt for our children and our grandchildren. Now since we are sure that this is not going to be the case, we'll proceed with the MRT, and the MRT will usher in a new phase in Singapore's development and bring about a better life for all of us."
I also like his quote about positive externalities:
"the Government has now taken a firm decision to build the MRT. The MRT is much more than a transport investment, and must be viewed in its wider economic perspective. The boost it'll provide to long term investors' confidence, the multiplier effect and how MRT will lead to the enhancement of the intrinsic value of Singapore's real estate are spin-offs that cannot be ignored."
That's what happens when you build good transit. Lots of the stuff around major transit nodes becomes much more valuable, because people can easily access it and interact with it in positive-sum ways. They say that the three most important determiners of real estate values are location, location, and location. By building good transit, you can put huge immobile structures in a better location! Who knew that you could do that? Well, Mr. Ong did, and he made it a focus of Singaporean government policy.

If anyone wants to see a map of the MRT system, here it is in all its interconnected subway glory:

There's basically no way to get everyone where they're going in this place with cars. The island is basically 20 miles east-west and 15 miles north-south with 5-6 million people, so if everyone had a car you'd probably have to pave the entire island for them to get anywhere. That's why Singapore imposes car taxes of epic proportions. To buy a car, you have to pay a tax that's usually around 100% of the car's value. On top of that, you have to buy a "Certificate of Entitlement" to own the car for ten years, and those usually go over $50K apiece in USD. In the end, owning a Toyota Prius will cost you over a hundred thousand US dollars. The government rakes in the revenue from rich people who have lots of money to blow on cars, and then pours it back out into building transit for people who don't have cars.

I'd say that Singaporean transit is every US lefty urban planner's dream come true, but that isn't quite accurate. Their wildest dreams fall far short of the Singaporean reality. 

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