Posts Tagged: Singapore



Travel Early, Travel Free – Reducing Congestion on Singapore’s MRT

Last week, Steven wrote an interesting post about the psychology of travel decisions for public transit riders.

Unlike driving, riding a bus or train tends involve a host of a variables  (i.e. ticket price, wait times, transfer times, and dwell times) which ultimately affects a passenger’s decision. One of these factors, price, is probably one of the largest determinants in the minds of a passenger.

Knowing this fact, Singapore’s MRT system this past summer implemented an innovative 1-year pilot program to combat congestion — Travel Early, Travel Free.

The program is very straightforward — passengers who “tap out”/exit before 7:45am from one of sixteen designated MRT stations will not be charged for their ride.

Officials hope that for those who are willing to alter their schedules, they will travel just slightly earlier to help spread out the peak, and thereby, reducing peak hour crowding.

To help riders understand how their decisions can affect congestion, the LTA posted some telling images of what a huge difference 15 minutes can make.

730am. Bishan Station.

745am. Bishan Station.

800am. Bishan Station.

830am. Bishan Station.













Their overall objective is to entice 10-15% of riders to take advantage of this program. And to sweeten the deal, they decided to offer early-bird commuters free coffee on the first three days.

Whether or not this trial is successful remains to be seen but the results of this should definitely interest those in the public transit field.

While I do think this program will yield positive outcomes, one odd thing that I immediately noticed was the absence of a “leave early, leave free” deal. I mean, if you’re trying to reduce congestion during the morning, shouldn’t a similar program exist during the afternoon?

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Luminus via Tractus by Steven Dale


Rendering of the under-construction Blue Light Rail line in Lagos, Nigeria. Image via

Remember: Light Rail Transit (LRT) isn’t always Light Rail Transit. And that goes for all forms of public transportation.

Anyone recall our CPT / ART debate?

While we may like to pretend we work and live in a scientific field, the world of city-building and transit is anything but scientific.After all, there’s no official taxonomy of public transit technologies and I doubt we’ll see one anytime soon. (Note: While Vukan Vuchic’s Urban Transit textbooks have helped a lot in resolving this issue, even he admits to the slipperiness of transit vehicle definitions.)

Maybe we need a more defined definition of Light Rail Transit (Luminus via Tractus perhaps?), but until that time comes it’s important for everyone understand that the definition of a public transit technology isn’t arbitrary and objective – it’s subjective and as much about marketing as it is about anything else.

Consider the under-construction Blue LRT line in Lagos, Nigeria.

This system has confused more than a few people as all estimates of ridership suggest something far more robust than LRT (Yonah Freemark hints at this confusion in a post from a couple years back). From a technology perspective it’s virtually impossible to imagine any single LRT system carrying half a million riders per day (as this Lagos State Government document suggests), yet all the imagery (see above for example) and reports (see previous link for example) categorically reinforce the idea that Lagos’ first urban rail line is to be LRT in nature.

But it’s not. And we know that because of this:

Last week Railways Africa reported that Lagos state governor Babatunde Fashola has visited Toronto, Canada and is prepared to purchase a fleet of 15-year-old decommissioned subway cars in order to service the “light rail project.” The subway cars in question look like this:

"Light" Rail. Image by flickr user Loozrboy.

This is Heavy Rail Transit (HRT). Or Subway Transit. Or Metro Transit. Or Whatever You Want To Call It Transit (WYWTCIT) – but it’s clearly not Light Rail. There’s obviously a disconnect here between one person’s definition of Light Rail and another people’s definition.

That’s not to suggest nefarious doings or shenanigans on the part of anyone. It’s just to point out that when you read statistics about any given transportation technology, it’s important to consider the lens with which those statistics are being viewed through.

Calling Heavy Rail “light” doesn’t make it weigh any less.

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Singapore’s Sentosa Island Gondola, Part 2 – The Design

Last week I had the opportunity to tour the Sentosa Island Cable Car in Singapore. Special thanks to Andrew Seh and Dominic Teo, who gave me the tour, answered questions and provided some insight into this system. All images by Steven Dale.

To start with Part 1, click here.

