I’ve heard that Singapore controls the number of cars on its roads. How does this work?

I’ve heard that Singapore controls the number of cars on its roads. How does this work?

Karen Abromovich, Trumbull, CT

Nearly 42 million cars were produced worldwide in 2003. More cars, of course, mean more congestion and more air pollution. In response, a handful of regions, including Singapore, are trying to limit the number of cars on the road.

Singapore implemented a “Vehicle Quota System” in 1990. According to the Singapore Land Transport Authority, which administers the program, the number of new vehicles allowed for registration is pre-determined annually, taking into account prevailing traffic conditions and the number of vehicles already on the roads.

The vehicle quota for any given year is administered through a monthly auction of “certificates of entitlement,” which are bid by prospective car owners and must be obtained before their vehicle is allowed on the road. This free market approach sets a relatively high price for a certificate; a quota premium on a car can cost as much as $16,000 in U.S. dollar equivalent. But as a result of the program and its high prices, the number of automobiles in Singapore increased just 22 percent from 1993 to 2003 (from 584,000 cars to 711,000), even though population increased 46 percent during the same time period.

Last year London began implementing a “Congestion Pricing System,” which is being touted as the new international model for transportation reform, according to Walter Hook, executive director of the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy. Between the hours of 7 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. there is an extra charge to drive on certain downtown roads. Exemptions exist for taxis, emergency vehicles and other special classes of cars, including alternative energy vehicles. Traffic is monitored by camera, and violators risk fines starting at 78 pounds ($140 U.S.). The British government hopes to cut congestion downtown—where traffic speeds now average three miles an hour—and raise 130 million pounds ($230 million U.S.) per year in the process. A similar system has been in place in Trondheim, Norway for at least 10 years.

Could such systems ever work in the U.S.? Michelle Ernst, senior analyst at the Surface Transportation Policy Project, which advocates for alternative transportation choices, is doubtful, saying that Americans are too attached to their cars, and at present public transportation in many areas is not convenient. “If a system similar to Singapore’s were to be implemented in the U.S., a likely candidate would be New York City, where there is a well developed dense urban core. But that’s a long way off,” says Ernst. “Mayor Bloomberg was interested, but found it politically unfeasible.”

CONTACT: Singapore Land Transport Authority, +011 1800 – 2255 582, www.lta.gov.sg/; Institute for Transportation & Development Policy, (212) 629-8001, www.itdp.org; London City Hall, +011 020 7983-4000, www.london.gov.uk/mayor/congest/index.jsp; Surface Transportation Policy Project, (202) 466-2636, www.transact.org.