Friday, March 26, 2010

Should owning a BMW or Mecedes in Singapore convey a license for rudeness?

A benefit of my twenty mile bicycle commute is the scores of face to face encounters I experience and vignettes that I am privileged to observe each day. On a saturday morning (today) there are many out walking, either purposefully striding alone or enjoying the company of partners, pets and children. On weekday mornings the typical pet walkers are guest-worker ‘domestics’ from the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh or other Asian nations with large numbers of underemployed poor. Apparently it is not a custom to say ‘good morning’ however when I do - I say ‘good morning’ to virtually everyone I pass, people seem pleased often return my smile and respond.

This morning I want to write about crossing streets that are busy with automobile traffic. In contrast to other nations (especially the US) Singapore is draconian about limiting the number of automobiles. The planning mechanism used is the “Certificate of Entitlement (COE)” [to buy and own an automobile]. Only a fixed number are issued each year. I don’t fully understand the process by which the cost is determined, however it is a combination of ‘bidding’ and government decision-making . As a result of this process, and other government interventions such as ‘electronic road pricing’ traffic congestion is relatively rare in Singapore, though it does occur during peak hours. In general, traffic flows smoothly and people drive fast.

Some cyclists ride amidst the automobiles on main roads. I have been advised against this a mostly accept the advise. . In residential areas such as Queen Astrid Park, I take my chances with roads. Otherwise I ride on sidewalks. I have heard there are laws against riding on at least some sidewalks (and $100 fines for violators) but I have encountered no problems so far. This means I must frequently cross busy roads.

One gains insight about Singapore from seeking information about pedestrian crossings on the website of the Land Transport Authority (which manages automobile licensing, the Metropolitan Rapid Transit, bus companies, and taxis). The information provided is a short essay about how the system of crossings, and the length of time for crossing involves trade-offs between the needs different types of users and how the LTA tries to fairly balance the needs of all. There are basically, 4 types of crossing. Pedestrian activated “green man – red man” crossings, “green man – red man” crossings that are not pedestrian activated, crossings demarcated by flashing orange lights, and crossings not demarcated by any lights.

I have never seen a Singapore driver run a red light. This is typical Singaporean respect for authority, reinforced, I am told, by many surveillance cameras. The other crossing categories provide opportunities for driver discretion. Drivers, whether of automobiles, busses, or trucks (lorries) are almost unfailingly courteous. When they stop, I always look them in the eye, smile, wave and say “thank you!” Most often, they wave and smile back. There seems to be one class of drivers, however, that are often - not always - exceptions. These are the owners of Mercedes Benz and BMW automobiles, typically black in color and immaculate from frequent washing. Along the entitlement certificates and taxes, such cars set their owners back substantially more than $100,000 in capital costs and there are very operating costs. When a Mercedes or BMW is approaching a pedestrian crossing I know I need to exercise extra caution.

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