Transit-Oriented Development in Emerging Cities: Principles from Singapore

As urbanization continues to accelerate in many developing countries, the development of efficient, cost-effective public transportation systems will be critical to the sustainable growth of emerging cities. This article highlights some of the key principles and lessons learned from Singapore’s transit-oriented development strategy and assesses how these principles may be considered and applied in emerging cities across the developing world.


Building effective urban mobility in land-scarce Singapore has often revolved around high-intensity transport technologies. One example is its ever-expanding Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system, which is integrated with an extensive public bus network. What Singapore has now is the result of a growth process that has spanned over five decades. However, directly emulating such resource-intensive public transit options is not necessarily a viable solution for many developing cities. These projects require robust financial capital, careful land use and transport integration, and implementation capacities that are often lacking in developing cities. Nevertheless, policymakers and businesses in developing cities across the world may learn and benefit from the enabling factors, strategies and policy instruments underpinning Singapore’s urban transportation scene.

Planning Transport and Mobility in Singapore, the “Transit Metropolis”

As early as 1963, a UNDP report on future urban growth strategies had identified that “there is no doubt that Singapore needs some form of mass transport”. The report recommended that Singapore invest in either monorails or subways, noting that these options were the most suitable and cost-effective for the cityscape (Abrams, 1963). By 1998 Singapore’s urban transport infrastructure had grown manifold, to the point that Robert Cervero identified Singapore as a seminal example of a “Transit Metropolis”: a city which is designed to be especially conducive for sustainable public transit modes (Cervero, 1998).

Throughout its growth, Singapore has leveraged an effective array of strategies pertaining to urban mobility and transport infrastructure development to stimulate its social and economic development. Conceptually, many of Singapore’s ‘good-practices’ in urban transport can be broadly classified into four categories (Yuan, 1997):

  • Incremental Development of Public Transport Capacity: Supply-side strategies that strategically expand the city-state’s urban transport capacity through continuous infrastructure investment and renewal.

  • Integrating Land Usage, Land Ownership & Transport: Complementary urban planning policies streamlining planning and implementation of transport infrastructure.

  • Transport Demand Management: Demand-side measures (dis)incentivising consumption behaviours to make transport infrastructure usage more efficient and sustainable.

  • Leveraging Innovative Technologies for Transit-Oriented Development: Commitment to technological upgrading and encouraging private-sector participation in urban mobility.

This interlocking mosaic of policies and instruments anchors a coherent strategic vision for developing Singapore as a city.

The proposed outline of Singapore's Urban Transport Network by UNDP consultants in 1963  (Source: UNDP, Growth & Urban Renewal in Singapore, pp. 82)

The proposed outline of Singapore's Urban Transport Network by UNDP consultants in 1963 (Source: UNDP, Growth & Urban Renewal in Singapore, pp. 82)

Incremental Development of Public Transport Capacity

Despite the 1963 UNDP report, the Singapore government’s decision to finance the construction of the MRT network was only finalized in 1982 after careful feasibility studies and considerable debate due to its high expense and complexity (Chee-Meow, 1981). While multiple options were considered, such as a high-frequency bus system, the MRT network was selected as the preferred option.

Significantly, the state chose to adopt an enabling co-financing framework with end-users. Government funding covered initial capital costs for long-term infrastructure and the initial set of ‘rolling’ assets such as trains. Revenues collected from commuter fares would subsequently be priced to cover the incremental operational costs and provision for eventual replacement of transports (Li, 2008). In this way, the core ethos of financial viability for mass transit development has remained at the centre of Singapore’s ever-expanding public transport network.  Despite the importance of the MRT, it has not usurped focus on developing other transport modes; the subsequent development of a complementary bus network has served an important role, supplementing the MRT amid greater immigration and population growth (Rimmer, 1986).

Properly implemented transportation infrastructure in cities are catalytic socioeconomic investments with beneficial spill-overs manifesting over the long term

With especially limited fiscal capabilities, core transport infrastructure in developing cities cannot be planned haphazardly. Although public financing on the scale of Singapore may be difficult to replicate, developing cities can still seek to emulate its ethos of strategic transport infrastructure investment. If Singapore’s history serves as a reference, there are no easy short-cut solutions. Properly implemented transportation infrastructure in cities are catalytic socioeconomic investments with beneficial spill-overs manifesting over the long term.

