Getting around in Singapore is perhaps easier than any of us have a right to expect, given its density and pace of life. Getting from A to B is rarely a traumatic experience and the transport infrastructure and efficiency certainly compare more than favourably with other major cities in the world. In a sense, travelling within Singapore can be viewed as a manifestation of the approach to life here – it’s organised, controlled and technologically advanced.
An effective use of the limited amount of land that is available in Singapore, combined with the extremely high price of cars and fuel and an electronic road pricing system (ERP), means that Singapore rarely becomes overwhelmed by the number of vehicles on the road at any one time.
In addition, public transport here is first-rate, being affordable, reliable and extensive, and so for many Singaporeans private car ownership is simply not necessary. The mass rapid transport system (MRT), the extensive bus network, the affordability and reliability of taxis all combine to make using public transport in the city if not a pleasure, then certainly not a burden.
Singapore has an Outer Ring Road System (ORRS) – a series of main roads and highways that are connected and form a semi-circle around the centre of the city. All along the ORRS you are able to connect to Singapore’s expressways and unless you live and work entirely in the city centre you will more than likely become pretty familiar with these nine multi-lane highways (two more are being completed) that link Singapore’s suburbs and small towns with the CBD.
It is also very simple to drive from Singapore into Malaysia. They are connected by two bridges – the Causeway at Woodlands in the north and the Tuas Second Link in the west.
Street Names and Signs
There is an eclectic mix of street and place names in Singapore, reflecting the country’s diverse history. There are roads and parks named after British towns and places; street names that reflect the city’s ethnic neighbourhoods; and road and place names in the country’s four main languages – English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil. It is therefore not uncommon in Singapore to find roads like Mosque Street, Pagoda Street, Temple Street and Smith Street all next to each other, or Race Course Road adjacent to Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple.
Street signs in Singapore are all in English and in a format which should be familiar to most visitors i.e. white lettering on a green background. Signs to significant tourist and cultural attractions are brown with white lettering, and in all four main languages.
Signs for MRT stations are in English and Mandarin, while bus stops signs and maps at bus stops are all in English.
There are, however, a couple of things that are rather frustrating about the signage in Singapore, especially for those new to the city. Unfortunately, street signs do not show the direction in which a street runs, while the signs in MRT stations only show the name of the final station, not the direction in which the train is travelling.
In Singapore, taxis are usually pretty well driven, clean and relatively cheap and, unless it’s raining or the middle of rush hour, you should be able to get one just about anywhere without too much trouble.
Taxis can be hailed on the street (the light on the top of the cab will tell you whether it is vacant or not), or you can queue up in order to get one at a taxi stand. (It should be noted that taxis can only pick up and drop off at designated points in the CBD at peak times).
Cabs can also be booked by phone or by SMS message (for which a booking fee will be charged).
As is to be expected in Singapore, technology has been well utilised by the industry and there are now interactive media methods you can use to call a cab. You can, for instance, download an app for your smartphone that offers a streamlined booking process, while you can also book online.
Taxi fares are displayed on the meter and there is a flag down rate of between SGD$3 and SGD$5 depending on the type of cab you use. You are then charged by the distance travelled. (There are also surcharges for travelling at particular times and to some locations, which can be up to 50% of the fare on the meter.) The rates are 22 cents every 400 metres between 1 km and 10 km, and 22 cents every 350 metres beyond 10 km.
The MRT rail system in Singapore (a.k.a. metro, subway or tube) is the quickest, cheapest and most efficient way of getting around the city and surrounding suburbs. The network is increasing in size (the latest extension to the Circle Line opening in October 2011) and although it can get a little crowded at rush hour, it is generally pretty pleasant to use. Having an MRT stop close to home is for many people an important factor in their deciding where to live.
Trains on the four MRT lines are modern, air conditioned and clean (eating, drinking or smoking on the MRT will get you a hefty fine) and run regularly between about 5.30am and 12.30am seven days a week.
The ez-link card (Singapore’s pre-paid travel card) is the cheapest and simplest method of paying for your travel on public transport. You can store up to SGD$500 on the card at a time and you can also use it to make ERP and EPS (electronic parking scheme) payments. You can purchase and top up your ez-link card at MRT stations, 7-Eleven convenience stores and online.
Commuters on the MRT are charged according to the distance travelled and fares range from 73c to $1.96 if you use your ez-link card (or $1.10 to $2.20 if you’re paying cash). Senior citizens and students receive 25% and 50% discount respectively.
The MRT system is clearly signed in English and Mandarin, announcements are made in English, and maps are plentiful and easy to follow, so you should have no difficulty at all in finding your way around. However, should you need one, there is an excellent interactive MRT map or you can download a free portable map as an app on your smartphone.
The bus network in Singapore is comprehensive and affordable, and as severe road congestion and gridlock are phenomena not often experienced in the city, bus travel is also generally punctual and reliable. Fares vary according to the distance travelled and using your ez-link pre-paid travel card is by far the easiest and cheapest way to pay.
