Monday, January 25, 2010

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: Getting about in Singapore

One of the things that I have come to appreciate in Singapore is the transportation system, and the ease of getting about.  Well, mostly.  As a product of suburban culture in the U.S. it is most natural for me to hop in the car, drive to my target destination, do my business and then drive home, without giving much thought to the process.  Owning and driving a car seems like a requirement for living in Boise, Idaho, but not so much in a large city such as Singapore.  We don't have one here-  we rely on public transportation.  There have been a few times when a car would have prevailed with convenience, but packing 6.5 M people onto a small island has compelled the Singaporean government to discourage them, and as a result they are very expensive here.  (That is not to say they are scarce, however)
With a little prior planning, a little more walking, and some patience,  I have found the transportation system to be great for getting around Singapore.  As we have not yet ventured off of the island, we will be renting a car to do so, and I will report on that exercise when the time comes.  (We have learned that the few rental agencies are closed on Sundays, making a weekend rental difficult)
BBRs  (Bad Bus Rides)
Elaine has taken  preference to using the bus system, which is extensive, and is also least expensive.   I'm more inclined to get about on the MRT (subway), having had at least three unpleasant experiences with the buses.  I apparently have terrible bus kharma.  The first was returning from the downtown area late on a Friday night--  we were packed like sardines (many people standing) into the bus for most of the journey.  As in most cities, downtown on a Friday night is a popular destination, and the transit systems are bulging with people during the peak hours.  We rode the bus for quite a while, and then failed to recognize and exit at our stop when it came along.  The result was an additional 20 minute tour of the neighborhood.  We were the last passengers off of the bus.
The second BBR was during Christmas season, when I arranged to meet Elaine downtown after work.  She left her office and took the bus, I left the apartment and took the MRT.  The prescribed time of travel was 15 or 20 minutes for each of us.  I arrived on time at our place of rendezvous, but Elaine's transit there took another hour, due to the heavy street traffic.
Our most recent BBR experience was this past weekend.  We decided to view an Egyptian exhibit at the National Museum, which is located downtown.  (I should note that "downtown" is no more than three miles from our house.)  We determined the necessary bus route-- one bus, 12 stops, no transfers, arriving at our local stop in about 12 minutes.  Estimated travel time-- about 25 minutes.  Perfect!  We successfully boarded the bus and began our journey.  Unfortunately, we failed to take a couple of considerations into account.  (1)  It was a Sunday, and the bus was crowded-- no seats for a while.  (2)  Most critical, the bus route went through China Town-- with the weekend starting the kick-off of the Chinese New Year's celebration.  This is a big holiday in Singapore, bigger than Christmas, and there were several events occurring in China Town.  Our bus trip took 1.5 hours, with 45 minutes alone required to travel two blocks.  This delay was created by one anarchic intersection where drivers blatently ignored the signal lights, causing a grid-lock.
So as you don't get the wrong impression, the bus system here is excellent--  Elaine uses it daily to get to and from work, with regular and predictable success.   She enjoys the views from the bus, rather than the darkness of the subway tunnels and stations.  I've had my best success using it with short transits.  We have both become wiser in recognizing the importance of the day and time of day when planning its use.
MRT Subway
I prefer riding the subway.  It is slightly more expensive than the bus, but the trains are frequent, and they have their own exclusive path of travel.  Also, they are not subject to drivers ignoring traffic signals to cause a grid-lock.  (At least I hope not).  There is an MRT station within a 10 to 15 minute walk from our apartment.  In many cases, a station is only a short walk from wherever you wish to go. The MRT also goes directly to the airport.  A subway trip to the airport from our apartment is less than S$2.00 each and takes a little over an hour, whereas a taxi ride can be as much as S$26 for a 30 minute journey.  However, if you want to take the train, you are constrained to travel light-- few bags.
Sometimes the MRT cars are sardine cans, just as the buses can be at peak hours, but they are always moving.  Because of its limited route and sometimes the need to transfer lines it can take considerable time to travel by MRT rather than by bus or taxi, but as we have learned, timing is everthing with the choice of transportation.
Shopping Shuttles
In addition to the regular bus system, many of the shopping malls and attractions (e.g. The Singapore Flyer) not in immediate proximity to an MRT station will have shuttle buses.  These run on regular if infrequent schedules, providing a free transport from to and from the MRT.  On weekends or during the Christmas shopping season these have been packed full.
Taxis are numerous, and the drivers are polite.  We have run into only one or two drivers who could not speak English, but we managed successfully.  Prices are predictable and reasonable, but still an expensive mode of transporation.  There is a different base charge depending if you hail the cab, or schedule it by phone, and an additional surcharge during peak hours.
I am amused by some of the driving practices I have seen employed by a few taxi drivers, apparently in an effort to reduce fuel use.  This includes quickly shifting to the highest gear possible, "lugging"  the engine to its lowest possible RPMs without stalling (the engine making a pathetic sound), or shifting into neutral (with an automatic transmission) at each stop light or traffic slow down.
Tech Tools for Travel
There are a few tools available that make regular use of the public tranportation system easier:

  • EZ Link:  EZ Link is a magnetic debit card that can be purchased and used with the bus and MRT.  You simply scan the card at the gate entry of the MRT or at the door of the bus, and then scan it exiting the station or the door of the bus.  Works great!  When your funds on the card get low, a machine is available at the subway stations and other locales to "top up" your card with additional funds.

  • Go There:  This web site is a great tool for planning a journey.  Enter the starting location, and your desired destination, and the tool will calculate the best route, approximate travel time, and cost  by car, taxi, bus, or MRT.  Or combination bus/MRT.  Directions are provided, with number of bus stops, walking distance, and/or the required MRT station street exit to take.  (

  • IRIS:  Since the buses all have radio links, this web site allows you to estimate when the next bus on a route will arrive at a particular bus stop.  This helps you to plan minimal waiting time at the bus stop in the heat or rain.   (

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