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23 July 2001

Road charges: the Singapore experience

Asia's jam-free utopia is based on expensive cars and a brilliantly efficient transit system

By Salil Tripathi

”The line of cars was continuous and motionless, still as a photograph,” wrote Evelyn Waugh in Scoop (1938), describing Julia Stitch’s journey from Hyde Park Corner to Piccadilly Circus. But does Ken Livingstone, with his plan to charge around 140,000 private car-owners £5 daily to enter central London, have the answer?

The Mayor of London says he wants to stop the capital becoming Europe’s Bangkok. The precedent most often quoted for road charging, however, is another Asian city – Singapore, a city the size of the Isle of Wight with about 220 cars per road-km, an auto density that is one of the highest in the world and more than double Britain’s. In Singapore’s central business district, traffic moves at 22mph.

But comparing London’s proposed scheme with Singapore’s intricate road transport policy is like comparing a Neanderthal club with a smart bomb.

For one thing, Singapore has an efficient rapid transit system. I had to think hard to recall the rare occasions in the eight years I lived in Singapore when the system suffered delays. In the two years I have lived in London, the Northern Line has regularly entertained me with imaginative excuses, including destinations that have changed after I have boarded the train, a surreal feat not achieved even by the overcrowded suburban trains of Bombay.

For another thing, if Singapore has achieved a jam-free utopia (in reality, all it has done is to delay by a few decades the jams that comparable cities suffer), it has little to do with road charging. The economics of motoring in Singapore are quite different from London. Cars are expensive. Besides import duty, sales tax, road tax (based on the car’s open market value) and petrol tax (almost as high as in Britain), the city allows its car population to rise by only 3 per cent a year and auctions off “certificates of entitlement” for between £10,000 and £15,000, and sometimes as much as £50,000. A Mercedes-Benz E320, therefore, costs £110,000, compared with £32,990 here; a Honda CRV £63,595, against £17,695 in London. Further, a car’s roadworthiness is restricted to ten years, after which the owner must scrap the car or pay fresh duty to continue using it.

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All this has two results. First, the money raised from these charges on cars – amounting to billions annually – has allowed Singapore to build expressways and tunnels on a scale unknown in London. There is no environmental lobby to oppose such development and, in any case, most Singaporeans know that disagreeing with government policy is a bad career move.

Second, the marginal cost of driving – the entry fee to the centre – is reasonable and affordable to most people. The fee is a modest 20p to 60p in most cases; during peak hours, it goes up to £1.20. Compare that with Livingstone’s £5 entry charge. In London, this seems likely to penalise the poor disproportionately; £5, after all, is the size of the tip a banker leaves at bars in the City. That is not a problem for Singapore, because the poor are excluded from owning cars by the high car prices, and they cannot get second-hand vehicles for £600, as many Londoners can. In any case, there are proportionately fewer poor people in Singapore, where taxes are low: retail tax at 3 per cent, and a top rate of income tax at 28 per cent only on incomes above £160,000 a year.

As Francois Lamoureux, the European Commission’s director general for energy and transport, points out, a modern transport policy must combine road pricing with investment in new infrastructure, alternative routes and public transport. Singapore’s road charging comes as part of a package on those lines, and people support it because they can see that it delivers. London has still seen only projections, not all of them realistic.

There is one realistic projection, however. Road charges and fines could raise £200m for the capital. That is why, in Britain and in the rest of Europe, cities eagerly wait to find out how the scheme works in London.

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