Singapore: The Bus-sy City

Interactive features help commuters enjoy their waiting time. Photo source: The Straits Times SIngapore


Close to 4 million passengers use the Singapore bus service each day. But this is not enough. Aiming to get less cars on the road and more people onto public transport, Singapore deploys interactive features to boost the popularity of the bus.


For the busy city of Singapore, 2017 seems to be the year of the bus. The city-state has been ramping up the focus on buses to discourage citizens from driving, using creative methods to appeal to the public.

A new bus terminal at Shenton Way is an example of a series of concerted actions to boost the public transportation system. The new terminal features a priority queue zone, barrier-free toilets to aid in mobility of the disabled and 150 bicycle lots, to make the use of public transport more convenient.

Staff are not neglected at the new Shenton Way station, with dedicated employee toilets and an air-conditioned lounge. The bus terminal will also sport a green roof, a move to add to the greenery in the Shenton Way district.

The big picture: less vehicles on the road, and a greener environment. This is but one example of how Singapore is pulling out all the stops in terms of revamping the user experience, making it more appealing and efficient.


A view of the green rooftop at the Shenton Way station. Photo source: The Straits Times Singapore



In March of 2017, the city infused the system with a fleet of three-door single-deck buses, replete with USB ports as a test to see how the Singapore public would respond. The Land Transport Authority (LTA) wanted to create greater accessibility, reducing the time spent at stops, while the charging ports provided added convenience.

Group director of public transport at the LTA, Yeo Teck Guan said to The Straits Times: “Deploying the three-door buses will allow us to study the concept further by observing commuter flow and how the bus adapts to existing infrastructure.

“The review of public bus design is a key part of making public transport a choice mode of transport as we move towards a car-lite society.”

Apart from its three-door design, the buses will feature other friendly features such as a passenger information display system, and spaces for wheelchairs.


The new three-door double decker buses by Transit Tower Singapore are equipped with convenient services for passengers. Photo source: The Straits Times Singapore


The LTA in collaboration with the bus company also put on trial a series of quirky on-board signs in Singlish, the English-based lingo common in Singapore, to appeal to passengers and draw attention to the new features within. The green signs boasted slogans such as “Here cannot go in!”, “Here can charge phone!” and “Sorry, wait a while can?” in place of the usual prohibitive signs common to public transport.

Tower Transit Singapore (TTS) is the transport operator responsible for the trial of the three-door double-decker busses. Their Group Communications Director, Glenn Lim, said the signs were located strategically around the bus near the doors and reserved seats, to help commuters “use the services provided on the bus better”.

“The review of public bus design is a key part of making public transport a choice mode of transport as we move towards a car-lite society.” – Yeo Teck Guan, Group Director of Public Transport, Land Transport Authority, Singapore

He stated that the company did not want the signs to be “run of the mill”. A humorous headline in Singlish was used to deploy commuters’ attention, followed by short explanations in standard English. According to Lim, the idea was to grab attention first, and then encourage them to read the intended message after, helping them familiarise passengers with the key features of the bus, such as the additional staircase and USB charging ports.

While some quarters have come forth to criticise the move (and the lack of proper grammar), many commuters have expressed amusement, with members of the public posting the signs on social media platforms in sizeable numbers, indicating that at the very least, the signs have done their job.


Quirky signs in Singlish are a departure from the usually-prohibitive language used on public transits.



To further coax car owners out of their cars and onto public transport, TTS have also pulled another trick out of their sleeves: adding a “signature scent” to the passenger experience. According to Lim, the key idea was not just to entice customers onto the buses, but to make them calmer and happier as they ride.

“If we’re getting people to move from their private cars to more of the public bus usage,” Lim told BBC News, “we really need to incentivise them to do that.”

Car ownership is considered a status booster in Singapore, and much like the latest iPhone or Samsung, every citizen either owns or aspires to one. This means that buses merely play the role of a transit option. However, as the population keeps growing, the city-state was keen to encourage more enthusiastic public-transit usage.

Enter Singapore’s Eau de Bus. Custom-designed for TTS by the Singaporean scent marketing company AllSense, the scent was designed to evoke the tropical climate and greenery redolent of the “garden city” of Singapore, showcasing notes of peppermint, eucalyptus, and damask rose, as well as ylang ylang and sandalwood.


AllSense CEO, Terry Jacobson handpicked the individual fragrance notes for the Singapore bus. Photo courtesy AllSense


The aim was to evoke the feeling of being fresh and cool, and to contrast with the tropical climate of Singapore. The scent rejuvenates passengers on no less than 100 buses along three different routes on a daily basis.

