2021 update: Service BTC now calls at UTown. This article, written during my term as Deputy Welfare Secretary in the NUSSU EXCO, is preserved for posterity; refer to the final section for my thoughts and how we made it happen.

As the Deputy Welfare Secretary of NUSSU in charge of ISB issues, my priorities are twofold: firstly to ensure that student interests are represented in discussions with OCA, and secondly to present my proposals in a manner most acceptable to OCA, so as to achieve a win-win situation, maximise their receptiveness and the chances of succeeding in improving students’ lives.

So now that there have been calls for the BTC bus (BTC1/BTC2) to turn into UTown, I agree in principle that UTown ought to be added to the route of BTC1/BTC2 to improve connectivity for students. I’m no law student, but I hope you’ll excuse me as I try to articulate my views on the matter.

BTC1 and BTC2

NUS Kent Ridge Campus already has an ISB service that connects areas in Kent Ridge to BTC. As of 2019, it’s a single trip from Kent Ridge Bus Terminal that loops at Bukit Timah Campus. BTC1 is used for the segment from KRBT out to BTC, and BTC2 is used to refer to the return leg.

If you examine the history of BTC1/BTC2, it becomes clear that the main role of BTC1 is to connect the various halls of residence in NUS, to transport students and staff from Kent Ridge to BTC. It serves Kent Vale, Raffles Hall (using Museum), Eusoff Hall (using LT13), Temasek Hall (using AS5), Kent Ridge and Sheares Halls (using Business), PGP Residences (using PGP), and College Green.

BTC2 mainly takes passengers from BTC and drops them all off at Museum, with the expectation that they will transfer to another service there to continue with their journey. Passengers can board A2 towards Science, or D1 towards CLB to reach their residences.

Why should BTC have direct connection to UTown?

UTown contains four residential colleges as well as UTown Residences. Among the students and staff living in these residences, a proportion attend or teach their faculty classes not within the Kent Ridge Campus but at the Bukit Timah Campus instead. These people’s faculties would be Law or LKYSPP.

However, particularly for residents of the RCs, they take modules not just in BTC itself, but also in their RCs. For example, USP where I study has modules during the daytime that you have to take, as well as one night-time module for first-year students.

Currently, users of BTC1/BTC2 who live in UTown have to walk past the UTown bus stop at Town Plaza, over the link bridge and down the road to Museum.

However, the UTown bus stop is itself not very near to most of the UTown RCs, being about five minutes away from the southernmost RC and ten minutes away from the northernmost. It is fairly near to UTown Residences, but even then it is easily a ten-minute walk over the link-bridge and down the road.

How should this be achieved?

This is the tricky part.

Since BTC1 and BTC2 exist, the simplest way would be to add UTown to this service. But the process of amending this service is fraught with pitfalls, due to the very complex nature of its service.

Logically, the bus should turn into UTown after leaving Museum. But let’s assume that only one stop can be added. Two would be great, but there are constraints on adding the stops, so I would recommend adding only one to make the proposal easier. I’ll revisit this later.

The constraint on fleet

Due to NUS contracting ISB operations to ComfortDelGro Bus, there are restrictions on fleet size. We have a contracted fleet of 32 buses which are exclusive to NUS.

In the past, CDG could pull in its other buses. So we would often see blue Comfort coaches pulled in to assist the blue-and-orange NUS-coloured coaches. From what I gather, this was done often on BTC1 and the express services. It gave us tremendous flexibility in operations, as empty buses could be pulled in to relieve demand anywhere. We could even have a blue coach go straight to BTC and start a BTC2 trip to Kent Ridge.

However, from 2015 onwards, CDG now operates ISB exclusively with the 32 Volvos. This is done for various reasons. One is to enable all buses to adhere to certain standards such as wheelchair accessibility. Another pertinent reason is to ensure all buses are compatible with the GPS (NextBus) and next-stop announcement systems required by NUS.

This means that our fleet is self-contained, and thus there is a limit on how many trips we can provide each day, which is why the BTC bus currently has a lower frequency than others.

The constraint on time

Each departure of BTC1 is scheduled for 35 minutes, as the bus needs to depart Bukit Timah as BTC2 35 minutes after it leaves KRBT as BTC1. The BTC2 often (during off-peak hours) then needs to reach Kent Ridge in time for its next trip, which will generally be 1 hour after its last BTC1 departure.

Confused? Just visualise one bus. It is scheduled to leave KRBT at 12 noon. It has to arrive at BTC by 12.35pm, and then drive back to Kent Ridge. Its next trip will be at 1pm. So the trip must theoretically be completed within 1 hour. Adding UTown as a stop will cause the bus to overshoot this, because entering UTown, stopping and then exiting can take up to five minutes.