Buses in the city are almost all air conditioned and most routes generally run between 5.30am and 12.00 midnight. In addition to regular scheduled services, there are also a number of specialist services and routes available.
Premium Bus Services (PBS) are designed for commuters heading to and from the CBD during peak hours and who do not mind paying extra for an express service. PBS run from major housing compounds throughout the island and they charge a flat fare depending on the length of your journey, ranging from SGD$2.70 to SGD$7.
There are also a wide network of privately-run shuttle bus services that provide regular and direct links to and from many popular locations in the city (e.g. from Little India and Chinatown to Orchard Road, or from Woodlands to Sentosa). Prices vary but they are inexpensive and extremely convenient to use.
In addition, there is a night bus service that links the most popular late night and bar districts, such as Orchard Road and Boat Quay, with residential districts all across Singapore. Night buses cost SGD$3 and they generally run from 11.45pm until 3.45am on Friday and Saturday nights and on the eve of major festivals.
SMRT and SBS are the two bus operating companies in Singapore and they have very useful interactive websites that allow you to plan your travel time with confidence. They also have apps that you can download to your smartphone so you can always access bus routes and times.
One of the great pleasures of Singapore is that you can walk just about anywhere! Once you have become reasonably well acquainted with the city and start to get your bearings, you will see how quick and easy it is to walk to and from places that might not actually look that close together on your map.
And for those who like at least some agenda to their ambulations, there are a couple of areas where we really recommend that you go on foot rather than in a taxi or on the MRT.
We suggest that you start at the Merlion and walk along the river to the new Marina Bay Sands resort, taking in the extraordinary three-tiered hotel complex and the ArtScience Museum, then cross the double helix bridge and pass the floating soccer pitch (!), and then stroll along to the Esplanade Theatre complex as a route that will in one go enable you to see some of the most cutting edge architecture in Asia.
In contrast, for some of the best examples of colonial architecture in this part of the world try exploring on foot the district around The Padang, taking in places like the Singapore Cricket Club, St Andrew’s Cathedral, the Fullerton Hotel, the renovated Victoria Theatre, Parliament House, Cavenagh Bridge and City Hall (which is in the process of being transformed into a new National Art Gallery of Singapore).
And of course, there really is no way to experience the sights and sounds of Little India or Kampong Glam other than on foot.
The hot temperatures do put a lot of people off walking in Singapore, but take a bottle of water with you and make the most of the air-conditioned bits and you will be rewarded with an enhanced understanding of the many contrasting styles that make up the city’s architectural heritage.
Cycling is not as ubiquitous in Singapore as it is much else of Asia and as a consequence cyclists are not as well catered for as they are elsewhere. There are not many bike lanes available on main roads and bikes are not permitted at all on expressways, the main thoroughfares in and out of the city. This is not to say that cycling is impossible, just that you will have to be pretty dedicated to maintain your enthusiasm in a city that does little to encourage you.
However, there are opportunities for off-road cycling and a number of parks and nature reserves around the island do have cycle tracks and paths. There is also a group for cycling enthusiasts in Singapore that you can join.
Singapore citizens, permanent residents and foreigners living in Singapore for more than 12 months all need to obtain a Singapore a driver’s licence. If you already hold a licence in your home country the process of getting one in Singapore is not too tortuous. (If you are in Singapore for less than 12 months, you do not need a Singapore licence, but if your home licence is not in English you will need an International Driving Permit, or at the very least an English translation of your licence details.)
The first step is to pass the Basic Theory Test (BTT), a 50-minute computer-based multiple choice test on Singapore’s traffic regulations, signs and signals. In order to book a BTT date, you will need to contact a driving centre (who are also authorised test centres).
Once you have passed the BTT, you should apply in person for a licence conversion at a Traffic Police Driving Test Center with the following documents: original and a photocopy of your passport and employment pass/dependent pass; original and a photocopy of your foreign driving licence; a passport sized photograph. There is a fee of SGD$50.
It is important for all new drivers in Singapore to know that electronic road pricing (ERP) is in place. This is an electronic toll collection system that charges a fee based on road usage. You should also be aware that in Singapore all vehicles parking in public parking lots are required to display a parking coupon.
Finally, you should remember that traffic drives on the left in Singapore, as is the case in most Commonwealth countries.
You can read more about driving in Singapore from our Guest Blogger Joanne Jeyes who shares her first-hand experiences.
Hiring a Driver
Unlike many other Asian cities, hiring a permanent car and driver is not at all common in Singapore. Most expats and others deem it unnecessary owing to the generally reasonable traffic conditions, affordable cost and reliability of taxis and the accessibility and ease of using public transport.
You may wish to hire a car and a driver if you are visiting the city on a short stay but it is very expensive and not at all recommended if you will be here for any length of time.
On the other hand, you may wish to lease a car that you can drive yourself (if you are staying less than 3 years – any longer than that and you should look into purchasing your own car). Leasing means that you have fewer responsibilities as the lease company will take care of things like insurance and maintenance, as well as providing a replacement car should yours break down.