Evolution of public transport in Singapore
Everybody loves a good #throwback, especially if it’s something uniquely Singaporean and close to our hearts. As something that all of us are exposed to in varying degrees, public transport in Singapore plays a key part in many of our daily lives.
You may not have been around for the pioneer generation of non-air-conditioned buses – the horror! – but millennials will still be able to appreciate relics of the past like TV Mobile and the elusive Nokia Music Bus. See how many of these public transport memories hit you right in the nostalgic feels and, for the Gen Z readers, strap on for a lil history lesson.
1. Having to seek shelter at tiny old bus stops
Image adapted from: John Wah, Wilson Loo Kok Wee
Everybody looks back on the old buses when we think about the history of public transport, but the bus stops were just as antiquated. An orange and cream colour scheme seemed to reign supreme from the very beginning all the way to the 2000s, where a sleeker design was adopted along with a palette of grey and silver.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
You may have noticed that they constantly evolved in size too, perhaps to keep up with the nation’s growing population. But hey, I’m just glad I have the chance to put my butt down and rest while waiting for my ride to arrive. The wider shelters also mean more space for people to seek shelter during heavy downpours.
Many bus stops today also have an electronic display of bus arrival timings, saving you the trouble of having to check online.
Image credit: Plamondons In Singapore
2. Sweating it out on-aircon buses with dreary seats
Before SBS and SMRT, Trans Island buses roamed the island. Citizens were ferried to and fro in vehicles that now look comparably clunky, and aircon units were only installed progressively over the years.
Image adapted from: Jbus, Singapore Buses
Hence, it was a matter of luck whether the bus you end up boarding would be cooled by glorious air-conditioning or that you’d have to crank open the windows and hope for the best. Think of it as a Russian roulette of whether you’ll arrive at your destination comfortably and in style, or be sweaty and exposed to major road pollution.
Shout-out to the team who redesigned the bus interiors. The bright and cheery colours work wonders to make my daily commute not feel like a ride to prison.
Image adapted from: Krisgage, Wikimedia Commons
Image adapted from: Buses(in)gapore, Wikipedia
Speaking of colours and aesthetics, one thing that even the younger readers would be able to recall is the nationwide “Colour Your Buses” poll to determine whether LTA’s fleet would be Bright Red or Lush Green. Spoiler alert: green won the vote, and now we’ll always wonder whether having roads of red buses would have given SG a faux London vibe.
3. “Spy panels” on double-decker buses for captains to jaga upstairs
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Fun fact: double-decker buses back in the day were decked out with an overhead glass panel. Thanks to a mirror placed strategically above, the drivers were able to check if any passengers from the upper deck were alighting, and keep the door open for them downstairs instead of driving off and sending them tumbling.
As kids, it was awfully tempting to just peer down from above and, being the creepy little weirdos we were, spy on the captain’s every bus-manoeuvring move … only to suffer a mini heart attack when he looks up and catches us red-handed.
Image adapted from: Piano Tohikouki, @thedepressedcat1486
With the advancement of technology, double-decker buses today are equipped with CCTVs. This means saying bye-bye to mischievously spying on the driver and hello to a clearer view of the upper deck’s happenings.
4. Phasing out bendy buses for 3-door double-deckers
Speaking of how double-decker buses have advanced throughout the years, you may have noticed fewer long and bendy buses on SG roads. Y’know, the ones where you get to engage in a pseudo-surfing balancing act should you choose to stand at the connector portion?
Riding these “caterpillar buses” meant fun swerves when the vehicle turns section by section.
Image credit: Muhaimin98 Bus Fan
Bendy buses – technically referred to as articulated buses – have been gradually phased out in Singapore to make way for 3-door double-deckers.
Image credit: Tower Transit
Besides just looking snazzy and futuristic, these buses solve the age-old problem of having to squeeze past new commuters when you’re making the already perilous journey down the stairs to tap out. More doors means additional pathways and staircases to ease the flow of human traffic.
There are also helpful gantries so that commuters coming and going make like oil and water; and not mix.
Image adapted from: glitchFan2428
5. On-the-go entertainment before the era of smartphones & WiFi
Youths may be notorious for constantly staring at their phones in an “antisocial” manner, but let’s be honest – everyone indulges in some form of mobile entertainment to make the commute more bearable.
Be it K-drama enthusiasts tuning into the latest ep, boomers advancing through Candy Crush levels, or even toddlers playing iPad games to give their parents some much-needed peace, we’re all about that personal, hand-held entertainment life.
