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.
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 . 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.
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 Of these, five plots were sold, four others have yet to have a tender launched as at the time of writing, one was withdrawn from sale because the bids received were too low and the eleventh plot received no bid at all.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?
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. 
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 . 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.
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. 
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