Plans to introduce car-free policy on Singapore’s iconic Orchard Road

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A WEEKEND stroll along Orchard Road, Singapore’s pulsating shopping belt, will demonstrate its immense popularity among locals and tourists.

Teenagers taking selfies against swanky malls, camera-slinging tourists soaking in the iconic Christmas get-up, street vendors peddling ice cream swaddled in soft buns, young families pushing strollers in packed train stations, and Chinese visitors chattering in large groups – Orchard Road is a thriving centerpoint for both commerce and leisure.

The street is often compared to the popular Ginza district in Tokyo or the upscale Gangnam area in Seoul.

Recently, Trade and Industry Minister S. Iswaran announced plans to make the 2.2km-stretch completely car-free to spruce up the precinct into a “distinctive lifestyle and shopping destination”.

He said government agencies such as the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Land Transport Authority are, “working with the private sector to make Orchard Road more pedestrian-friendly and conducive for street-level activities”.

He added that the revamp would allow for “larger scale experiential concepts”.

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If the project is approved, this could mean a road reduction program to expand the pedestrian walkways and mall lots as well as implement “streetscape improvements” altogether. The move will also promote more pop-up vendors and events.

Singapore Tourism Board (STB) chief executive Lionel Yeo said the board intends to introduce a “scramble walk” at a major junction on the street.

Its goal is to create scenes akin to that of the famous Shibuya crossing in Tokyo, where hundreds of pedestrians zig-zag their way across the road at each light crossing.

However, the announcement was met with some resistance from locals including pleas to “leave the street alone”.

An opinion piece by resident Tan Bah Bah quoted: “I see little wrong with Orchard Road as it is. It has a great mix of attractions and amenities.

“Leave Orchard Road alone. Market forces – which, to me, is the fair exchange of value for money – alone will determine how many people will still go there.”

He added that while traffic is a problem along the stretch, it’s not a major issue considering the efficiency of trains and buses.

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Singapore Tourism Board (STB) deputy chief executive Melissa Ow told The Straits Times that the proposed lane reclamation should be met delicately considering the street’s busy nature.

She added that “careful consideration and planning are needed to assess the feasibility and impact on road users”.

Some of the factors that need to be taken into consideration include load on secondary roads, as well as rehabilitation of plantings and road upgrading issues such as water ponding and pedestrian safety.

A piece by The Straits Times (carried by The Star) pointed out that making Orchard Road complete car-free could impact the city’s traffic flow as the street is a crucial “arterial thoroughfare in the downtown network”.

Previous efforts to jazz up Orchard Road have included extending shopping hours, a US$29 million expansion of the pavement in front of Ion Orchard, Wisma Atria and Ngee Ann City, as well as a monthly pedestrian night. The Straits Times reported that these efforts did little to boost retail sales.

The report added that some shoppers are skeptical about the street’s homogeneous outlook as a shopping belt because of international brands that can be easily found in tourists’ home countries.

Locals would like to see more a more local flavour injected to the Orchard experience, including local brands and food-related events.

While reactions to the revamp remain mixed, problems and solutions must be drawn out before authorities decide to ban cars in one of Singapore’s most important tourist magnets.