Yawning Bread. 23 June 2008

Orchard Road: boom, bust, stuck and shut


    

 

 

Singapore's main shopping thoroughfare, Orchard Road, is currently rather unfriendly to pedestrians, as I discovered on a recent trip there. Large lengths of the sidewalk have been boarded up as work goes on to rebuild the planters and add new light fixtures, all part of an attempt to keep the district looking up-to-date. Shoppers have to squeeze through narrowed walkways, and turn sharply left or right as a result of detours.

Other sections have no sidewalk at all and people have to cross the road if they wish to continue walking. This is particularly the case where huge new shopping malls are being built.


Orchard Central, a huge shopping mall with 10 floors of shops, under construction opposite The Centrepoint
  

There are four big ones -- one opposite The Centrepoint, the reconstruction of what used to be Specialists' Shopping Centre and Phoenix Hotel, a project called Somerset Central, and at the site above the Orchard metro station -- but there are also smaller projects along the same stretch of road, such as the extension of Paragon. I wonder how we will fill these hectares of new retail space.

Singapore's property market tends to move in boom-and-bust cycles. At about this time last year, sharply escalating rental rates were making the headlines. The increases were across the board: retail, office and residential space were all affected. Now a glut may be on the horizon.

In a recent story, the Straits Times reported that none of the 26 Reserve List land plots that have been available by the government since the beginning of this year attracted a sufficiently attractive bid to activate a public tender [1]. Reserve List sites require at least one buyer to suggest a bid above a guideline price before the site is put up for sale by open tender.


Ion Orchard under construction above Orchard metro station
  

In addition to the 26, the news report indicated that in the first half of this year, a total of 11 plots were "confirmed" for sale, meaning a tender is called without there having to be an initial expression of interest. Of these, five plots were sold, four others have yet to have a tender launched as at the time of writing, one was withdrawn from sale because the bids received were too low and the eleventh plot received no bid at all. (Note: Not all these plots would be for retail use. Many, if not most, would be for residential development.)

Clearly, property developers must be getting cautious. Are they too looking at these behemoths going up on Orchard Road (and other areas) and wondering where they're going to find tenants?

 
Traffic headache

However, if these malls are even half successful, Orchard Road itself may become impassable. Already, there are days when the traffic is so bad, you're inching your way forward all two kilometres of it.

There appears to be a major design problem which the government may find too difficult to solve, relying instead on raising electronic tolls to deter people from driving through the area.



  

The problem is basically this: Most of the turn-offs from Orchard Road, whether into side roads or car parks, are on the left-hand side. But the left-hand side is where the bus lane is. Thus, cars wanting to turn left find themselves in conflict with a never-ending stream of buses, as do cars coming out of the side roads and car parks.

Taxi stands too are on the left-hand side.

The diagram on the left shows typical conflict situations found at 5 or 6 points along Orchard Road.

To make things worse, the buses that travel through Orchard Road do not stop at consecutive bus-stops, but at alternate ones. As a result, after having served one bus-stop, instead of staying within the bus lane, the bus often swerves out into an adjacent lane, in order to go past (and avoid being held up at) the next bus-stop.

Consequently there's a lot of weaving in and out by cars, taxis and buses. It's a very inefficient way of using the road.

Over the years, there's been a lot of tinkering with the traffic flow and traffic lights, but things have not improved very much. Frankly, I cannot see how this main artery can be unclogged without a major reconceptualisation of traffic flow.

The centrepiece of the new system should be a people-mover system or an overhead monorail running all the way from the Botanic Gardens at Napier Road to Suntec City. Everybody should be encouraged to use the monorail if intending to go into the main shopping corridor.

Large parking garages can be provided at various access points to the monorail, e.g. at Napier Road, Scotts Road, Paterson Road, Clemenceau Avenue, Nicoll Highway. Naturally, this means the electronic tolls will have to rise to suit. [2]

One side benefit of having a monorail is that Orchard Road can be closed for parades more frequently, lending a festive air to the area.

Buses can continue to run down Orchard Road, but they should not stop, unless the route intersects with a metro station. What this means is that people coming to Orchard Road by bus should also transfer to the monorail as soon as they enter the zone, in order to get to their final destination. They stay on the bus only if they are intending to transfer to the metro.

