Public Transportation in Singapore
By Everlyn Lee

From buses and taxis to the MRT, the wide array of public transportation in Singapore has much to offer. We put into perspective each mode of transport's pros and cons.

Travelling from one part of Singapore to another is a breeze thanks to a highly penetrative public transport system. The three main modes of public transport in Singapore are the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT), buses and taxis.

Buses are, by far, the most common form of public transportation in Singapore, followed by the MRT and taxis respectively. Public buses serve almost every part of Singapore, making it the most extensive form of public transportation, while the MRT provides speed and efficiency, especially during peak hours.

Buses
Public bus transportation is provided by two operators, namely SBS Transit (operating distinctive red-and-white buses) and SMRT (yellow buses). Both operators serve their own network of routes and bus interchanges throughout Singapore.

Public buses run daily from 5.30am to midnight. There are also extended night services, namely Nite Owl and NightRider, which cost slightly more (a flat rate ranging from $1.50-$3.00). Otherwise, most fares depend on distance travelled and range from 67 cents to $1.58 for air-conditioned comfort (almost all public buses in Singapore have air-conditioning today).

There are also “feeder” bus services that charge a flat rate of 67 cents. These services tend to run along a small circuit of roads within a single housing estate, and usually terminate at major bus interchanges.

Other special services include the premier bus service Bus Plus, which offers commuters more convenience, comfort and a shorter travelling time.

Buses continue to be a major part of Singapore's public transportation because the MRT network is not yet very extensive – the trains tend only to arrive at major town centres. To get to locations in the more peripheral areas, you'd usually have no choice but to take a bus or a cab.

It wouldn't take you long to discover that Singaporeans have a love-hate relationship with public buses. It's not hard to tell why. For starters, there is the time spent waiting for a bus to arrive. In theory, each bus should not take more than 15 to 20 minutes to arrive at the bus stop. In practice, the waiting time can occasionally take over half an hour, depending on traffic conditions.

To make matters worse, many buses tend to be packed, especially during peak hours. On such occasions, the uglier side of Singaporean behaviour might surface, and one such example would be when passengers refuse – despite much prodding – to move towards the rear of the bus in order to make way for more passengers to board.

Still, to put things in perspective, the public bus is the most cost-effective way to travel in Singapore. Taking a bus is also probably the best way for you to see a wider cross-section of Singaporeans on a daily basis.

MRT and LRT
The construction of the first MRT lines (North-South and East-West lines) began in May 1982, a massive project that cost a hefty S$5 billion. Since then, the MRT has expanded to serve ever more commuters. A line was built to connect the northern and western stations between Woodlands and Jurong. The Northeast Line was added a few years later, to connect the new housing estates of Punggol and Sengkang to downtown Singapore.

The Circle Line (CCL), which is set to start operating from 2010 onwards, will cut travelling time and allow commuters to bypass busy interchanges like City Hall and Raffles Place. Costing $6.7 billion, the CCL will be a fully underground orbital line linking all radial lines leading to the city. The line will interchange with the North-South Line, East-West Line and North-East Line.

The MRT may be well over 20 years old, but thanks to regular maintenance and facelifts, it'd be hard to notice its age. Most Singaporeans can no longer remember a time without the MRT. It has become a very indispensable way to get from one end of Singapore to another, and it is particularly useful for getting to downtown areas such as Orchard Road or the Central Business District, where traffic can be heavy.

More recently, the Light Rapid Transit (LRT) system was also added to the existing train network. Unlike the MRT, the LRT are intra-town loop services – passengers switch from the MRT to the LRT to get to other parts of the town. To date, LRT services have only been implemented in the Bukit Panjang, Sengkang and Punggol housing estates.

The greatest advantage that trains have over road transport is their ability to bypass traffic congestion. On top of that, the MRT and LRT are both very cheap compared to train services in most other countries in the world. The major disadvantage is that the rail network is not yet as extensive as most would like it to be.

Just like public buses, MRT trains can get incredibly crowded, especially during peak hours, in spite of the higher frequency of trains during such times. This is, perhaps, an unavoidable part of urban living, but the good news is that the trains are very clean and well-maintained, so it's very seldom a completely unpleasant ride.

Ez-link
The ez-link card is a fairly recent innovation that was added to both the bus and rail network in Singapore.

The ez-link card is a thin, compact smartcard, similar in size to a credit card. It is essentially a store-valued card, very much like a public telephone card. Unlike telephone cards however, a tamper-proof microchip is embedded inside an ez-link card.

To use an ez-link card, all you have to do is tap the card on a card reader, which will automatically scan and deduct the appropriate amount from your card. These card readers are located on the turnstiles of all MRT stations, and on the front and back entrances of all public buses.

You can top up the value of your ez-link card at all MRT stations and bus interchanges. Just bring it to a counter and top up with cash, or do it electronically at electronic ticket machines.

Taxis
Eight taxi companies operate taxis in Singapore: Comfort Transportation, CityCab, Yellow Top Taxi,  SMRT Taxis, Trans-Cab Services, SMART Automobile, Premier Taxis and Prime Taxi.

Taxis provide you with greater speed, comfort and of course, privacy. Although taxis are subject to the same traffic conditions as public buses, it has the major advantage of not being forced to run on a fixed route. Experienced taxi drivers know which roads to avoid during peak hours to evade traffic jams. The drivers also tend to be great sources of gossip and conversation!

All taxis in Singapore charge by the meter. It is a fair and transparent system, but that doesn't make it any more economical, unfortunately.

Here's a comparison in fares and travel time for a trip from the first town in Singapore, Toa Payoh, to City Hall (CBD Area) during a non-peak hour:

Bus

Train

Taxi

Fare

$1.39

$0.98

$9.00

Travel Time

35 minutes

13 minutes

20 minutes

However, do not expect to pay $9.00 when you travel to work in the morning, as there are additional surcharges for travelling during peak hours, as illustrated below:

Starting fare: $2.80
Travel fare: $6.20
Peak period surcharge: $3.15 (35% of metered fare)
Electronic Road Pricing gantry: $2.00
Total fare: $14.15

Here is another comparison in fares and travel time for a trip from Hougang, the Eastern part of Singapore, to City Hall (CBD Area) during a non-peak hour:

Bus

Train

Taxi

Fare

$1.58

$1.53

$14.00

Travel Time

55 minutes

23 minutes

30 minutes

It may be helpful to do another comparison in fares and travel time for a trip from Jurong East, the Western part of Singapore, to City Hall (CBD Area) during a non-peak hour as well:

Bus

Train

Taxi

Fare

$1.58

$1.37

$15.50

Travel Time

52 minutes

25 minutes

27 minutes

As you can see, travelling by taxi during rush hours can easily result in 50% higher fares. As such, it is extremely rare for people to commute to work via taxis.

It gets even more expensive if you call to book a taxi. Regular bookings cost an extra $3.50 during peak hours and $2.50 during non-peak periods. And if you pay by NETS or credit cards, there would be a 10% additional administrative charge, so perhaps you might like to think twice before opting for payment with credit or charge cards.

Then, there are the late night surcharges, where you have to pay an additional 50% of the metered fare between 12 midnight to 6am in the morning.

Taxi rides in Singapore may cost relatively less than taxis in many other developed countries in the world, but nonetheless, the costs do add up, so unless you enjoy the benefit of claiming such expenses from your company, you would be wiser to choose the taxi only when you need it badly.