SINGAPORE – A new narrative has arisen recently, with urban planners and transit advocates looking to reclaim road space for pedestrians so as to make busy precincts more liveable and vibrant.
This is a change from the focus of the past decades on making roads more efficient for vehicular movement, creating a haven for motorists, who have largely been spared the gridlock common in some cities.
But some efforts have been made or are under way to reclaim road space for pedestrians, for instance by reassigning part of an existing road to create wider footpaths, reclaiming a lane or making a street fully pedestrian.
The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) said, in response to queries from The Straits Times, that where suitable, agencies have repurposed roads to create wider sidewalks to improve walkability and street experience, citing examples in Queen Street, Bencoolen Street and the Civic District.
“Beyond permanent interventions, we have also been working with the Land Transport Authority (LTA) to close off the roads temporarily for events, and to allow the public to experience and enjoy vibrant streets without cars,” it said.
The LTA said it has been working to convert more road space into footpaths, cycling paths and bus lanes “to make public transport and active mobility options more convenient and accessible to Singaporeans”.
These projects include works, which started in August in Woodlands Ring Road (Kampung Admiralty) and in September in Havelock Road, to permanently repurpose part of the existing road space to create wider footpaths, after trials that were conducted earlier.
The LTA has also converted stretches of road space into cycling paths in Ang Mo Kio and Bukit Panjang.
Advocates say with a supportive community, there are even more roads that can be reclaimed for pedestrians to bring vibrancy to those places.
Transport veteran Gopinath Menon, 77, had a front-seat view of short-lived efforts in the 1970s towards this end during his days as an LTA planner.
He said that the first pedestrian mall – a street with limited or no access to motor vehicles – was created in the early 1970s in Raffles Place. But plans to roll out more had met with “too much resistance” from stakeholders and were dropped.
Pedestrian malls have had limited success elsewhere. In the United States, for example, more than 200 were built in the 1960s and 1970s, of which only 43 remain, reported Bloomberg. The rest reverted to full vehicular thoroughfares when it was found that these malls led to a drop in vibrancy – the opposite of their intended effect.
“Building exclusive pedestrian malls takes a lot of time and consultations,” said Mr Menon, who had studied the feasibility of pedestrianising Orchard Road back in the 1990s. “And they may not work. You need a certain amount of vehicular traffic for vibrancy.”
The veteran, who still does freelance consultancy work, said the full pedestrianisation of streets – such as that planned for the Civic District – is not always possible.
But he said smaller steps, such as reclaiming one or two road lanes in small stretches where pedestrian volume is high, makes sense.
North Bridge Road – A bridge too far?
He cites places like Tanjong Pagar Road, North Bridge Road, South Bridge Road, Tanjong Katong Road, Balestier Road and Joo Chiat Road as being suitable for this.
As for the impact on vehicular traffic, Mr Menon said: “Motorists will adapt. Traffic will find its own level. The result – pedestrians get more space.” He cited the example of how reclaiming two lanes at a stretch of Bencoolen Street was not detrimental to traffic flow.
He reckons a stretch of North Bridge Road between Jalan Sultan and Ophir Road is ideal for lane reduction. It is a busy stretch, flanked by famous eateries, interesting shops selling ethnic goods and the iconic Sultan Mosque. The pedestrian walkways, however, are narrow and dingy, compared with the three wide vehicular lanes carrying traffic into the city centre.
Additional road lanes have been added to parallel roads in the area, so the loss of one lane along North Bridge Road-South Bridge Road is not critical, Mr Menon said.
Roadside parking along the stretch can be accommodated on smaller side streets or nearby off-street carparks.
Balestier Road – more trees, less sleaze
Adjunct Professor Paul Barter at the National University of Singapore, a transport consultant and another liveable streets advocate, said Balestier Road is a prime candidate for a road diet programme. The 54-year-old said: “The idea is to make Balestier more of a place for people to spend time in. And the magic is, traffic capacity can be mostly retained.”
He said the three-lane dual-carriageway can be reduced by one lane each way to create a broader median and wider walkways. The expanded median will make it safer for pedestrians to cross the road, while pockets can be carved out for right turns.
