The “park connectors” of Singapore

Singapore is often described by urbanists as having gotten a great many things right. An explicit goal of Singapore’s planning is to have a “car-lite” society. Singapore’s government has taxed automobiles at a very high rate for many years. It also charges for parking and for automobile access to its downtown. In addition, an excellent two-line rail system was built in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and since 2000 it’s been extended by an enormous amount.

Northeast Rail Line, Singapore

The interior of a car on the Northeast Rail Line, Singapore. Note the open gangways. The Northeast Line, like other new rail lines in Singapore, is driverless.

Furthermore, Singapore has built a huge stock of reasonably high-density public housing and has induced most of its population to move in. In recent years it’s upgraded most of the original structures. As a result, Singapore is often said to have the world’s most elegant public housing.

Pinnacle@Duxton, recently constructed public housing in Singapore.

Many statistics support the view that Singapore’s planning has been pretty successful. Public transit usage is very high and continues to grow. Traffic jams are rare. Air quality is chiefly compromised by the burning of forests in nearby Sumatra, not by locally produced automobile exhaust.

A more cynical view would note that automobile ownership of something like 15% is pretty substantial given the high taxes. There is quite an elaborate network of freeways covering the island, and the cost of entering downtown by car (between 0.50 and 2.50 Singapore dollars depending on the time of day, that is, approximately between 0.35 and 1.75 USD) is not enough to discourage driving there. Roads in Singapore are actually pretty crowded. There is also the odd issue that the association of automobile ownership and wealth has perhaps not surprisingly added to the prestige of owning a car.1

Then there’s the question of facilities for pedestrians. I’ve been in Singapore every few years since the 1990s, and the thing that used to bother me most was how difficult it was to walk long distances there. It’s always been comfortable enough to walk along Orchard Road (Singapore’s main central shopping area) as well as in its downtown, and to some extent in near-downtown carefully preserved ethnic districts like Chinatown and Little India. All these areas are pleasantly crowded; they mostly have wide sidewalks; and the urban landscape has an attractively complicated texture. But everywhere else one had to walk along busy roads with few pedestrians and to wait endless minutes for red lights to change. The high-density HDB (Housing and Development Board) projects with their tower-in-a-park designs and lack of shopping streets or complete grids seemed especially unattractive for walking. Furthermore, most of the island’s many parks were somewhat empty, and I couldn’t help but notice that nearly all the runners in parks were ethnic Europeans, that is, presumably expatriates or tourists. I asked Singaporeans about this on several occasions and was reminded that it was always hot and humid in Singapore (it is) and that urban pedestrian life was simply not part of Singapore’s traditional culture. This may be perfectly true, but it’s also the case that a rail system cannot function fully unless some of its users are willing to walk to it. I haven’t been able to help wondering whether Singapore’s distinctive addition of people-movers (called the “LRT”) to its rail lines wasn’t a function in part of its citizens’ reluctance to walk even short distances to the trains.

Things have changed since the 1990s. Singapore’s planners have clearly realized that poor pedestrian facilities were anomalous and have begun remedying the situation, and I spent some time last week exploring the results.

Part of the Whampoa park connector, which winds past many HDB (Housing and Development Board) projects north of downtown.

Most of the new pedestrian facilities are part of a system of what are called “park connectors,” built largely along the many partly artificial waterways that drain the island (Singapore gets more than 2300 mm of rain a year).2 The name is a little odd and may reflect a reluctance on the part of Singapore’s planners to take pedestrian facilities quite seriously. The park connectors do often connect parks, but, in fact, they don’t always, and I was struck by the number of people walking along the park connectors who were carrying shopping bags. That is, the “park connectors” get some practical use too. But you also see quite a number of hikers, runners (who seem to be native Singaporeans), and even some cyclists.

Singapore MRT lines and park connectors.

