Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Simple Solution to Singapore Traffic Congestion - The Ripple Effect

Before I air my observations, a very quick disclaimer - I am no way criticising any one individual here. The observation is one of collective behaviour and largely a result of enforcement of basic traffic regulations (or lack thereof). Regardless, I know that even some of my friends will be critical of my opinions on this subject, as we have had this conversation on numerous occassions, with the end result being 'agreeing to disagree'.

Firstly, notwithstanding a few irregular 'hot spots', I am strongly of the belief that the road planning in Singapore is first class in its efficiency. The network of multi-lane expressways and quality of the road surface is to be admired. Combine this with the restriction of cars on the road through the COE quota process and the variable cost tolls through ERP gantries, the Government and Land Transport Authority are doing a very admirable job in managing traffic flow in such a small land surface area.

Secondly, I hear the complaints of traffic congestion (especially in peak hour) very frequently. The anecdotal reasons I hear for this congestion range from 'poor quality roads' to 'too many foreigners on the road'.

Let me state for the record right now (from first hand experience) that compared to other major cities and countries across the globe, Singapore does not have any traffic problems whatsoever!! Consider sitting in what might be mistaken as a 'car park' on Nei Huan Xian in Shanghai with traffic completely motionless for up to three hours at a time... or travelling on the Eastern Freeway in Melbourne at peak hour travelling one hour to travel the last one kilometre to enter Hoddle Street.

I drive to work every day in Singapore, merging on to the CTE at the Yio Chu Kang entrance in peak hour and travelling almost the complete length of the expressway to exit at the Orchard Road off-ramp and then driving on to Millenia Tower. Most days, this trip will take me around 30 minutes (without speeding or breaking the law). Admittedly, on the odd occasion (most commonly rainy days) this trip may extend to 45-minutes or perhaps even an hour if there is a vehicle breakdown or fender-bender.

Once again, I know many of my friends and readers will disagree with me - they will say that I cannot compare the traffic in Singapore to other major cities, because many who have not travelled extensively can only compare the current traffic conditions to those of days gone by in Singapore. They consider any speed under 70km/h to be 'troublesome' traffic. OK - fair enough... but let me now make a very basic observation (which will prbably make some of my readers even more irate at me).

A friend of mine once joked - "I have a car for sale... 5 years old with indicators in brand new condition - never been used already!!".

Joking aside, this is a very poignant statement - even I have gotten into this very uniquely local habit of not always indicating when turning corners or changing lanes. To be honest, when I first started driving here, I found it an almost 'empowering' feeling to be able to not indicate without any fear of prosecution or traffic violation ticket. But note very well - I would never, ever change lanes in front of another vehicle, or stop to reverse park without first indicating. This is just flirting with danger - for both my family and the families in the vehicles around me.

Another Singaporean mate told me once that if you indicate to change lanes, no one will ever let you in. They will speed up to block you out. Although I have experienced this from time to time, I know that there are a number of patient and considerate drivers out there and it is no excuse to not indicate your intention to change lanes.

I digress somewhat, but my point is this... for the congestion that we do see at certain times on the major expressways, there is a very simple solution to minimize the problem.

It is based on a very basic theory known as the 'Ripple Effect' - and it is the cause of 'phantom jams' the world over.

The difference in Singapore is that the phantom jams and ripple effect are more often as a result of frequent lane changing and failure to indicate when changing.

There have been numerous studies (well funded) to study this phenomenon and all have reached the same conclusion - there have even been computer models developed to mimic the effect.

When one motorist brakes, the motorist behind is forced to brake a little harder, as does the driver behind him or her, until eventually the traffic behind the non-incident is brought to a complete standstill. This can cause a bottleneck or phantom jam stretching a number of kilometres.

The original braking motorist may have done so because he or she increased their speed to faster than that of the flowing traffic (as simple as that), or they may have been distracted in some way - a mobile phone or even attention to what they are listening to on their radio - whatever the reason, these bottlenecks occur the world over.

In Singapore, this effect is accentuated. The cause is some drivers changing lanes with no indicator and without sufficient space for the car they are cutting in front of - and the most common offenders are those that use the roads the most - the taxi drivers (OK - don't get angry, I know not all taxi drivers do this - in fact I know that they don't. I'm just stating my observations as a regular driver).

When I've had this discussion with some of my local mates, I'm told is a 'kiasu' thing... one driver wanting to 'beat' another - but I don't actually agree with this. It's human nature I think, that when a person is running late for work or is in a hurry, they will take the perceived quickest route - this may mean changing from one lane to another and back again, even though they may not realize that they are not getting to their destination any quicker, but in fact increasing the congestion problems for other drivers. I also believe that there is a kind of 'herding' nature - when one car changes lanes, another motorist will follow suit and do the same thing, and so forth.

The simple solution to this problem is clearly enforcement of the law. When police see a vehicle change lanes with no indicator, they need to at a minimum take the license plate number and issue a ticket. When a driver failes to give way when changing lanes, the same penalty should be applied. We have cameras all around Singapore catching people speeding and driving in bus lanes illegally (with some pretty tough fines resulting) - perhaps these same methods could be employed on the expressways?

Anyway, in short, it's better that the whole traffic flows at a speed of 60km/h than constant stop-start, speeding up to 80km/h at times and changing lanes willy nilly without giving way or indicating. The traffic congestion (at least on the CTE) would be almost nil with such a basic and obvious behavioural change.

Some resources on the 'Ripple Effect' can be found here:

Ripple effect explains Phantom traffic jams

'Ripple Effect' Contributes to Chicago-Area Traffic Concerns.



Anonymous said...

Are u serious? No traffic problem in Singapore??

Katie said...

Yep. Too many crazy drivers need to lose the licence. Today one banged my car trying to park :(