Aesthetically, the Sentosa Island Gondola is a tale of two systems. It’s schizophrenic in its physicality, towing the line between stark utilitarianism and modern, urban chic. Never however, do those two aspects converge effectively. It’s as though there are two halves to its personality, and neither ever seem to want to meet the other.

The first half of that personality is functional, practical and to be perfectly honest – ugly. Interior station architecture is loud, dark and cramped. This is a shame as the exteriors of the stations are perfectly pleasant and acceptable. One moves from beautiful restaurant terraces and balconies into a space that makes one feel as though they’ve left a resort and entered a mechanic’s garage.

The Mount Faber Station Interior.

This is particularly true of the intermediary station which rests on the 15th floor of Harbourfront Tower Two. From the outside, it’s gleaming, modern and urban. One purchases a ticket in a marble atrium and is whisked up via private elevator to the 15th floor only to enter a room devoid of light, amenity and charm.

From this . . .

. . . to this . . .

. . . to this.

It has the exact same appeal as the undecorated floor of a financial district office tower. No attempt has been made to hide the guts.

Let’s make clear that this isn’t the fault of the technology. That may sound like I’m acting as a gondola apologist, but hear me out. We know that the infrastructure and architecture are somewhat separate from one another. As such, it cuts both ways: Station architecture can be beautiful and it can be ugly. For better or for worse, that’s not the choice of the technology, that’s the choice of the system owner.

Having said that, urban cable systems are more and more having to deal with issues of architecture and urban form, and the Sentosa Gondola frankly fails to live up to those expectations.

This is one of the biggest complaints I have about the system. Given the money that was spent on upgrades and new foundations, one expects some money to have been spent on station interiors. As mentioned yesterday, this system is almost exclusively marketed via its arguably excessive VIP cabins, yet it’s hard to imagine any VIP choosing to board the system in such austere environs.

This austerity isn’t helped by the decision to retain the hulking concrete support infrastructure for the system’s two intermediary towers. The decision to do so was a financial one and completely justifiable. So much money was being spent on other station and tower upgrades, it’s hard to rationalize new towers for purely aesthetic reasons.

Reuse of old concrete towers was a strong financial decision, but a poor aesthetic one.

At the same time, I think an opportunity was missed here.

MDG systems with little grade change typically require more towers to span such a long distance – the Lisbon gondola, for example has 9 intermediary towers distributed along less than 1km length. But the unique topography and the genius of using a skyscraper as an intermediary tower, eliminated that need.

Here was an opportunity to really demonstrate how little space such a system could occupy. Instead we’re left with towers that make the system feel much, much older than it actually is. It’s a totally understandable situation, but a shame nonetheless.

From an urban design perspective, the system shines around Harbourfront Tower Two. The area is completely urban. Buses, subways, offices, roads, pedestrian causeways and shopping all converge in one bustling area swarming with people, cars and transit. Here, the gondola is but one among many.

In the Harbourfront area, the gondola feels like a natural part of the environment and thoroughly modern.

At Harbourfront Tower Two the gondola is just a part of the world. As the surrounding architecture is a mass of modern steel and glass, the gondola appropriates that image. Because the area feels like the future, so does the gondola.

But that changes as soon as one passes from Harbourfront Tower Two into the port area, leading towards Sentosa Island. There, the system takes on a clunky, old-world feel. As the port is industrial, the gondola feels industrial. The same occurs as one approaches Sentosa Island. Surrounded by theme park rides and amenities, the gondola transforms itself into a theme park ride – nothing more.

In the port area, the gondola appropriates the image of dirty, old and industrial.

This was a totally unexpected experience for me. More often than not, a cable system is located in one specific type of environment. We associate it with that environment and not with others – ski resorts being the prime example. And yet here we have a situation where a gondola is passing through a variety of different urban forms all within close proximity to one another.

The gondola wasn’t imposing itself on the urban form, it was instead reflecting it and appropriating it. It was a blank canvas whose perceived function changed based upon the environment it passed through.

Buses don’t do that. Put a bus in a theme park and it’s still a bus. That’s not a criticism of buses nor a praise of gondolas. It’s a phenomenon that – admittedly – confuses me and one I’d love Gondola Project readers to chime in on.

