Singapore Subway Rider Experience

Always keeping an eye our for what Boston could learn to improve its public transit system on behalf of the MBTA Riders Oversight Committee, I have made some observations about the Singapore metro system. In short, it is very, very good.

Structure and Fare

Singapore is heavily dependent on its public transit system. The metro is extensive and rapidly growing. And it has to be, because the government takes very deliberate steps to keep car ownership and use to a minimum. Cars in Singapore require a Certificate of Entitlement to legally be owned in Singapore and with certificates routinely costing over S$50,000 ($40,000 USD), they are unattainable to much of the country's population.

But to the everyday Singaporean citizen, that's probably okay, because Singapore has one of the best metro systems I've ever seen.

The system features multiple heavy rail lines, including an incredibly useful circle line. A circle line has long been a pie-in-the-sky dream of mine for the MBTA. Living in Somerville, if I wanted to visit Allston I'd have to either wait for a bus or take the Red Line all the way to Park Street and then the Green Line out to Allston. A circle line would allow me to get around the edges of the city without going downtown and would cut off significant travel time. The MBTA's and Mass DoT's Urban Ring Project was meant provide a service like this but it has been stalled for many years now. Getting around Singapore showed me how useful a circle line is for getting to places quickly.

Singapore uses a distance based fare system with a two types of tickets, a paper ticket you get from fare machines directly and hard plastic stored value cards available at ticket counters. This dual ticket structure is very similar to the CharlieTicket/CharlieCard system in Boston. The paper tickets in Singapore differ from CharlieTickets in two ways however:

  1. The Singapore paper tickets are embedded with a proximity chip that allows them to be used in a "hold up to the sensor" manner instead of feeding them through a machine.
  2. Each Singapore paper ticket can only be used six times and require a S$0.10 deposit. The third time you use a ticket get your S$0.10 refunded and the third time you use the ticket you get a S$0.10 discount.

The deposit/discount scheme of the Singapore metro tickets is in line with Singapore government as a whole. Singapore has a reputation for using monetary incentives (fines) to encourage specific behavior and the metro system is no different. You get a small discount for using the same ticket repeatedly. You will be fined heavily for even minor infractions while riding the metro, such as a S$500 fine for eating or drinking in the metro (including plain water) or S$1000 for smoking.

By showing a train countdown timer outside of a station (the sign in the upper left of this photo), riders know if a train will be arriving shortly or if there is no need to hurry into the station as they will be waiting for several minutes.

Wayfinding and Communication

Maps and directions were plentiful in the Singapore metro. It was always easy to locate a map of the system or, even more helpful, a map of the local area surrounding the station. Exits were labeled for easy directions.

More than just providing good wayfinding, the Singapore metro has gone above and beyond with their communications about diversions and programs available to riders. Within a day of arriving in Singapore I could tell you about the diversion causing some stations to close 30 minutes early due to the repeated over the PA announcements and the signs posted frequently like the one below:

The quality of the communication was excellent. The audio messages over the PA did not sound like computer voice language as they do in Boston and the print notification above was clearly done in a creative, professional way. Another sign explained the need for the work to be done:

The metro communications department had other signs and campaigns running while we were visited as well. Throughout the system we saw their campaign about how to ride the metro politely. While just a series of cartoons, I thought that they appeared more engaging than the generic announcements and occasional signs I see during the MBTA's Courtesy Campaigns.

The communications department has also published comics and stats about safely riding escalators. They state that the vast majority of injuries at metro stations are due to improper use of escalators.

One thing I noted about escalators in Singapore metro stations -- they are fast. Really fast. I've taken the long escalator up Porter Square on the Red Line and it can take seemingly forever if I don't walk. I'm convinced that a Singapore style escalator could do the trip in half the time. Due to the speedy nature of the Singapore escalators, the level part at the top and bottom of the escalator is longer than that of a typical escalator, giving you more time find your footing.

As a side note, the Hong Kong system had the same type of speedy escalators as Singapore.

Crowd Management

Like many cities, Singapore's subway system nears or fills capacity during the morning rush hour. In order to encourage passengers to shift their commute time earlier to lessen the load during rush hour, rides from stations except those in downtown before 7:45am are free. The campaign is likely having some success as the pilot program was recently expanded through mid-2015.

Kelsi reads the sign explaining the free metro ride program for early commuters

Like almost all systems we have ridden in Asia, Singapore has lines on the ground by the doors to subway cars telling you where to wait for the train and what space to keep open for passengers to disembark.

Takeaways for Boston

  • Multiple methods of communication -- The station closures in the Singapore system were communicated with recordings over the PA (recorded in a human voice) and several types of posters, including ones that were straightforward and informational and others that were creative and fun. The posters were hanging several points in the station, but most noticeably at eye level near the fare gates. One of the most common complaints I hear about the MBTA is that diversions and closures are not well communicated. Many times that I've heard this complaint, I have seen signs in stations warning of the closures. But if signs are posted about diversions and passengers are still missing them, the communication plan needs to be looked at again. Singapore does a great job of communicating diversions through several mediums and using several different print communications.
  • Explanation of why diversions and closures are taking place -- I bet that many regular, observant riders of the Red Line could tell you that "floating slab project" has closed the line from Harvard to Alewife for several weekends over the past couple of years. I bet less tan 2% of those riders could tell you what the floating slab project actually is other than the project that closes the Red Line from Harvard to Alewife for several weekends over the past couple of years. I can't actually tell you what they are doing during the floating slab project. While Singapore's communication doesn't give great details about the work that is being done that requires early station closures, it does give significantly more information than the MBTA does on its signage and as a rider I feel more informed and understanding about the closure.
  • Deposits on fare tickets and cards -- In the next fare collection scheme when CarlieCards and Tickets are upgraded or replaced, the MBTA may want to consider deposits for the new tickets to encourage reuse and to offset the cost of manufacturing them.