In order to shift public preferences from private transportation to mass transit platforms, developing cities will need to strategically invest in the incremental growth, maintenance, and improvement of services. This will improve competitiveness and ridership, raising new revenues generated both directly and indirectly, which will help further expand and improve the network.

Integrating Land Ownership, Land Usage and Transport

“Singapore’s intimate transit-land use nexus is the outcome of deliberate and carefully thought-out government decisions.” – Robert Cevero in The Transit Metropolis

Weak, decentralised systems of land rights in cities are a significant structural barrier preventing infrastructure investment and efficient land use (Collier, 2018). In Singapore, some of the most important factors enabling effective public investment in core transit infrastructure are the state’s centralization of land ownership and the integration between clearly defined plans for transportation and broader land usage (Barter, 2011).

Stemming from the 1966 Land Acquisition Act, Singapore’s government has immense prerogative in acquiring land. This enables the compulsory acquisition of land needed for “any public purpose, by any person, corporation or statutory board” and “for any residential, commercial or industrial purposes” (Halia, 2016). The government has steadily accumulated land since 1966, and now owns more than 90% of land in Singapore. This centralization has facilitated the coordination and streamlining of both public and private urban development efforts in the country.

Successful transportation planning cannot be pursued in isolation from other urban development objectives. Singapore’s institutional ability to coordinate multiple urban agendas has enabled strategic planning and provision to develop transport infrastructure in tandem with a broader urban planning and development framework.

In Singapore, the lead government agency coordinating strategy in urban transport is the Land Transport Agency — LTA (World Bank, 2014). The LTA collaborates closely with other government institutions involved in urban development - such as the Housing Development Board (HDB), Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) - as it plans and regulates transport infrastructure. This ensures a coordinated approach to urban development and the public transportation network (Barter, 2011).

The strategic framework for urban land use is provided by a broad Concept Plan common across urban development agencies. Various updated concept plans since 1971 have thus guided long-term development in urban master planning. By one account, the value of such a process is that:

“The Concept Plans cover aspirations, what the community wants to achieve, and confronts major strategic trade-offs and dilemmas – quite deliberately without getting bogged down in details. The [Master & Development Guide Plans] take the concepts as a starting point and provide the details of how the aspirations are to be achieved”

(Barter, 2011)

The interconnection between Singapore’s medium and long term urban planning  (Source: Urban Redevelopment Authority, Designing our city: Planning for a Sustainable Singapore, pp. 5)

The interconnection between Singapore’s medium and long term urban planning (Source: Urban Redevelopment Authority, Designing our city: Planning for a Sustainable Singapore, pp. 5)

This streamlined approach allows current and future plans to extend public transport infrastructure to be effectively aligned and evolve alongside population densities and Singapore’s satellite towns.

Nonetheless, political centralisation and the fused nature of the city-state’s national, urban and local layers have allowed it to pursue vigorous “UrbaNational” policies (Olds, 2004). Integrated urban planning under the auspices of the state may not be a practice that developing cities in larger countries can or should directly emulate. Most cities admittedly have to work within larger regional or national frameworks, and land tenure systems differ vastly across contexts. The key takeaway for sustainable transport planning is that there are powerful benefits to achieving a degree of policy coherence & dynamism across different urban development efforts. Municipal institutions thus need to aim to reinforce policies that are sufficiently adaptable to guide a city in the medium to long term.

The strategic distributution of Singapore's transport, residential and industrial infrastructure  (Source: Geospatial data on current transport infrastructure drawn from data.gov.sg)

The strategic distributution of Singapore's transport, residential and industrial infrastructure (Source: Geospatial data on current transport infrastructure drawn from data.gov.sg)

Transport-Demand Management: Incentivizing Efficient Infrastructure Use

Another core component of Singapore’s strategy for urban mobility focuses on policy instruments that aim to regulate and influence public usage of scarce transport resources and infrastructure.

Since 1972, Singapore has employed various mechanisms to ration the private ownership and use of cars on its roads. Traffic management policies such as the Area Licensing Scheme, (ALS), Vehicle Quota System (VQS), Electronic Road Pricing (ERP), and the Certificate of Entitlement (COE) levy additional surcharges or constraints upon private transport users (Barter, 2011). The city-state even recently initiated a “zero-growth” car policy which aims to calibrate the annual growth rate in privately-owned vehicles to zero.