For researchers and aficionados of urban gondolas, this is the importance of Sentosa. The system juxtaposes itself against itself and its urban environment by passing through several dramatically different urban forms in a short period of time. That allows one to quickly understand its place in the urban world.

Ultimately then, the lessons of Sentosa are more philosophical than technical. It teaches us that a theme park ride does have a place in a dense urban world and suggests a way forward to realizing that image.

Each gondola is also equipped with cup holders. I just wanted to throw that in there because it's amazing. Why don't buses and subways have that?

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Singapore’s Sentosa Island Gondola, Part 1 – The Essentials


Last week I had the opportunity to tour the Sentosa Island Cable Car in Singapore. Special thanks to Andrew Seh and Dominic Teo, who gave me the tour, answered questions and provided some insight into this system. All images by Steven Dale.

The Sentosa Island Gondola is one of the world’s oldest urban gondola transit systems. Commonly referred to as the Sentosa Island Cable Car (it’s an MDG gondola), the system is utterly normal in most respects but was a pioneer in two very important ways: It was the first system to ever span a major port/harbour and; it was the first to ever implement an intermediary station within the building envelope of a skyscraper.

The Sentosa Cable Car was the first in the world to locate an intermediary station on the upper floor of a skyscraper. The intermediary station is located on the 15th floor of a harbor office tower.

Originally opened in 1974, the system was designed as a means to carry locals and tourists from Mount Faber on Singapore’s south shore, across the harbour to Sentosa Island – then a growing recreation destination. As Sentosa developed into a major resort destination, connections to the island became increasingly important. Now, the cable car competes with a boardwalk and APM system.

As a result, the vast majority of users are tourists. Andrew Seh, Assistant Manager of the cable car estimates that of the roughly 2,000 daily riders the system carries, approximately 80% are tourists. This shouldn’t surprise. As a round-trip ticket on the cable car is $26 SGD, locals wishing to visit Sentosa would logically opt for either the boardwalk or monorail options. The Sentosa system is therefore pure Toy for Tourists.

Sentosa Island in the background.

Nevertheless, the system was popular enough to warrant an entire overhaul and the system was closed last year for 9 months in order to upgrade and rehabilitated the line. Typically an overhaul such as this should only take around 6 months, but system planners opted to upgrade the outdated BDG system with a contemporary MDG line.

Gondolas soar over the Singapore Harbor as a cruise ship waits below.

As an MDG system requires one single cable to provide both support and propulsion, the pressures and tensions on that cable – as well as on stations and towers – are greater than those found in a standard BDG system (where one cable provides support and the other propulsion).

As a result, the technology switch involved significant changes to pre-existing towers and stations, with new concrete foundations poured throughout – hence, the 9 month rebuild period.

This change also meant that while the electro-mechanical components of the gondola were only $22m SGD (~18m USD), the entire rebuild cost $36m SGD (~26m USD), a 63%premium.

Even still, at roughly $21m USD per kilometer (all in) the technology proves itself competitive with other fixed cost transit systems.

As stated earlier, this system is utterly common. It’s statistics are nothing impressive and don’t cause anyone any large degree of pause:

  • Capacity of 2,000 pphpd – but can be increased to 2,800 with a flick of a switch.
  • Standard operating speed of 11 km/hr. The system can run at 18 km/hr, but the touristic nature of the system implores operators to maintain a speed that allows riders to get value for their money.
  • 1.7 km long.
  • Can operate safely in 50 km/hr winds.
  • Vehicle capacity of 8.

What does give pause is the unique 7-star VIP cabin.

When this system reopened last fall, media attention focused almost exclusively on the VIP cabin as though it were the second coming of the Messiah. As someone who actually got to ride the VIP cabin, I’d like to suggest the attention was a little bit overdrawn.

The VIP cabin is nice, sure, but the amenities are rather thin. The VIP cabin is the sole one in the fleet equipped with a glass-bottomed floor and studded with Swarovski crystals. And whereas the other cabins have seating for 8 on a pretty standard bench configuration, the VIP cabins only seat four – but in rather plush black, leather seats. Ipod dock and champagne chiller are also included.