Map showing rail lines and major pedestrian facilities in Singapore. The latter include all official “park connectors” and some adjoining segments of the Southern Ridges and Singapore River trails. Short paths in parks are excluded. Based on data from OpenStreetMap (but I’ve modified a great deal.)3

Parts of the system of park connectors date as far back as 1992 (and some follow routes that existed before this), but growth was slow at first. There were 12 km of park connectors in 19964 and perhaps 100 km in 2010.5 In recent years much more energy has been put into constructing them, and in September 2015 the park connector system reached 300 km in length. Many new segments are under construction or planned, including a 150-km Round Island Route. (For comparison, the rail transit system is up to 170 km.) As the system has grown, the park connectors have been given much more consistent visual branding

Standard signs along park connectors. There are also fairly standard maps, and “PCN” (for “park connector network”) is painted on the ground every so often.

and they are even increasingly mentioned in tourist literature.

A small fragment of a “Singapore Island map” on the verso of: The official map of Singapore. Singapore : Reddot Maps, 2017. Several of the major park connectors (along with other tourist attractions) are shown on the map.

In addition to formally designated park connectors, there are also some urban trails through the few areas of more or less natural landscape left in Singapore. A series of what were once rough trails along the Southern Ridges near the old port have been improved and even acquired an extremely pleasant canopy-top walkway.

Forest Walk in the Southern Ridges.

There are also some pretty nice trails up to Singapore’s 164-m high Bukit Timah (the highest place on the island). I suspect that Singapore here, as it must do in many other ways, is competing with Hong Kong, which has what may be the world’s best network of urban trails. There is nothing Singapore can do to acquire Hong Kong’s mountains, but it’s come as close as it can with the Southern Ridges and Bukit Timah trails.

Besides these trails, the Rail Corridor that was left by the removal of tracks on the Singapore portion of the old Singapore-Kuala Lumpur railway is supposed to be turned into an additional facility for pedestrians and cyclists. It’s been described as Singapore’s “High Line,” but, in fact, it’s nothing like the High Line, since only a small part of it is raised, and it mostly passes through industrial or medium-density areas. It’s more like many of the rail trails that have been built all over the world in recent years.

The unimproved Rail Corridor between the Hillview and Cashew MRT (subway) stations.

Fixing the Rail Corridor up will take some money since there are missing bridges and a need for improved drainage, but, when I was in Singapore, the whole southern part of the Corridor was closed to facilitate the work.

A missing bridge in the Rail Corridor near Hillview MRT station.

Singapore’s pedestrian facilities are definitely still a work in progress. There are many gaps in the “network.” This doesn’t matter in the way it would for a rail network, but it does matter some. Also, most of the routes intersect with numerous streets, and only in a few cases is crossing facilitated by tunnels or bridges. Sometimes crosswalks help (Singapore drivers usually respect these), but, whenever there’s a major street to cross, park connector users must deal with a slow-to-change traffic light. Cyclists are even more inconvenienced than pedestrians by the lack of long rights-of-way. There is also the larger issue that, in building park connectors mostly along watercourses or in parks, planners have of necessity paid little attention to where people might actually want to go. This is of course a problem with pedestrian facilities all over the world. They mostly get built where it’s easy and cheap to build them.

Despite these caveats, Singapore’s pedestrian connectors strike me as a major accomplishment. One can be as dubious as one wants about the authoritarian side of Singapore’s government, but one must admit that Singapore’s tradition of central planning has resulted in some extremely impressive urbanism.

  1. For additional information on the history of Singapore’s planning, see (among other sources): Martin Perry, Lily Kong, and Brenda Yeoh. Singapore : a developmental city state. Chichester : John Wiley & Sons, 1997.
  2. Major sources: Planning Singapore: from plan to implementation / edited by Belinda K. P. Yuen. Singapore : NUS Press, 1998, especially pages 31-41. Also: the well-indexed major newspaper Straits Times and the National Parks Website.
  3. Closely spaced parallel linear features are difficult to show on maps generated with GIS since the lines used to represent them can overlap, and one must choose which comes on top. On this map red lines are shown over blue ones which in turn can cover purple lines.
  4. Yuen, previous footnote.
  5. Mark Lewis. The rough guide to Singapore. London : Rough Guides, 2010.
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