Image credit: HKiTalk
Back in the day, every bus passenger who wasn’t taking a snooze would have their gaze fixated on one and the same screen: the iconic TVMobile.
Operating on silent mode so you’d have to read the subtitles or try your best to lip-read, this nostalgic device aired cheesy Mediacorp dramas as well as news updates. I’m not even ashamed to say that I once overshot my destination by 3 stops thanks to a particularly engrossing episode of Police And Thief.
R.I.P, old friend. You’ve served us well.
Image credit: Sammy Boy
Although TVMobile has since retired, it’s now commonplace for buses to have free WiFi so you can scroll to your heart’s content. Some buses are also fitted with charging ports, paving the way for long entertainment sessions even if you’re journeying from 1 end of the island to another.
This is also the case for MRT rides, where commuters can expect free WiFi at most stations and handy charging stations to juice up your device.
6. Old-school tickets which look straight out of a museum
Image credit: SMRT
There’s a special place in our hearts for the bulky ticketing machine which my childhood self genuinely thought was a payphone installed within each bus. “You can have a nice telephone chat whilst travelling to your destination? How neat!”. Suffice to say, young me was not the sharpest tool in the shed.
The latest bus tickets we know and still use (left) versus ancient relics, i.e. bus tickets of the 70s (right).
Image adapted from: HKiTalk, Times Of My Life
Regardless of the generation, one #TicketTale we can all relate to is the sheer anxiety of random fare checks. Just like having to walk past a bunch of cops, we get all paranoid and antsy even though we have not committed a single crime.
Random fare checks are now conducted with an EZ-Link Card scanning machine. But in the past, the process involved whipping out your physical ticket stub for the bus ticket equivalent of saman uncles to see. And instead of a stamp, your fare payment would be indicated by a hole punched through the ticket.
Image credit: When I Was Four
Tip: If you’re a sucker for nostalgia, you can buy a Love Ticket card for $4.90 a pop. It’s designed to resemble those oh-so-sweet bus ticket hearts which lovebirds would fold for each other back in the day.
6. The journey from just 2 MRT lines to 6, and counting
Image credit: @willis_chong
Back when it first launched shortly before the 90s, the MRT system consisted of all of 2 lines. How did people even live?!
I was already beyond chuffed back in 2011 when the Circle Line and Downtown Line launched, so imagine how elated I was during the official opening of the spanking new Thomson-East Coast Line. Seriously, the route map now looks like an ever-evolving rainbow web, and bouncing from place to place in SG is getting increasingly effortless.
Rumoured future SMRT map planned to become a reality by 2030.
Image credit: Rhesty Putri
You know we have it made when, within a tiny lil island, we have so many railway lines that we run out of primary colours and need to tap into special shades like lime green and hot pink. At the rate that SMRT is developing, it shouldn’t be too far off in the future for the extensiveness of our railway system to rival that of Tokyo and Shanghai.
7. Ticket insertion gantries increasing the chance of paiseh moments
If you have mini panic attacks over the potential embarrassment each time you try to tap in and out of the station only to have your card fail on you, causing a grinding halt in the peak hour queue, count your blessings that you didn’t have to deal with this:
Image credit: SMRT Blog
That’s right, the MRT gantries of yesteryear required full-on insertion of the transit card. The possible ways of messing up just quadrupled. Failing to locate the slot? Inserting it at a senget angle? Fumbling when you’re trying to take it out? The list goes on and yes, it is rather anxiety-inducing.
Enter the new-and-improved gantries which were first seen at Downtown Line stations. Not only do they look super sleek and futuristic, the sensor mechanisms are delicate enough to be able to scan your car right through a bag! Or your bum through the back pocket, I guess.
Image credit: Mastercard
Over the years, there has also been a rise in the number of people who opt to tap into MRT stations via the EZ-Link mobile app or even their smartwatch. That’s some Spy Kids-level stuff, not gonna lie.
8. Humble fare card origins & retiring of single-fare tickets
Fare cards are pretty much on the same level as credit cards and your IC in terms of importance, how much you use it in a day, as well as how much you’d hate to ever lose it. This is especially so for folks who, for the sake of convenience, top up hundreds at a time. Our prying eyes can’t help but to widen when we tap in behind someone with triple digits in their balance.
Who would’ve thought that before the fare cards of today, they once took on such a quaint and humble facade?
