Saturday, March 16, 2013

Singapore's public transportation system is broken

Singapore's transportation system is broken - here's how to fix it

Moving around one’s city is not something that is optional.  Everybody has to be able to get to work, school, shopping, medical care, and recreation facilities.  When everybody needs a service, it is a public good, and a natural utility.  That means that government has a role to play, either as the service provider, or as a regulator of the monopoly.

What’s wrong with the current setup?

In short, the erroneous application of open market principles to transportation. 

The MRT subway system has been fragmented between different operators.  But the fact is, holes in the ground do not compete.  If I live in proximity to a subway line, the fact that another subway line exists is irrelevant – I only use the one that is applicable to me.  

 This may seem obvious, but somehow the government has persuaded itself that there is benefit from forcing subway lines to compete.  The same thing applies to buses.  Unless both operators are sending buses down the same routes, there is no competition, just duplication.   

This needs to stop now, and the natural economies of scale offered by a growing rail and bus network need to be captured for the benefit of its riders. 

Although the idea of privatization and commercial operation is attractive at first sight, the realities are different.  

 A profit making enterprise does not have service provision as its first motivation, it has profit.  Public transport systems require massive upfront capital costs (digging tunnels, buying trains, buses, cars) which have to be funded in the commercial debt market.  That costs money that would otherwise have gone into providing the transport service.  

 Each individual operator has the overheads of a commercial firm – management, financial accounting, debt, premises, and shareholder dividends.  All of those costs are duplicative and could be eliminated with the creation of a single public operator. 

Coordination of modes of transport

A successful transportation system for a city state requires inter-modal networks.  It is unlikely that your journey can be completed on only one form of transport.  Rail provides efficient transport for longer distances, and buses, trams, and light-rail serve the feeder network that allows people to get very close to their final destination.  Taxis serve point to point journeys that are not served well by public transport, and cater to special needs such as travelling with luggage and those who are handicapped.

Today we have no coordination between the private operators of the rail system, the private operators of the bus services, and the providers of taxi services.  By treating all  as part of one transportation system, a highly effective transport grid can be created.

A little more about taxis

Today in Singapore we have no firms actually providing taxi service.  Instead we have eight rental car companies who provide vehicles to independent contractors, most of whom provide a taxi service.  This is all done on a "best efforts" basis, with the regulator applying some standards for service, which make no sense since the standards are applied to the car rental companies instead of the service providers who happen to be individuals renting cars. 

Some would argue that taxis are not part of the public transportation system, but considering that they provide over 650,000 trips per year, it is hard to accept that view.   

A better solution is to recognize the benefit of a public transport tier that allows for effective use of vehicles and roads and which provides a premium service allowing point to point and hard to reach destinations.  Since this is a premium service, private operators are fine, but they should be licensed and regulated as taxi service providers, not allowed to operate as car rental companies.


The usual objection to having government provide services is that it is effectively a subsidy that will drain the Treasury.   

As I showed at the beginning of this article, the proper role of government is to provide services to the people it serves and who pay taxes to fund the services.  In Singapore, we have a number of sources for government revenue, so the question becomes one of sufficiency.  Does the transport system pay its own way?

Direct fees – the first source of income is the revenue collected from ticket sales.  One could make the argument that this is the best source of funding, since the people using the system should pay for it.   

That sounds plausible until you also consider the cost avoidance implied by a well-functioning public transport system.  Every resident who uses public transport instead of driving a car is reducing the need for roads and parking.  On that basis, there is no need to attempt to cover the full costs of the public transport system directly from its users.  There is a societal benefit that applies to all residents, and this should be shared.

COE and vehicle taxes – The government currently raises S$4.6 Billion from vehicle-related taxes (I can’t make out if this includes ERP and COE – the document refers to Motor Vehicle taxes and Vehicle Quota premiums)   

Suffice to say that the revenue from taxing cars should not go into the general Treasury, but should be directly applied to public transport.  This would provide a more palatable justification for high COE premiums, as the monies collected would be used to invest in a first class public transport system.  Why have the hassle and cost of car ownership if you have an acceptable alternative? 

General taxes – if the direct fees and vehicle taxes are not sufficient to fund the transport system, then use general tax revenues.  Again, public transport is a public good that should be funded by the people for the people.

Singapore is the ideal size and density for a world-class public transportation system that serves its residents well.  That outcome has not been accomplished due to misguided application of open market principles to a natural utility/monopoly.  It is time the Singapore government stepped up to its responsibilities and delivered on the vision.


Monday, February 11, 2013

GV shows butchered version of Good Day to Die Hard

I have just come back from watching what was advertised as A Good Day to Die Hard at GV Gold Class VivoCity

What was presented was a butchered facsimile of the real film.  I don’t understand what GV is thinking by showing such a badly tampered with film – the experience was painful, with dialogue missing or replaced with inane phrases (chia pet, seriously??), and scenes apparently truncated.  The resulting mess was not even coherent.

To be clear, this is the fifth film in the franchise.  I am well aware of what to expect in a Die Hard movie, including violence and coarse language.  That is normally offset by a sense of humour, something that was entirely destroyed by the replacement of the intended dialogue. 

Who does GV/distributor/film censorship board think they are “protecting“ with this inane censorship?   The audience is clearly adult and willing to pay for comfort and quality.  Instead GV delivered crap.  

It is no excuse to say "this is what the distributor provided", which was the response from the on-site manager.  GV owes its primary duty of care to its customers, not the distributor.  If the distributor won’t provide a clean print, don’t show the movie.

