Assoc Prof Jamus Jerome Lim (Sengkang): Chairman, I wish to share with this House a proposal that seniors and those with disabilities be furnished with a concession card that will allow them to ride public transportation free of charge.
On its face, this sounds like a preposterous and profligate idea. Preposterous, because surely, removing charges would invite overuse and abuse. Profligate, because even when they are made free of charge, these services are certainly not free of cost and must be funded by some source – in this case, the Government.
But before we jump into instinctive judgement, it is worth noting that free ridership already exists in some form or another. In Singapore, there are free transport shuttles for patrons of Turf City, for tourists seeking a city tour during a stopover and for students connecting to campus from nearby MRT stations. Other countries have gone even further. Some municipalities from smaller ones, such as Hoeselt in Belgium and Obare in France, to larger cities such as Prague in the Czech Republic and Washington DC in the United States, run select free bus and tram services. Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia, recently converted its entire public transportation network to a zero fare system. Around two years ago, Luxembourg became the first nation in the world to make all public transportation modes free within the country.
As our society ages, but many elderly remain mobile and healthy, some may wish to continue to pursue employment opportunities. Such positions, typically on a part-time basis, do not pay very much and public transportation would very quickly gobble up a sufficiently large share of the paycheck, so as to make the entire enterprise no longer worthwhile. Free transport for seniors will allow those who wish to remain productive and engage in employment to do so. Our labour force participation has already trended down since 2015 and while this is natural and normal in an ageing society, the scheme will help mitigate the rate of decline and allow our economy time to adjust.
Even in the absence of work, free transport will encourage the elderly to be out and about, engaging in social interactions that can promote their physical and mental well-being. This can help manage the rising incidence of dementia, which already one in every 10 seniors face.
This initiative also dovetails nicely with our nation’s effort to promote environmental sustainability. An important cornerstone of the Singapore Green Plan 2030 is to encourage green commutes, with a target of 75% mass public transportation usage. Providing incentives for our elderly and disabled to rely more heavily on public transport since trips will be free, will contribute toward this goal, especially since riders are least likely to be using green forms of transportation such as bicycles, in any case.
An initiative such as this will entail trade-offs, of course. Our existing pricing structure is, to be fair, relatively affordable by global standards. Moreover, seniors and the disabled already pay concessionary rates on existing tarrifs. The Government has also invested heavily in the transportation infrastructure on which the public transportation system relies on, thereby providing an indirect subsidy.
But to the extent that fares are used to offset operational costs with profits subject to corporate taxation and dividends returned to majority shareholders such as Temasek, the Government is able to recoup much of its initial outlay. Seniors and the disabled are only a comparatively small fraction of public transportation ridership. The financial impact would therefore correspondingly be much more limited. Our estimates, which are admittedly conservative, suggest added expenditures of between $0.3 billion and $0.4 billion a year, or an increase of 3% to 4% percent of the Ministry’s current budget.
Even if we are uncomfortable with completely unrestricted free usage, one reasonable accommodation would be to allow such free transport during off-peak hours, where there is typically some spare capacity in our bus and train systems in any case. If so, the opportunity cost of not implementing such a free transportation scheme may well exceed the cost of doing so.
Mr Speaker, LTA has declared that it seeks, and I quote: “inclusive public transportation system”, one that ensures barrier-free access for wheelchairs and strollers, providing priority boarding lines and reserved seats for elderly and disabled commuters and creating bus stops seats that are more elderly friendly.
While these multi-dimensional aspects of inclusivity exist, we have neglected inclusion of the most fundamental form – ensuring free access to public transport for those who can least afford it. Some have gone as far as to argue that urban transit is a human right, akin to why we do not pay to ride elevators. Even if we do not wish to push the argument that far, I believe we can all agree that the least an inclusive and caring society can do for our seniors and disabled is to afford them the dignity to move around our beautiful city, free of charge. Let them ride free.
8 March 2022
Ministry of Transport