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Welcome to STop, the Seattle Times Opinion blog where our editorial writers and editors share their evolving thoughts on a variety of issues. STop is a place where opinion writers and readers can exchange views and readers can learn more about how editorial positions are formed.

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May 28, 2005

Singapore as Transit Heaven

On our competitor’s op-ed page Friday, Seattle resident Bernie Zuccarelli pays homage to the auto and transit policy of Singapore. To car owners, that Asian city-state is one of the most unfriendly places on Earth. It requires that before you buy a car, you buy a Certificate of Entitlement, which is a right to buy a car. These are issued in limited numbers—a few hundred a year—and auctioned off to the highest bidder. You can also buy one from an existing car owner, which requires that he scrap his car. After you buy the car—and there may be taxes on that—you have to pay an annual tax on engine displacement. The tax in U.S. dollars on a 600cc car is about $300 a year; on a 4000-cc car, $3,770. On top of that there is road pricing—that is, electronic tolls that vary by time of day, with higher charges for the central city.

The one time I was there, there were no traffic jams. And yes, Singapore has a transit system, both on rubber tires and steel wheels. But, like Mr. Zuccarelli, I was a tourist. A tourist generally carries a lot of stuff only from the airport to the hotel, and in Singapore will take a taxi. After that, he just carries himself--to the museum, the restaurant, the shopping district, wherever. It’s different when you live there. I lived in Hong Kong for three and a half years without a car. You can do it, but an American will feel the limitations of it.

You have to pick stuff up from a store—a piece of furniture, pots and pans, some sporting equipment. Where people don’t have cars, shops deliver, though the American does not like to cede control of what he’s just bought. It means someone has to be home to wait for the delivery. And most such cargo carrying is not from a store, but from one residence to another. Doing that is more difficult with transit. What if you want to meet some people for a barbecue, and you have to bring two bags of groceries and an ice chest of drinks? Or you have a baby in tow, or a couple of kids, and all their stuff? Or you want to get together four friends and go to the movie? The answer is: You can do most of these things without a car, but not as easily or quickly. (And it really helps if your friends have cars.)

The other thing is that Singapore is tiny, smaller than King County, but with 4 million people. Most of the people live in government apartments. Hong Kong is even more compact. It would be much harder to live without a car here.

Singapore has achieved its transit nirvana by using penalties. Our writer acknowledges this and then, a few sentences later, contradicts himself. He writes, “There is a cost structure that in and of itself makes it prohibitively expensive to own and operate a car.” Yes, and that wouldn’t go over well in the U.S.A. A few paragraphs later he recommends Singapore’s system, and says, “For Seattle and the cities that surround it, the answer must be a transit system so good that it all but forces people to leave their cars at home.” No such transit system is possible. What we're talking about here is taxing cars until people of moderate means are forced to sell them.

Basically, in Singapore you have to have a high income to drive. I like the no-traffic-jams part, but I just hope in that world I’d be one of the people with wheels.

Respond to Bruce.

 
Posted by Bruce Ramsey at May 28, 2005 08:38 AM



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