But that’s about it.

VIP cabin, interior.

Booking the VIP cabin is not for cheap. At $888 SGD (~$700 USD), this is easily one of the most expensive gondola rides we’ve ever seen and heard of. Granted, that $888 includes champagne for four, dinner for four at the Mount Faber restaurant and unlimited and exclusive use of the VIP cabin. But even with dinner and champagne, the price is steep – particularly as the cabins aren’t equipped with air conditioning, a confusing oversight which no one could adequately explain to me.

Nevertheless, cable car officials informed me that each month a few groups do actually choose to book the VIP cabinno doubt as a means to get to the Sentosa Island Casino where the reckless spending of money is considered an art and a virtue.

Tomorrow I’ll discuss the urban design implications of the Sentosa Island Gondola.


Click here to read Part 2.

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Smart Glass On The Bukit Panjang LRT

I was more than a little impressed by the speed with which Gondola Project readers were able to identify the system I pointed out in this past weekend’s post.

Sure enough, as Mattias pointed out, the system in question was the Bukit Panjang LRT in Singapore. This wasn’t a system I’d ever heard of or ever planned on visiting. Instead, I just happened to stumble across it while visiting a few of Singapore’s transit amenities during a 14 hour stop over there.

Now let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: The Bukit Panjang isn’t an LRT. Not even close. The 8 km long elevated system uses Bombardier’s Innovia APM 100 technology, is fully-automated and has 100 person vehicles spaced at roughly 5 minute headways.

It’s clearly an Automated People Mover or Automated Guideway Transit system. But given that I’ve already ranted and raved about nomenclature issues enough already, I’ll save that topic for another time.

The system itself has been plagued by problems and is in danger of becoming a legendary transit white elephant. But what really caught my eye were those windows:

Before. . .

. . . and after.

As you can see in the short video below, the windows are equipped with smart glass technologies. This allows the windows to switch instantaneously between opaque and transparent modes:

This has certain clear (sorry) advantages. The BPLRT travels through high density, residential highrise neighbourhoods. As the system is elevated, concerns exist for those apartment dwellers whose privacy could be compromised by riders of the BPLRT. The smart glass idea solves that problem . . . sort of.

The strange thing is that while the sides of the vehicles are smart glass equipped, the front and rear windows of the vehicles are not. You can still see into apartments from these areas. Given that the front and rear areas are such prime seating areas, I suspect some people’s privacy will be compromised by curious eight year olds peeping into whatever apartments they can.

Spiderman knows what you wear to sleep at night.

I also think there’s a kind of Ostrich Effect going on here. Let me explain:

The story goes that ostriches hide their head in the sand to avoid predators. Because the ostrich cannot see it’s predators, the ostrich assumes it is safe from its predator. Hilarity and nature channel violence ensues. The story is obviously pure myth but endures as a fantastic metaphor for the consequences of the ignorance that arises from only viewing the world from your own, first person vantage point.

Isn’t the BPLRT acting in the same way?

Sure riders cannot see into the apartments, but apartment dwellers can still see the vehicles. Even if you can’t see the riders, it’s still a little disconcerting, no? I’m not sure this actually alleviates the concerns of apartment dwellers. But at the same time, I don’t know. I’m torn on this one and would love to hear what Gondola Project readers have to say about this issue.

Nevertheless, it’s an innovative technique that is remarkably rare in the world. I can’t think of any transit system that’s ever employed the idea. But then again, I didn’t know about the BPLRT until three days ago. As I’ve said before, you don’t know what you don’t know.

Whether it works as planned or not isn’t the point. At least Singapore’s transit agencies are trying things. They’re thinking, experimenting and challenging established norms. They should be congratulated for that.

As for how this applies to gondolas and cable cars . . . I’ll leave that to the commenters. I’m sure Gondola Project readers will have fun arguing and discussing that one for a long time to come.

Note: Travel, ridiculous time zone changes and conference lectures have meant I’m behind on my posts (again). Really very sorry and I’m trying to catch up. Please, stay tuned.

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