Of course, the scent may just be a branding exercise on the part of TTS, the city’s third private bus company to operate under a contracting model, in which bus companies bid for opportunities to operate lines. In service for a little over a year since May 2016, TTS may be distinguishing itself from the competition with the three-door double deckers and the eau de bus.

“We see ourselves as being in the business of moving people, not buses,” Lim said in a press release. “It’s a fundamental shift in thinking which recognises that bus services are in some ways a lifestyle offering.”

Skepticism aside, a fresh-smelling bus would indeed be a welcome relief from buses in tropical cities, which, despite air-conditioning, may be infused with unpleasant odours.

“Research has shown that pleasant scents can enhance moods,” Lim added. “Some scents also help to counter symptoms of motion sickness. Our hope is that as you step out of the humidity onto a Tower Transit bus, the scent will diffuse weariness from your commute, relax you, and make your journey more pleasant.”

The question remains if the scent is enough to entice people onto the buses? After all, as far as the reputation of buses go, they can be unreliable, subject to traffic, and involve waiting outside for indeterminate amounts of time.

The Singapore public transportation ecosystem is aware of this. Also of the fact that buses remain a crucial part of the country’s public transit landscape, and if the scents don’t work to get people to use them more, there are other tricks that can be deployed.

“We see ourselves as being in the business of moving people, not buses,” Lim said in a press release. “It’s a fundamental shift in thinking which recognises that bus services are in some ways a lifestyle offering.” – Glenn Lim, Group Communications Director, Tower Transit Singapore
The Jurong East Central bus station has solar powered interactive digital boards and phone chargers. Photo source: The Straits Times Singapore


Waiting outdoors for a bus is common to the public transportation experience. However, Singapore asked the question – what if the humble bus stop could be a place commuters can actually look forward to frequenting?

Seah Chee Huang, director of Singaporean firm, DP Architects told press, “We wanted to redesign a commonplace thing that we [Singaporeans] take for granted.”

As a result, DP Architects in collaboration with various agencies of the Singaporean government, have built a bus stop in Jurong with elements common to cafés, parks, even a living room – places citizens would likely prefer over a bus stop.

Apart from ample seating, a mini-library geared for all ages is available, in addition to a swing for carefree recreation, bicycle parking, artwork by local artists and a rooftop garden.

The space is also hyperconnected. Aside from print books, users can scan a QR code to download e-books from the National Library, charge their phones, and peruse interactive digital boards that provide arrival times and includes a journey planner to find the fastest route. Screens broadcast information on weather, news, and local events, while solar panels help offset electricity use.

The bus stop’s location in Jurong is also strategic. The government has made the area testing ground for “smart” innovations, in line with its 2014 initiative to make Singapore a “smart nation.” Technologies being developed include driverless vehicles, lights that dim or brighten in response to motion, and an automated system that can sense when trash bins need emptying.

Reactions to the Jurong bus stop will help the authorities determine which features to potentially include in other stops. Khoong Hock Yun, Assistant CEO of the government’s Infocomm Media Development Authority, which has a hand in the project, told media that according to public feedback, the mobile phone chargers were by far the most popular feature at the moment..

“Passengers are also making good use of the interactive boards”, he said.

As the final clincher, Singapore merged the functions of credit and debit cards to enable easy on-board payments.


For years, the commuter experience has included the need for pre-loaded fare cards, including the need to reload the cards at specific machines. The LTA, however, is set to change this.

In March of 2017, the LTA launched a pilot program enabling riders to pay directly at the gates with contactless credit and debit cards (similar to PayWave or SamsungPay). Funds are debited from riders’ bank accounts directly, eliminating the need to top up fare cards altogether. If this is successful, Singapore will join the ranks of cities such as London and Sydney in embracing contactless credit and debit payments on their transit systems.


For Singaporeans, a separate transit payment card will be a thing of the past. Photo source: Business Times Singapore


While many cities are experimenting with contactless payment systems (not without problems as in London’s case where the closure of ticket offices caused strikes over lost jobs), others such as Boston have dabbled with mobile payments. However, Singapore’s plan to introduce contactless credit and debit payments could see success. The country has been vigorously ramping up efforts to become a cashless society. The LTA, for example, is trying to make its EZ-Link transit card the go-to payment method in cafes and supermarkets, according to Channel News Asia.

LTA’s partnership with Mastercard hopes to attract some 100,000 riders, who can avoid long lines of at the ticket station, which might just encourage commuters further in the fast-paced city.



This story was first published under the now-defunct Think City Channel.

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