Wednesday, April 30, 2008

I'm in the papers again

It took them a while, but my reply to Clinton Lim's suggestion to use ferries as public transport has finally been published.

Commute by sea? It's a ferry tale (mirror)

I REFER to Mr Clinton Lim Eng Hiong's letter, 'Tired of jammed roads? Go to work by sea instead' (April 23). While ferries have proven to be an effective means of transport in many coastal cities, there are many complex challenges in Singapore's context which would make it difficult to effectively implement a similar system here.

Ferry transport works best when the distance between two points is shorter over water than if a detour has to be made over land. This is best seen in cities surrounding large bays like in the San Francisco Bay Area, or where cities are spread out over a cluster of islands, such as in Hong Kong.

Anybody with a map of Singapore can tell that the island is roughly shaped like a lozenge. In the north, the causeway linking Singapore to Johor Baru prevents sea transport via the Straits of Johor. Taking this into account, the distance covered over land is usually shorter than by sea. As an example, people intending to take a ferry from Punggol to Jurong would have to skirt the entire eastern and southern coastline of Singapore.

Although the seas might not appear to be as congested as our roads, there are laws and regulations for our busy port and shipping lanes which will affect the speed and routes taken by any ferry service, which means that taking the shortest direct route over water will not always be possible.

Sea-going vessels are usually unable to match land vehicles in terms of speed. Faster boats are available, but the wake produced by these boats can be large, which not only disrupts other boats nearby, but also accelerates coastal erosion. For this reason, it can be expected that such ferries will not be allowed to achieve top speed until they are some distance from other boats and shores that might be impacted. This adds further to the distance to be travelled, and time taken, since they will have to cruise along at low-wake speeds for portions of the route.

The large size of high-speed ferries necessitates deep water and proper jetties for safe transfer of passengers. Creation and maintenance of such areas requires regular dredging which will affect water quality and thus the coastal environment.

Clinton Lim might not be aware that Clifford Pier has been closed since 2006, due to construction of the Marina Barrage. And in the West Coast area, which is heavily congested, it is unlikely that deepwater access with good land links can be freed up easily.

The effects of bad weather are more obvious on maritime traffic than on land; storms can have a serious impact on the speed of boats, and it does not require very strong winds to create choppy waters that can make a ferry ride a very unpleasant affair for passengers. Small craft, such as the bumboats that ply the waters between Changi and Pulau Ubin, can be unstable, and I have seen how even that short 10-minute journey can be too much for some people to stomach.

Looking into all these factors, it appears that a system of ferry services will neither be very efficient nor cost-effective, when compared to travelling overland. At present, the only place where ferry services might be feasible is in the Singapore River and Kallang Basin, although the extensive road network and numerous bridges would render such a service redundant and practical only in certain areas. Any ferry service would probably be seen more as a slower, scenic pleasure cruise rather than as an effective complement to our existing road and rail infrastructure.

While I wholeheartedly support the need to tackle congestion on the roads, any proposed solution will need to take into account Singapore's geography, and the various issues involved that will affect the practicality and feasibility of such proposals.

Kwan Wei Ming Ivan

2 letters published within the span of 9 days. I hope I don't have to keep doing this. I think I'll pass the job of writing the next rebuttal (whenever that may be) to someone else.