Exploring Singapore’s Tight Vehicle Regulation

Welcome to 2019! Over the past several months, this page has focused a lot on deployment of connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) in US cities. 2018 was indeed a big year for CAVs in the United States. The vehicles were deployed commercially in Arizona, California began to allow testing of the technology without a safety driver, and policymakers and urban planners across the nation thought seriously about how to integrate CAVs into their existing transportation grid.

Running through much of this work is the fear that, if left unchecked, wide-scale deployment of CAVs will kick off an accelerated version of the problems associated with the initial popularization of the automobile – suburban sprawl, increased congestion, deeper economic inequality, and more. Most American cities have proposed addressing these issues – to the extent they have considered them at all – through modest incentive programs. To kick off the new year, I want to briefly examine a city that has taken a much more aggressive tack on curtailing the problems associated with sprawl and traffic.

Even before the widespread adoption of CAVs, Singapore is moving beyond modest incentives to combat congested roads. The city of nearly 6 million people charges commuters nearly $15,000 per year to own a vehicle and use it during rush hour. In 2017, Singapore took the extreme step of announcing a freeze in the growth rate of private car ownership. While such measures seem exorbitant from an American perspective, they have contributed to reduced congestion. Singapore in 2015 was less congested than the year before, and suffered less congestion than cities such as New York, London, or Beijing. Only around 11% of Singapore’s population owns a car, in comparison to 46% of New York City residents and nearly 90% of Angelenos.

The city is also taking steps to prepare for a future dominated by CAVs. Singapore recently removed a requirement that cars have human drivers, and has mandated that all new development meets standards that accommodate CAVs while discouraging car ownership. These new real estate requirements include narrow streets, road markings designed to be easily recognizable by CAVs, and fewer parking spaces.

Such aggressive maneuvers are out of sync with policy across the United States. Many US cities have created carpool lanes to encourage ride-sharing, and Oregon has experimented with a per-mile charge to reduce congestion and plug infrastructure funding gaps that have traditionally been filled with a gas tax. However, such programs have typically been modest. Perhaps most strikingly, in comparison to Singapore’s large yearly fees, the average annual tax levied on vehicle ownership in the US comes in at a little over $200.

In many parts of the US, abundant cheap land and low vehicle taxes set the stage for suburban sprawl and maddening levels of congestion brought on by the first automobile revolution. The same factors are aligned to accelerate these problems in the upcoming CAV revolution. None of this is to say that the Singaporean approach is right for the US. It is certainly possible that, as CAVs are deployed nationwide, their benefits will outweigh any social cost brought on by sprawl and congestion. When setting their own policy though, our cities should examine a full range of options, including places like Singapore that are modeling a more aggressive regulatory posture. Regardless of the approach we choose to take, there are valuable lessons to learn from countries that approach these challenges from a different governance tradition.