Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Protecting pedestrians from the rain in Singapore

Yesterday morning, there was a Monsoon-like rainfall in Singapore. There seems to be no Monsoon season here, as there is in Sri Lanka, but heavy downpours are frequent. Most often, they occur in the late afternoon and early evening.

It is more than a quarter mile from my apartment to the bus-halt. I carried my umbrella with me, but didn’t need it. There is a fully covered walkway protecting the entire pathway and street crossings. This is true in virtually all government administered housing estates, where more than 85% of Singaporeans live. Lee Kuan Yew writes in his autobiography that when he was Prime Minister, he decided that Singaporeans who live in public housing estates and ride public transit should be protected from the rain. The estates all included covered walkways. The practice has continued.

This seems like an obvious amenity, but I am aware of no other city among many in which I have traveled, worked and lived, that has adopted this practice. Some do have small bus-halt shelters, in contrast to the generous ones that Singapore provides.

There is one exception, but it is fictional. The American socialist philosopher Edward Bellamy, in his powerful book, Looking Backward, provides a futuristic description of Boston in the 21st century. (Looking Backward was published around 1900 as I recall.) In the Boston of Bellamy’s imagination, pedestrians, too, were protected from the rain by covered walkways. Bellamy’s narrator explains this to a “visitor” who has been transported to the futuristic Boston from his own time. He draws a metaphorical contrast between the individualistic values of society in 1900 and the evolved society of the 21st century in which concern for the well-being of all is an overarching value. In 1900, he observed, everyone protected himself or herself with an umbrella which dripped rain on others, especially those who could not afford umbrellas. In the 21st century umbrellas were replaced by covered walkways that protected everyone.

Singapore and Bellamy’s 21st century Boston differ in many respects. (For example in Bellamy’s city everyone earns equal income as a right) but they are similar in their valuing of public spaces. Also in Singapore, there are housing complexes that do not have covered walkways protecting pedestrians who chose to use public transit.

In fact, many of these complexes are not even close to public public transit - one must call a taxi or, more likely, own a car. These are the growing number of private “luxury apartments” that are springing up around the city to cater to the desires of a growing number of affluent Singaporeans. Advertisements for these complexes now clog the television channels. The occupants all appear to be beautiful male and female fashion models, in their late 30s or early 40s who drive expensive automobiles (one add features a Bentley) and live lives of leisure.

Presumably these individuals never walk to public transit stops, but I suppose that the maids, security guards, and gardeners and maintenance personnel whose work facilitates their lifestyles (or the lifestyles of the real people the models are impersonating) must do so. Hopefully the affluent residents at least supply these ‘common people’ (to use a Confucian term) with umbrellas.



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