Singapore Haze

I spent the two weeks in Singapore for Future Cities (2013): at the Singapore-ETH Centre for Global Environmental Sustainability (SEC), the need for which was clearly demonstrated by the unsustainable air quality. I gave a talk to the students about the Evolution of Networks, and got to tour Singapore and meet with colleagues and meet some new people. All in all, a quite productive trip, though I am still recovering from the 11 hour timezone shift and the 18 hours in a really uncomfortable aircraft (Boeing 777-200) [though in retrospect, not as uncomfortable as it might have been]. My slides are here.

Some brief and largely random comments about the trip (both the “getting there” and the “being there”) below.

At LaGuardia Airport I noted that you order from the unimpressive Ciba restaurant with an iPad (one of two of which were out of order, consistent with my general impression of New York, and whose main advantage to the vendor seems to be further deskilling of fast-food staff). At MSP the solution from the same vendor is more elegant. The new trend in airports seems to be deployment of iPads ubiquitously in waiting lounges, and integration of waiting lounges to food eating areas. MSP Airport has remodeled Concourse G to look like this:

MSP PierG

On the flight there, I saw the following films: Silver Linings Playbook, Lincoln, Mamma Mia, Argo, and No Country for Old Men as they were meant to be seen, on a small flatscreen on the back of someone’s headrest. Lincoln and Argo were totally predictable (i.e. I remember the history), though they were decent films, and if you don’t remember how the US Civil War or Iranian Revolution turned out, I won’t insert spoilers. Mamma Mia was also predictable in its way, and though Greece looks lovely, it seems there was a lot of giggling. The Abba music was ruined for me. SLP was better than expected, though a bit formulaic. No Country for Old Men followed a quite different formula, was violent, but worth seeing.

On the trip there and back, I kept the same flight number, so originally I thought I would not have to change planes. That is the trick the airline (Delta) uses to convince you to take their flight. Nevertheless, we changed planes at Narita, Japan. This is a much more luxurious environment to wait in then even the remodeled MSP, including decorative fountains. Of course I had to pass through security at Narita, because, while I was on the plane thousands of feet over the Pacific, emerging from the secure environment in the US, I might have somehow acquired something threatening I shouldn’t have. I am not clear for the reasons for this, but nevertheless Japanese security is like the good-ole-days in the US, where inspection was casual. They were overstaffed, though the lines moved slow. I assume this is an employment measure rather than a security measure.

At Singapore, Changi Airport, it moved really easily to exit through Immigration and Customs. There was a 5 minute line for taxis (it was 1 am, and I wasn’t going to figure out mass transit for the first time). The taxis themselves are a major mode of travel in Singapore (not just the airport).

In the taxi, the Music on the radio was quite familiar, as if I had landed at LAX instead of 11 timezones away. The first song to come on was “Don’t you forget about me”, the next song was something I had not previously heard by Shania Twain with an H-Pop flavor. I think it was this (I’m Gonna Getcha Good Sahara remix) (for those who like their Canadian songbirds with a bit of curry).

The taxi culture in Singapore (aside from the airport) is interesting. In many places there are taxi stands where you can hail a cab, but most cabs seem summoned from smartphone apps. Taxi drivers are often not interested in taking you (when hailed), if it doesn’t go in the right direction. Their utilization rate seems much higher than say Manhattan, i.e. they are mostly occupied and rarely cruising for fares. When you do have a cab dispatched it is fairly reliable. I am told cabs are a way for people to afford automobiles who otherwise couldn’t, and so are often used for private travel rather than carrying fares, which is a bonus.

Singapore, for those who might think that high-density implies less automobiles, is a very motorized country, with very nicely landscaped Expressways across the island. There are some bus stops on the side of the expressways (like a low-tech version of US Freeway BRT), but they are basically fully grade separated. In peak hours (though not 1 am) they suffer congestion, as the Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) only covers downtown. There is a proposal for ERP2, which would be a geographically broader congestion-based time-of-day system, but it has not been approved yet. If this is implemented, it is expected the fixed cost of auto-ownership might be reduced. The current high fixed costs (and relatively low variable costs) encourage those who have cars to maximize their use (disregarding the sunk costs are sunk logic). Auto-ownership is quite expensive, with a Certificate of Entitlement required to get a car (ensuring the total number of cars does not exceed the quota), along with a high level of taxes, putting a small car in the $100K range. Yet private motor vehicle mode share for journey to work is estimated at 33%. (Though this seems high, and includes carpools). Cycling is approximately non-existent. How many Americans would still drive to work if the cost of a car was 3 times what it is now (the price of a small house)?

