Public Transportation Best Practices by Top-tier Asian Cities


One side effect of net population migration to cities is congestion. And it’s something all city-dwellers have to deal with on a daily basis. In fact, urban authorities consider mobility to be a major metric for overall success. The more effectively you can link people with jobs, goods, and services, the more productive your city becomes.

Effective public transportation plays a key role in the functionality of big cities. Its ability to reach a broad segment of the population can greatly boost urban productivity.

The top-tier cities of Asia have a track record of leveraging this impact for success. And their leaders continue to search for ways to improve; SMRT CEO Neo Kian Hong gave up his car to better understand issues of mobility. As the rest of the world tries to catch up, here are some of their best practices in public transportation.

Investing in rail infrastructure

Buses, taxis, and ride-sharing have their merits, but trains are literally on a different level. The fact that railway transit operates on a dedicated track makes it easier for trains to run on schedule. They are unaffected by traffic jams, road works, and vehicle accidents.

The key to a sound rail system is its strategic availability. In a 2018 report by consulting firm McKinsey, the most prosperous cities in terms of urban mobility scored highly in this area. In particular, you want to see a high percentage of the urban population, as well as their jobs, consistently located within a kilometer of a metro station.

Making it more convenient

We get on public transportation as a means to reach our destination, but the journey matters too. Comfortable carriages and clean seats go a long way towards maintaining commuters’ well-being. By contrast, squeezing into a hot, dirty, jam-packed bus or train will leave you feeling exhausted early in the morning and dreading the experience each day.

Convenience also includes accessibility for persons with disability; this breaks down one more barrier to their productivity. Electronic ticketing systems allow remote top-up, platform interoperability, and the ability to pay for other services. Japan’s various IC cards, for example, let you purchase from convenience stores and vending machines.

Finally, offering connectivity options to the public is a major bonus. Apps such as Korea’s KakaoBus give commuters real-time updates on bus schedules. The buses and trains are also being furnished with free WiFi so that locals can reduce telecommunications spending.

Maintaining affordability

While commuters might feel optimistic about improvements in terms of added features or new railway tracks and stations, they face a constant pain point in terms of price. This can be measured in terms of the average cost of public transportation per month versus the user’s income.

Singapore is consistently among the leaders in this area. The government continually reviews fare adjustment formulas, capping them to protect commuter interests. It subsidizes more than $1 per trip and offers further concession for students and lower-wage workers, alongside discounts for senior citizens and persons with disability.

Ensuring efficiency

The typical commuter doesn’t see the underlying mechanisms that determine transport efficiency, but they feel the results. Long wait times and sluggish speeds during the morning rush hour are the norm in any big city.

It seems impossible for a megacity to beat the odds, but Seoul and Singapore are consistently atop the rankings for efficiency. And they have accomplished that through different approaches, offering other cities a choice in dealing with their particular issues.

A sophisticated traffic management system, including GPS tracking for taxis, smart tickets that count subway commuters, and embedded road sensors, allows Seoul authorities to monitor and manage traffic. On the other hand, Singapore’s management is the result of years of planning incentives and constraints. The Certificate of Entitlement system makes purchasing a car 2-3 times more expensive, while Electronic Road Pricing encourages motorists to take alternate routes during peak hours.

Prioritizing safety

No city resident would feel satisfied with their public transportation if it didn’t have a good track record of safety. Yet, with the high volume of traffic, it’s a minor miracle if systems pull through without a mishap each day.

So how do cities like Hong Kong and Singapore manage this feat? They focus on a comprehensive road safety policy. Recognizing the human factor in most accidents, they campaign for greater public awareness with focused action on target groups. At the same time, they deploy technological solutions such as cameras and sensors and use mobile barriers to control movements quickly.

Urban mobility will continue to evolve in response to new stressors and factors such as Covid-19. Policy-makers and planners around the world would do well to learn from the Asian megacities that have leveraged public transportation to translate a high population into greater productivity.

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