I feel completely ripped off.  Instead of an enjoyable night out with my wife, we ended up spending over S$130 on what was a fraud.

I have checked the web site again to confirm that there was no warning that the film being shown was not the original, but there is nothing.

With the increasing dirtiness of the seats and theatres, and now with butchered films, I don’t think we will be customers any longer.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Of empathy and bus drivers

In the debate about emotionless Singaporeans, it is useful to have some evidence rather than conjecture. 

I give you the Business Times and reporting on a “strike” by some bus drivers.   

The reporter manages to cover the story without actually talking to a bus driver, which is pretty amazing considering it was a work stoppage by bus drivers. 

We learn that the gentlemen in question were recruited from China on contract, they are not unionized, they are housed in a dormitory, and they are paid S$1,000 per month, which is less than other drivers doing the same job.  This disparity in pay increased after a recent round of pay adjustments, in which the contract drivers did not receive an increase.   

We also learn that the drivers refused to go to work at the beginning of their 4am shift, SMRT management called the riot police at 10am, and talks with the drivers didn't start until 12 hours after the work refusal started..

So those are the facts as reported. 

The total absence of empathy is telling.   

At a time when the government is cutting the number of foreign workers, we find that public transport, run by a government controlled company, is importing workers at low pay.  We learn that the national business newspaper, also government controlled, refers to the drivers as “PRC nationals”, and does not attempt to learn or understand their side of the issue. 

What must it be like to have left your home with the promise of a job in Singapore, and then to find that you are housed in a dormitory, expected to work side-by-side with people earning more than you, and not to get a pay increment in a country with a 5% inflation rate?

Do you feel intimidated when "45 police officers, 3 patrol cars, and 4 special operations command vehicles were deployed" at your dormitory?

We will never know, because these are not people, they are PRC nationals.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

In Praise of the Synology DS1512+ NAS

I have been using a NAS (Networked Attached Storage) device for more than 10 years now.  Starting with a no-name Taiwanese enclosure that was really bad news, and moving on to the original ReadyNAS NV (power supply caught fire, replaced under warranty, then power supply fan died, could not get replacement to work), then the now Netgear-owned ReadyNAS NV+ (because I was desperate after the old one died, still running).

The ReadyNAS NV+ has reasonable software for managing the unit, but the promise of being able to run other applications like Logitech Media Server to support music streaming has barely been kept.  The performance is sluggish, and the release updates are slow.  The box houses up to 4 drives, and my configuration is using 1TB drives, with a usable space of 2.7TB.

Reading a comparison of NAS units recently, I came across a brand I had not really looked at before – Synology.  What really caught my eye though was their operating environment, DSM.  Almost all devices sold are running some form of LINUX, so the differentiator is down to how well it is implemented, and how good the user interface (UI) is.  DSM is Synology’s flavour, and they have done a really spectacular job with it.

The website had a list of applications that was quite extensive, but then went on to include quite a few 3rd party applications as well.  The list of certifications was impressive, including VMWare, Citrix, and Hyper-V.  Instead of being just a box containing hard disks, this was looking like a complete server environment.

With the ReadyNAS NV+ approaching 5 years of life, I figured it was time to plan for what comes next.  My data sets have continued to grow, with music, videos, photos, image backups, and file backups all creating demand for space.  

With that in mind, I looked for units that could handle at least four 2TB drives.  The DS1512+ met that basic challenge, and had the additional benefit of dual fans, USB3.0 ports, expandable RAM, great read/write speeds, and most importantly for something that lives near me, was quiet.

Western Digital had just announced a new line of 3.5 inch hard disks called RED, specifically designed for use in multi-disk NAS setups.  The drives are quiet, run cool, and are designed for 24x7 operation.  I went with five 2TB  drives and easily installed them in the chassis.  

I powered up the NAS unit, and connected to it using the supplied setup wizard from a PC on the same LAN.  There are a few settings to make, and then the formatting kicked off.  I let this run over night, and in the morning, had a freshly installed 7.4TB volume ready to take data.

I let the unit burn in over the next couple of weeks in order to ensure that both the disks and the chassis had no problems.  I was amazed at the difference in noise level between the old ReadyNAS NV+ (noisy) and the DS1512+ (silent).

As promised, DSM is a joy to use, with clear informative icons, well thought-out menus, and simple to understand settings.   

Using Package Manager, I started installing a number of Synology apps to create a photo gallery, VPN server, Media Server, remote audio streamer, and remote video streamer.  Synology provides portable apps for IOS and Android to connect back to content on the NAS, and the installation and setup worked flawlessly.  I have both an iPad and an Android Google Nexus 7 connecting without problems, allowing me to manage the unit from anywhere in the world.  Security is catered for with the choice of both HTTP and HTTPS (SSL) connections, and extensive and granular user managment in DSM.

Feeling confident with how easily everything went, I decided to plunge on and see what the DS1512+ was like as an application server.   

I enabled the built-in MySQL and installed PHPMyAdmin to manage the data base, then used Package Manager to install Joomla, a popular open source CMS.  A few minutes later, and I had the sample Joomla web site up and running, accessible from any web browser.  I was somewhat surprised to see how fast pages loaded, and how little CPU and memory were consumed by the whole web site setup.   

This is not a theoretical hack, this is a fully functioning server platform.

You can probably tell I am pretty pleased with the DS1512+.  I have had a constant sense of being pleasantly surprised at the quality of the hardware and especially the software.  This is as good as or better than systems sold into the enterprise market, and at a fraction of the price.

Highly recommended.