Likewise, the wider walkways can accommodate pockets for passenger goods drop-off and pick-up points as well as taxi stands.
“Right now, traffic is held up by turning and stopping vehicles, so in effect only the middle lane is free-flowing,” Prof Barter said. “And the capacity of the road is determined largely by its junctions on either end.”
A stroll down a stretch of the busy road between Balestier Point and chicken rice restaurant Boon Tong Kee @ Balestier quickly proves to be less than pleasant.
Although there have been earlier attempts to improve walkability, the place is still largely characterised by footpaths which are too narrow for people using wheelchairs, often blocked by large dustbins and not barrier-free. The stretch is also mostly unshaded, and walking along shopfront paths is often too daunting because of their narrowness.
Traffic clearly moves too fast – and too close – for an activity-centred area, with its endless rows of restaurants, pubs, lights shops, spas and old-school bakeries. And, if something catches your fancy on the other side, crossing the road is a chore – one will either have to climb the overhead pedestrian bridge or find a signalised junction.
Prof Barter hopes the speed limit in the area can be better enforced, or even reduced. “Traffic right now is just too fast because even though the speed limit here is 50kmh, the road is designed for speed. So it feels quite stressful to be walking here.”
With the change, he also suggests that most fences along the present median that prevent crossing can be taken down, along with the overhead bridge. With the slower traffic, people can cross the street safely, taking refuge on the widened median if necessary. For busier times, pedestrians can still use the signalised junctions.
“Crossing a street is not always jaywalking,” Prof Barter said. “It is only jaywalking when you cross at spots where you are not allowed to cross, such as near a signallised junction.”
Like Mr Menon, Prof Barter is also calling for more trees to be planted in the pedestrianised zone to make walking more pleasant and to soften the concrete landscape.
Civic District – road manners still required
Cycling advocate Han Jok Kwang is excited about the pedestrianisation programme in the Civic District because it will bring more foot traffic to the historic area and make walking safer.
The 67-year-old business development adviser with energy group Schneider Electric said: “If you look at cities in Europe, most of the city centres are pedestrianised. Typically, this means you take away the cars, and everybody can walk and cycle safely.”
Plans to restrict traffic in the area flanked by the Padang, Parliament House, Victoria Theatre and The Arts House – and not far from where Sir Stamford Raffles first landed in 1819 – were first announced in 2013.
Over the years, restrictions were tightened, and now, work has commenced to make Connaught Drive and Anderson Bridge fully pedestrianised and closed to all motor vehicles by year’s end.
Traffic in the area is already sparse, and the walkways are broad, making it one of the most pleasant spots in the city to go about on foot. Mature trees provide shade, the air is cooled by breezes from Marina Bay and the juxtaposition of greenery and buildings dating back to Singapore’s earliest years makes walks seem shorter than they are.
Mr Han said there is merit in exploring similar programmes elsewhere to build better mixed-use streets.
“In the midst of Covid-19, the uptake of cycling has surged. The mix of cyclists has also increased. Getting onto roads must feature at some point in time,” he said.
Mr Han said cycling paths and park connectors are fine for recreational cyclists, but those who wish to cycle to work “would much prefer to go on the road” because that would be faster.
“Oftentimes, we hear of segregated or dedicated lanes. I think people can come to resent these terms,” he said. “I feel it does not have to be binary. For instance, it can be a time-based access, like bus lanes. Say, between 6.30am and 9am, and 6pm and 8pm, allow cyclists to share the bus lane.”
“We need to be more creative, we need to be bolder,” he said.
How well the new paradigm works depends largely on users. “I was in Kyoto several years ago. I was so impressed with their discipline… everyone gives way to the more vulnerable,” Mr Han said. “We can get there.”
Of efforts to convert more road space into footpaths, cycling paths and bus lanes, an LTA spokesman said: “Ultimately, the success of such projects depends on the support of the local community, so that they benefit residents and local businesses. We look forward to collaborating with interested local stakeholders to do more.”