A Public Campaign by the Singapore government in the 1970s to relieve vehicular congestion through staggered working hours and carpooling  (Source: World Bank Group Archives)

A Public Campaign by the Singapore government in the 1970s to relieve vehicular congestion through staggered working hours and carpooling (Source: World Bank Group Archives)

Given the long construction windows and high financing costs of physical infrastructure projects, demand-regulating policies may offer viable instruments in the short-to-medium term for many developing cities. These measures can help to maximize use of transport infrastructure, incentivize shifts to public transportation, and help provide financing for further public transport infrastructure development. For instance, World Bank researchers have observed that the revenue generated from Singapore’s traffic demand management policies has also helped cover incremental costs for scaling and maintaining road and railway infrastructure (Suzuki, 2013).

Singapore enacted the Area Licensing Scheme (ALS) from 1975 to 1988. The policy used traffic congestion pricing to manage vehicle usage in the city’s CBD  (Source: World Bank Group Archives)

Singapore enacted the Area Licensing Scheme (ALS) from 1975 to 1988. The policy used traffic congestion pricing to manage vehicle usage in the city’s CBD (Source: World Bank Group Archives)

Apart from the already discussed regulatory methods for controlling car ownership and use, Singapore is increasingly experimenting with positive incentives to help influence the public to make socially optimal transport decisions. For instance, temporary programmes to encourage off-peak usage of public transport, such as the “Travel Early, Travel Free” campaign, have been tested with promising preliminary results (Yong, 2017).

As developing cities seek to improve public transport infrastructure and ridership on public transport networks, they must also consider how to incentivise and habituate urban transport users into adopting and using these systems efficiently. Behavioural incentives delivered through creative public policies can provide one avenue to achieve this goal without requiring significant amounts of capital to implement. For instance, real-time comparative displays of fuel efficiency and travel times can help subtly encourage commuters to pick more ideal modes of transit and to recognize the economic and efficiency advantages of public transit.

Leveraging Innovative Technologies for Urban Mobility

Singapore’s approach to developing transit infrastructure and services increasingly integrates new technologies. Specifically, new technologies have been harnessed to generate more data-driven strategic public investments and to design incentive structures in public transport (Teck, 2018). For instance, travel cards and automated fare collection are ubiquitous in Singapore’s public transport network. In addition to enhancing customer convenience, the data collected from these systems helps planners assess current and future forecasts of urban population densities, improve dynamic route planning, and determine the potential market value of new sites. Other technological innovations currently being integrated into transport management include the shift from physical, gantry-dependent technology for charging vehicle users towards a flexible, satellite-controlled system.

In addition, private-sector actors are becoming increasingly involved in the quest for affordable and efficient mobility. In Singapore, private operators promising to streamline and optimize transport demand include logistics and ride-haling companies like Grab and Go-Jek. Seemingly more futuristic mobility innovations on the horizon in the city-state include start-ups developing air taxi and autonomous vehicle services. The city-state’s already expansive mass transit network notwithstanding, government bodies and private-sector entrepreneurs are committed to researching, investing in and scaling up complementary technologies for first and last-mile transport. This offers a notable - and potentially replicables - set of practices for any city to follow.

Despite the constraints faced by developing cities, a commitment towards integrating technologies and digital infrastructure into their urban fabric can help efficiently optimize the use of semi-formal transportation. Pedicabs, minibuses and shared vehicles can better integrate into a city’s conventional transportation infrastructure. For instance, in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, the government has simultaneously cultivated an extensive public bus network and supported service improvement in the city’s moto-taxi industry. Innovations such as digital payment apps and safety rating systems are gradually being integrated into this semi-formal mode of transport.

SafeMotos, a ride-hailing and safety-rating software developed in Rwanda  ( Source: National Geographic )

SafeMotos, a ride-hailing and safety-rating software developed in Rwanda (Source: National Geographic)

Urban policymakers will nevertheless need to strike a balance between creating an enabling ecosystem for private-sector transport solutions and the need to uphold robust regulatory standards. oBike’s recent exit from Singapore due to new licensing frameworks is a case in point. For developing cities, this challenge is even more salient. Low intensity para-transit serve important functions for many low-income urban residents, providing both affordable first/last-mile mobility for customers and informal employment for service providers.