SingaporeMap

Even with a 22% walking mode share, the general impression of Singapore is that it is not “pedestrian-friendly”. Not that there are not sidewalks, because there usually are, but that the streets are very wide, the cycle-lengths are very long, official pedestrian street crossings are spaced far apart, and the paths are circuitous, and often the streets and sidewalks are torn up for construction. To go between the apartment I was staying at in Kent Vale, and the building I was working at (CREATE Tower) was about 20 minutes walking (1.4 km), but as the crow flies would have been less than half that. The area is very new, the actual buildings that I was staying and working in are shown under construction in the attached satellite view. The connectivity between adjacent neighborhoods is not universally existent either in the newer areas. The concept is very much 1960s era planning, where you can walk within your precinct, but should take a “higher” mode to travel between precincts. The weather (generally hot and humid, not surprising being so close to the equator, and more recently hazy; though notably not as hot as Minneapolis, nor so hazy on the days I was there that I needed to use the masks I purchased in bulk from Menards) is also not conducive to long distance walking, and Singaporeans seem not to do it, walking is a feeder mode to transit, taxi, or the private car.

WalkToCREATE

Bus stops in Singapore are better marked, with more route information than those in Minneapolis, but not as clear as London (pdf). The buses are fairly frequent on most route, though bus bunching is a common problem. Buses work best as a feeder to the MRT system, longer distance buses tend to be slow with lots of stops.

The buses themselves are well-kept, clean and safe (like most of the country). Most people use the smart fare-card system to pay for transit, though a few still used coins.

The MRT is a very efficient (though crowded) mostly elevated, sometimes subterranean rail mass transit system serving the island. Service is frequent, the trains clean and fast. Many of the train stations are engulfed in shopping malls of one kind or another. Shopping is a Singapore specialty, with shopping centers themselves exhibiting specialization. While many would be general high-end or low-end centers, two specialized in electronics, and apparently another specializes in prostitution. A friend reminds me there is an old one remodelled to cater to the arts, school supplies, etc. A Thai mall for the local Thai community; Lucky Plaza – a cheap place on Orchard.

The island clearly views itself as encapsulating the modern. There are cranes everywhere, construction is rampant, and clearly there is a premium on the new, the new is viewed as better. History is preserved in places: some older neighborhoods: Little India and China Town, and a few Museums which were interesting and well-maintained: Asian Civilisations Museum, Peranakan Museum, and the best, the National Museum of Singapore. However even respect for the deceased to “rest in peace” is threatened, we toured the Bukit Brown cemetery (near the lovely botanical gardens), which with very nice gravesites of very famous Singaporeans, is a bit run down and in the path of a new arterial roadway, and one suspects slated for development given the location of a non-operational MRT station.

Singapore is well known for its food, and its history as a trading center and the locale of cultural mixing has aided that. The non-chain, non-mall restaurants were very good (the mall restaurants were generally disappointing), but the best part were the Hawker Centres, which Americans would call Food Courts. There were a variety of stalls selling various local specialties, all of which are good, and more importantly inexpensive, meaning the value proposition was excellent. (In many ways McDonald’s is the “best choice” for hamburgers, not because they are tastiest, but because the ratio of taste to cost is higher than more expensive restaurants, where expectations are higher and often not met). The courts were not always air conditioned, but for a quick tasty meal, they were valuable. And the variety on offer is enabled by the high density of residents and workers nearby.

I have an interest in planned communities, and the tour of some New Towns (in particular Punggol which wikipedia says, means “hurling sticks at the branches of fruit trees to bring them down to the ground” in Malay) was interesting. The towns are basically residential districts with local shopping and schools, and access to the regional transportation network. There might be some larger regional park facilities if the natural environment warrants. For instance, at one site, row upon row of seemingly identical 17 story housing blocks is the principal design. Between the towers is a small “ground level” park, which is really above ground, below which is parking for some of the residents who have cars. This park includes some playgrounds and exercise facilities for senior residents. Within a few hundred meters would be a local, elevated, automated LRT feeder line, which connects to the regional MRT. The housing estates are designed to be ethnically integrated and age-integrated. Grandparents play an important child-raising function while the parents are at work, which is far less common in the US.

The Clementi new town was the nearest rail station / bus interchange to where I was saying, and had an excellent mix of shops and a fantastic bakery with items for less than $1 (Singaporean). The name of the town points out a navigability problem Singapore presents. Road names are often repeated (not just Road vs. Avenue, but also Clementi Avenue 1, Clementi Avenue 2, etc.). Locals understand this. Non-locals (I) find this strange.

All in all a good trip, and I thank my hosts at ETH Future Cities Laboratory.

As with anyone on an 18 hour flight, I saw a number of movies on the way back as well:

  • The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a needlessly complicated version of the nice book by that congenial British gentleman, JRR Tolkien. We missed it in the theaters due to reviews, a wise decision. Just because you liked Lord of the Rings, don’t assume you will like this.
  • Burn After Reading is an amusing movie of the actions of very stupid people. But the summary at the end by the CIA senior bureaucrat is hilarious.
  • Hitchcock is an above average biopic that goes behind the scenes of the making of Psycho.
  • This is 40 is also entertaining, like a more realistic version of Modern Family.