Image credit: Singapore Memory
It all started with the concession stamp card, where commuters would have to manually paste stamps of varying values that would act as their fare. How oddly fun does that sound? It’s like a little sticker book activity. Pity the raggedy paper cards were highly susceptible to wear and tear.
Image credit: @kelvin255
Then came the revolutionary stored value cards that could be activated digitally at top-up machines around the nation. Is it just me or do they look like a mixture of poker and Monopoly cards?
If these discontinued cards strike you as prized artefacts that could pick up a pretty penny when sold to collectors, you might want to hang onto any single-trip tickets you have sitting around.
Image adapted from: Press N To Pass 60
That is because Singapore’s single-trip AKA Standard Tickets for the MRT were officially retired in early 2022, meaning you’d now have to purchase a new EZ-Link card just to take a single ride if you forgot your usual one at home.
The recent discontinuation may not make it seem so significant, but preserve those tickets well and they might become prized possessions in decades to come.
9. Campaigns we love to hate, yet hate to love
Will commuters ever reach a level of public behaviour so ideal that campaigns are rendered unnecessary? Probably not. In the meantime, we revel in stupidly catchy jingles and vibrant in-your-face videos that always make you wonder, “Whose idea was this?”
Nevertheless, the silly lyrics always seem to get implanted in your long term memory. Be it Phua Chu Kang’s Happy Journey rap or the Dim Sum Dollies teaching the rowdy public how to Love Your Ride, we all love to hate it … and hate to love it.
Case in point? Our very own rendition of SMRT’s iconic Gracious Commuting campaign:
The beloved Thoughtful Bunch characters – y’know, Bag Down Benny and co.? – have become so recognisable that they make for some quick and easy SG Halloween costumes.
10. Themed rides & the iconic Nokia Music Mobile
Routinely commuting back and forth from your school or workplace can get terribly mundane, so imagine how ecstatic we’d get when boarding our usual bus or train only to see that it’s been fully decked out in special themed decorations.
For instance, how adorable is this Sanrio themed bus?
Image credit: @hyuk_ears
Getting ferried to class in this whimsical, pastel-perfect bus would get my day off to a spectacular start, that’s for sure.
Image credit: Marketing Interactive
Image credit: Hardware Zone
Geeks across the universe, contain your excitement. Aside from being one heck of a promotional campaign for the film, the overall aesthetics of this Star Wars themed MRT cabin is on point. Check out the lightsaber merging action happening at the handrails, that’s art right there.
Bonus: The Nokia bus rocked our world with free Bluetoothed music
Image credit: @sapphire_girl
Speaking of zhnged rides, it doesn’t get more next-level than the Nokia Music Mobile. They made their rounds throughout the nation’s public schools, and were probably the highlight of my secondary education.
Before the age of smartphones and instant music streaming, our playlists were fuelled by the wonderful technology that is Bluetooth. Akin to a seedy transaction, you hit your friends up and check to see if they’re able to supply what you’re after, before stealthily making the deal and going about your day afterwards.
The clubbing experience before we became of age.
Image adapted from: @sapphire_girl, Flickr Hive Mind
Enter the Nokia Music Mobile, a magical warehouse of tunes on wheels. Besides getting to sync all the latest tracks to your phone for free, the bus was also decked out with cushy chairs and club-like settings to make you feel like a real superstar. The wallpaper even sports a fake bartender to drive the point home.
Riding down the memory lane of Singapore’s public transport system
Singaporeans have a reputation for complaining, so it’s rather common to hear us lamenting over occasional train breakdowns or bus delays. In the grand scheme of things, though, Singapore’s public transport system is pretty darn solid.
Tourists and expats alike frequently rave about our nation’s efficient bus and MRT systems, from the spick and span cleanliness to how interconnected everything is. Travelling end to end is no biggie, especially when we get to enjoy scenic bus routes or mix and match different MRT lines to cut travel time down even further.
Journeying through the evolution of public transport in Singapore has got us feeling warm and fuzzy with that unmistakable SG pride. And we’re not even bus or train otakus!
For more articles chronicling Singapore then versus now, check out:
- Hangout spots in the 90s and early 2000s
- Orchard Road then versus now
- HDBS in Singapore then versus now
- Singapore parks then versus now
This post was brought to you by NETS FlashPay.
Cover image adapted from: SMRT, Sammy Boy, Singapore Memory
Article originally published on 12th Jan 2016. Last updated on 17th March 2023.
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