Although cities should make efforts to gradually plan for increasing mass public transit capacity, commentators from the International Growth Centre advocate that developing cities should consider transport complementarity rather than replacement. Emerging cities must thus consider policies to facilitate integration of various modes of semi-formal and formal transport. Moreover, regulations which help develop digital infrastructure, as much as the physical, will help make inclusive urban mobility a real possibility.

Nonetheless, disruptive technology should not be seen as a panacea for transport planning in developing cities. Abstracted information about transportation networks and usage gleaned from Big Data must also be contextualized with a localized understanding of transportation, mobility and land-use.

Business models and public policies need to operate with a robust theory of change that appreciates why and how preferences in transport have been constructed, as well as the existing socioeconomic roles of different transportation options in developing cities. Addressing historical, cultural and communal factors in greater depth, i.e. the existing ‘place value,’ can thus also make important contributions towards reclaiming the streets for inclusive, efficient mobility.

Effective Urban Governance at a Condensed Scale

Although policymakers in developing cities may not enjoy the same degree of institutional authority, Singapore’s experience and values in the development of its public transit highlights a set of key principles to consider when planning urban transport.

Cutting the Gordian knot of poor urban transport in developing cities will undoubtedly require actions tailored to the history and culture of each city. Individual cities will face different networks of stakeholders and considerations when planning their transit infrastructure. The specific government reforms and sociopolitical negotiations needed to achieve these objectives will necessarily differ from city to city. Yet, like Singapore, these actions should aim to forge the basic social and political consensuses needed for long-term, realistic, and appropriate urban transport improvement.

Works Cited

Abrams, C., Kobe, S., & Koenigsberger, O. (1963). Urban Growth and Renewal in Singapore. New York: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

Barter, P., & Dotson, E. (2011). Urban Transport Institutions and Governance and Integrated Land Use and Transport, Singapore. Nairobi: UN Habitat. pp.3-8

Centre for Liveable Cities. (2013). Transport: Overcoming Constraints, Sustaining Mobility. Singapore: Cengage Learning.

Cervero, R. (1998). The Transit Metropolis: A Global Inquiry. Washington DC: Island Press.

Chee-Meow, S. (1981). The MRT Debate in Singapore: To Do or Not to Do. Southeast Asian Affairs.

Collier, P., Glaesar, E., Venables, E., Blake, M., & Manwaring, P. (2018). Land Rights: Unlocking Land for Urban Development. Cities that Work Policy Brief. International Growth Centre.

Halia, A. (2016). Urban Land Rent: Singapore as Property State. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell. pp.80-84

Li, Y., & Tiong, R. (2008). Financing and Operating of Singapore’s Urban Rail Transit Infrastructure. International Conference on Wireless Communications, Networking and Mobile Computing

Olds, K., & Yeung, H. (2004). Pathways to Global City Formation: A view from the developmental city-state of Singapore. Review of International Political Economy, 11. pp.514

Rimmer, P. (1986). Rikisha to Rapid Transit: Urban Public Transport Systems and Policy in Southeast Asia. Oxford: Pergamon Press. pp.140-150.

Suzuki, H., Cervero, R., & Iuchi, K. (2013). Transforming Cities with Transit: Transit and Land-Use Integration for Sustainable Urban Development. Washington DC: World Bank. pp.72-73

Teck, L.C. (2018). Public Transport Planning and the Technological Revolution. Ethos 19. Singapore: Civil Service College.

Townsend, C. (2003). In whose interest? A Critical Approach to Southeast Asia's Urban Transport Dynamics. Perth: Murdoch University. pp.291-292

Urban Redevelopment Authority. (2012). Designing Our City: Planning for a Sustainable Singapore. Singapore: URA.

World Bank. (2014). Formulating an Urban Transport Policy: Choosing Between Options. Washington DC: World Bank. pp.28-29.

Yong, N., & Lim, Y.L. (2017). Temporary Incentives Change Daily Routines: Evidence from a Field Experiment on Singapore’s Subways. Management Science, 64(7). pp.3366

Yuan, L.Y. (1997). A Case Study on Urban Transportation Development and Management in Singapore. Urban Infrastructure Development, 26.


Brandon Chye is an MPhil candidate in Development Studies at Oxford’s Department of International Development. His main research focuses on the study of inter-regional networks of urban expertise and capital. Prior to coming to Oxford, he worked on international trade finance and development projects with the Africa-Southeast Asia Chamber of Commerce and GTR Ventures. Brandon holds a Bachelors degree in History from the National University of Singapore.