Singapore's subway system -- ride the future

Glen Kristensen, for CNNUpdated 7th October 2015
Editor's Note — Glen Kristensen is a writer based in Singapore. The views expressed are his own. This article was originally published in June 2015.
(CNN) — There are many ways in which Singapore feels like a poster child for the globalized 21st century: It's ethnically diverse and open to foreigners, highly urbanized, embraces free trade, has a dynamic economy, and a general positivity about the future pervades the place.
There is no better or clearer example of this than the city-state's approach to public transport.
For a taste of virtual reality cheaper than Oculus Rift, plug in your headphones to any track by Brian Eno or some other faintly futuristic-sounding artist, look around, and enjoy a single journey on the MRT.
Everything about Singapore's metro oozes "future" -- from the driverless trains to the platform doors that facilitate access to them, through the lack of noise familiar from older metro systems to the remarkable cleanliness throughout.
Ah yes, the cleanliness. Visitors to Singapore often marvel at how spotless the city is and the Metro is no exception. Whether in station or on train, this vision of the future is so squeaky clean you could eat your dinner off it.
Many public transport systems now feel as if they belong to another age -- and of course they do, since they were designed decades ago. The Singapore metro shows what a public transportation system designed and built for this day and age should look like.
The lighting is better, the materials more tactile and less worn down, the walkways and escalators calibrated for the number of users. Most notably though, it just works.
The chief reason for this efficacy is capacity. Since the MRT was designed for the number of people using it, it never goes into crisis mode. Unlike systems beset by population booms, there is no need to discourage usage through peak and off-peak pricing, or through fares which make shorter trips less economically viable.
There is, instead, a linear pricing model that makes the shortest journey as cost effective as the longest one.
It's difficult to understand how much this changes your attitude until you actually experience it, but suffice to say, your relationship to moving around the city becomes considerably more fluid.
Admittedly, no large scale urban transportation system can be perfect, and the MRT is no exception. There have been a few major accidents, most notably a collision between two trains in 1983 -- which injured 132 -- and the death of four people during the construction of a tunnel in 2004.
Like every other subway system in the world, the MRT has also suffered suicides and accidental deaths. Even though underground stations have always been fitted with platform screen doors, most overground stations weren't retrofitted with them until 2012.
There are strict rules for passengers: smoking, eating, drinking, trespassing and misuse of emergency equipment are all not just illegal but can lead to imprisonment.
And perhaps the most photographed sign in the whole system is one that warns, among other mundane restrictions, about carrying a particular type of fruit: the durian. The typically Asian delicacy has a pungent, unpleasant smell that would quickly expand to several carriages.
Moreover, with Singapore's population slated to increase by 30% by 2030, the current capacity of the system might soon not suffice, a problem the MRT has in common with several of its cousins around the world. But maybe it's not really fair to compare the Singapore Metro to its older brethren.
As the late Lee Kuan Yew graciously said (when speaking more generally about Singapore's rapid development), "We had the advantage of knowing what the end result should be by looking at the West," and so it is with the MRT.
Its planners had the advantage of looking at London, Paris, and New York, isolating their flaws and planning accordingly. One can only hope that when it comes to updating the older metros of the West, their planners will look at Singapore's MRT, though I doubt they'll find too many shortcomings.
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