Singapore

Public transport ridership falls in 2020, trains hardest hit

Drop raises questions about sustainability of network; expert says it is unclear if usage will return to normal

Public transport ridership fell last year as expected, a slide that broke a trend of consecutive rises in the previous 15 years.

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) said yesterday that average daily ridership for buses and trains fell by 34.5 per cent to 5.04 million - an 11-year low.

Trains bore the brunt of the pandemic-induced change which forced many to work from home.

MRT and LRT rides fell by 41 per cent to 2.162 million a day.

Bus ridership fell by 30 per cent to 2.878 million a day.

The taxi and private-hire car sector, considered a hybrid between public and private transport, also took a hit.

Taxi rides dropped by 38 per cent to 219,000 a day, while private-hire car trips fell by 29 per cent to 297,000.

FIRST TIME

This is the first time the LTA has released annual private-hire numbers along with numbers for taxis, and they show what many observers have suspected - that taxis have now taken a back seat to private-hire cars.

The drop in public transport usage has raised questions about the financial sustainability of the network, which was designed with pre-pandemic usage in mind.

Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) transport economist Walter Theseira said it is unclear if public transport usage will return to pre-pandemic levels, and whether efforts to persuade people to work more from home would ever take root permanently.

"It is really hard to evaluate this because previous efforts to get workplaces to adopt flexible work and other practices have failed to deliver significant changes. The question is whether this time is different," he said.

Either way, he said the financial implications for infrastructural investments and operational viability are vast.

VIABILITY

"For commercial viability, I think not just in Singapore but also globally, this calls into question any licensing model which requires operators to cover costs and make profits based on fare revenues."

Prof Theseira said a government contracting model, where the state assumes revenue risk (such as the bus operations here), might be more viable.

The head of SUSS' urban transport management master's programme also said that the whole premise of public transport subsidies may have to be tweaked.

"It's an equity issue because it's only a minority of public transport users who really need high subsidies," he noted.

"Moving to a system where fares go up but income targeted subsidies also go up, may be fairer in the long run."

Transport