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The Singapore solution

By Chris Winslow - posted Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Sydney is grinding to a halt. It has more than 600 registered vehicles per 1,000 people. Its motorways and arterial roads are clogged, while the social, environmental and economic costs of traffic congestion continue to rise. The average peak hour traffic speed has slowed to 31km/h and people are spending more time stuck in their cars and less at their desks or in their homes. The situation in Melbourne and South East Queensland is not much better.

There is no shortage of blueprints for fixing the problem. Most involve large investments in public transport, changes to town planning and greater use of tolls and peak hour congestion charges, such as the one levied in London or Singapore.

The first problem they must contend with is the correlation between affluence and people’s desire to own and drive cars more often - regardless of how good the public transport may be.


As a proportion of average yearly earnings, cars are getting less expensive to buy, and may become downright cheap once Chinese cars start to hit the market.

The second problem is the subsequent correlation between car ownership and urban sprawl. The majority of vehicle trips do not occur on the way into or out of central business districts, but in the suburbs, clogging roads around business parks, schools and shopping malls. A congestion charge on Sydney’s CBD won’t help suburban centres like Chatswood, North Ryde, Parramatta or Liverpool.

Finally, switching to hybrid cars may help to clear the air, but it wouldn’t undo the traffic snarls.

The good news is that Singapore’s experience with the car not only demonstrates the problem, but offers Australia’s largest cities a way to escape their polluted, gridlocked destiny. Sydneysiders visiting Singapore are usually amazed by their superb public transportation system. The MRT rail network is cheap, efficient and spotlessly clean. Buses and trains share an integrated ticketing system. Taxis are plentiful and inexpensive.

These are just the outward signs of a successful mass transit system. Less visible to foreign visitors and the media is Singapore’s innovative road user charging system.

Public transport is well-patronised and traffic flows relatively freely because private vehicles are kept expensive relative to the price of public transport. No surprises there. What makes their system unique is the mechanism: the Vehicle Quota System. Although motorists are subject to the usual registration fees, congestion charges and petrol taxes, they must also bid at auction for both a Certificate of Entitlement (COE) to own a car, as well as the number plate they use.


It works something like this. The government determines how many cars the road network can sustain while maintaining acceptable average speeds during peak hours. In April each year the Land Transport Authority calculates a cap on the number of new vehicles that can hit the road, then allocates a monthly quota for COEs. Market forces take care of the rest.

There are two categories of non-renewable, non-transferable certificates for cars (Category A: less than 1600cc and taxis; and Category B: greater than 1600cc). Separate categories exist for motorcycles, as well as commercial vehicles and buses. There is also an “open” certificate (Category E), which may be obtained from the car dealer and which is transferable to any new vehicle if the buyer wants to do a trade in.

Not surprisingly, categories A and B may be obtained more cheaply if the buyer does their own bidding for a specified certificate at one of the regular, fortnightly auctions held by the Land Transport Authority. Bids may also be placed over the web at or via ATMs. Results are available over the Internet to ensure transparency and fairness.

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About the Author

Chris Winslow has a Master of International Studies degree (with Merit) from the University of Sydney. He is a public affairs officer from Sydney who has visited Singapore on a number of occasions, most recently in April 2007.

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