Thursday, June 14, 2012

Why are the trains and buses so crowded?

Photo from Hardwarezone
Singapore's buses and trains are pretty crowded - the crowds at Bishan station in the photo above depicts a typical weekday morning rush hour. Some blame the rising number of foreigners. For instance, one felt that "Singapore is definitely getting more and more crowded with more foreigners coming here. Travelling on the MRT during rush hour has become quite an uncomfortable experience."

While it is true that Singapore's population has grown - the number of people on our island grew 20% in the past 5 years - something deeper is at work here.

As the chart below shows, each person took the bus or train once a day on average before 2010. This might seem low, but the figure includes children, elderly, car-owners, and other folks who don't take public transportation much. This "one-trip-a-day" pattern persisted for half a dozen years, so if you were in charge of a bus or train company all you had to do was to make sure you had enough capacity to meet population growth which clocked at a bearable 5% or less every year.

Sources: Land Transport Authority, Dept of Statistics
In 2010 and 2011, Singapore's population only grew 2% annually, surely manageable for transport companies. However, the "one-trip-a-day" pattern suddenly changed, as each person took 1.06 trips in 2010, and 1.12 in 2011. These sharp increases meant Singapore's public transportation network was suddenly faced with an unprecedented increase in demand of 8-9%. This is more than twice the average in the previous five years!

To put these numbers in perspective, suppose each person took one trip a day on average in 2011. This would reduce the number of trips by about 600,000 a day, or about 2,500 train carriages - not a small number.

The next time you gasp for air in the bus, think about why people are suddenly moving around the island so much, and leave a comment if you do come up with something.

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