Since buses do not have to stop unless it meets a metro station, and since metro stations along Orchard and Bras Basah Road are on the right side of the road, this means the bus lane should be moved to that side. Only a few stops and pedestrian crossings need to be provided, coincident with the metro stations. The immediate advantage would be the avoidance of conflict between buses and cars/taxis on the left side of Orchard Road.

 

Closing too early

The government no doubt wants Orchard Road to remain a premier shopping district. The current sprucing up of the sidewalk, inconvenient though it may be while it's going on, is testimony to that. But there are other issues that need attention too.

In a commentary in the Sunday Times, Ignatius Low pointed out one such issue: the merchants' opening hours. Compared to other Asian metropolitan centres, Singapore closes relatively early [3]. Our store hours are not only inappropriate to Singaporeans' longer working days, Low pointed out, but don't suit time-stressed business visitors who may only have time after a business dinner to shop a little for the family back home.


What's the point of lighting up if the shops don't stay open?
 

If we want Orchard Road to remain at the top of the league, the stores should open to midnight, or even round the clock. Is it so hard to imagine Singapore having a street that never sleeps?

Not long ago, some Orchard Road shops tried out late night shopping on one Friday night a month, but I notice that the publicity signs indicating this are now gone. They have probably discontinued the experiment.

From the beginning I doubted if it would work. Shopping is an impulse activity. You cannot expect people to remember which night of the month it is supposed to be, nor remember which stores will open late and which will not. In any case, such a scheme does no good for tourists who are only here for a few days. You have to take the plunge and do it fully, before you see results.

Before that can happen though, two enabling issues must be fixed, and here again the government must get involved even though opening hours are primarily a private business matter.

The first problem is where the stores will find the extra staff. Good quality sales assistants are rare in Singapore, and unless we open the doors to more foreign employees, this ambition cannot be realised. However, the rising xenophobia among Singaporeans may be an obstacle to letting in more foreign workers.

The second is public transport. How are shoppers and employees going to get home if the stores close late? It is ridiculous that for a city of our size and ambition, we do not have any public transport after 12 midnight, with some bus services ceasing as early as 11, a practice unchanged since I was born. [4]

Public transport is also essential if another missing aspect of Orchard Road is to be fixed: lack of late-night entertainment. There is a certain sterility about Orchard Road because, other than shopping, there isn't much else. A vibrant downtown district needs a lot more by way of entertainment, but this is impossible if affordable transport is not available for tourists and the masses.

These issues must be attended to. Replanting the shrubs and changing the light bulbs along Orchard Road is nowhere good enough for creating a premier shopping street.

Yawning Bread 


 

 

 

 

 

No late-night restaurants either

I have a personal anecdote to relate about early closing times. Recently, I attended a piano concert at the Esplanade Theatres with a friend, and it didn't end till nearly 11 pm. We hadn't had dinner before the concert, since neither of us have a habit of taking dinner at 6:30.

But when we emerged from the concert hall, all the restaurants at the Esplanade were closing. We went to Clarke Quay, supposedly one of the most vibrant hubs of entertainment in Singapore, but all the restaurants there were closing too. We went to enquire at Merchant Court Hotel if its coffee house was still open. No it wasn't.

Fortunately, the staff at Merchant Court were very helpful and suggested either a roti prata or a chicken rice coffee shop along River Valley Road.

I looked at my friend, all decked out in a nice evening dress and high heels. She sportingly said, "Don't worry about me. I've been to all sorts of places in high heels."

Seriously, can't Singapore do better than roti prata and chicken rice shops for late-night dining? What kind of provincial hole is this?

 

Footnotes

  1. Straits Times, 20 June 2008, Fewer confirmed Govt sites put up for sale  
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  2. If tolls are not raised, people will not abandon their cars. it's an unavoidable fact. The difference between my proposal and what the government is currently doing is to offer a comfortable, easy-to-understand alternative -- park and ride the monorail -- which is currently absent from existing road management policy.
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  3. Sunday Times, 22 June 2008, Late-night therapy  
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  4. Granted, there is a skeletal service after Friday and Saturday nights, but I've tried it and it falls short. The buses are spaced 30 minutes apart when 15 or 20 minutes would be more reasonable. They travel incredibly complicated routes taking even longer. I suspect large parts of Singapore are not served at all. And one more thing: the information boards at bus stops that detail the routes are not lit; they are very hard to read in the dim night light. Don't the people who design these things test them under real conditions?
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Addenda

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