This constraint, combined with the fleet constraint, compels me to seek a more efficient solution.

Only one stop: Which?

Suppose we assume that the bus cannot stop in UTown twice, but only once. In this case, which stop should we prioritise?

The instinctive answer you may have is to add UTown to the shorter route, which is BTC2. Even if you know that BTC1 and BTC2 are a single trip, making BTC2 stop at UTown seems to make sense as BTC1 already takes a long trip through Kent Ridge Campus, and adding to BTC1 would push the arrival at BTC later.

But if we can find a way to maintain the total runtime of the bus, it still makes more sense to add UTown to BTC1 and then perhaps shift the starting/ending earlier if needed to ensure we arrive at BTC at the same time.

This is because students have to walk from UTown to Museum, but not from Museum to UTown. Museum to UTown is in fact covered by 3 buses: C, D1 and D2. Students do not have to wait too long to board one of these buses into UTown. However, students rushing to catch BTC1 have to walk out to Museum and there is no bus that allows them to avoid this (unless you take D1/B1 to YIH to meet the bus).

Cutting stops

The simplest way to accommodate a stop at UTown while not causing problems for scheduling would be to cut some stops from further along the route. This can allow the bus to stop at UTown but might compromise other BTC-bound passengers. Let’s look at the arguments for each stop.

Removing PGP

Removing the stop at PGP would probably be out of the question. Most international Law students live in PGP Residences and form a significant proportion of BTC1’s ridership, according to the data.

Removing FASS and Business stops

If the bus skipped LT13, AS5 and BIZ2, we could probably gain about five minutes. This would mean that residents of the Eusoff, Temasek, Kent Ridge and Sheares halls will have to take A1 to PGP and change for BTC1.

I asked OCA if it is possible to govern the departure timing of BTC1 at two points on the route: at the departure from Kent Ridge Bus Terminal, and at PGP. So a bus on the new route with stops skipped might get ten minutes to reach PGP, and if it reaches earlier, it has to wait at PGP until the scheduled time.

However, OCA got back to me, saying that logistically, there are two main issues: Firstly, PGP does not have a guaranteed place for the bus to wait if it is early. We cannot reserve a lot for BTC1 without compromising A1 and A2 operations. Secondly, buses idling while waiting would go against environmental anti-pollution guidelines.

Besides, most importantly, this would effectively mean messing with halls’ direct access to the route in order to establish UTown direct access to the route. I’m NUS Students’ Union, not UTown Students’ Union. I serve the law students staying in the halls too. If there aren’t any of them, or they are fine with their stop being skipped, then sure. OCA would be agreeable to look into rerouting too. But if many law students in the halls are inconvenienced significantly (it would be worse for them as they aren’t even theoretical walking distance from PGP), I would have to relook this part of the proposal.

Removing YIH and Central Library

Our line of fire now turns to the bus stops at YIH and CLB. Assuming we cannot skip the bus stops serving the halls, can we skip YIH and CLB? There are no residences there, so it sounds good, until the “oh sh*t” moment hits.

Residents at Kent Vale (international faculty) need to use BTC1 to travel to Engineering, SDE, FASS, Computing and Business, so they cannot let the bus skip these stops. B used to serve the purpose of connecting residents of Kent Vale to the southern faculties of the campus, but it handed over this role to BTC1 in 2016 by skipping the Kent Vale stop. Ever since then, BTC1 has connected KV residents not only to Central Forum but also to Arts and Business, and of course to BTC.

Can we swap the role back? No. 2017 saw B split into B1 and B2, and B1 does not go anywhere near Kent Vale. A previous proposal to reroute B1, changing it to a route that goes from Kent Vale to Central Forum, did not succeed and was replaced by an amendment to C.

The CLB Dilemma

Why is it crucial that CLB be removed for the UTown amendment to go through? There are 2 reasons. Firstly, dwell time is usually long at CLB due to the crowds there. Also, the road is wide enough that a bus can skip the stop and overtake buses stopped there, allowing it to enjoy the time saving.

Secondly, a concern shared by many Law students in past surveys is that students in UTown will certainly use the bus as a UTown-CLB substitute for B1/D1, which will spell doom for BTC-bound students who may have difficulties getting on the bus.

So now I am in a quandary. If I remove CLB, there will be disruptions to professors, teaching and non-teaching staff. But if I keep CLB? The crowding problems caused by D1 users will render the service practically unusable by BTC-bound UTown residents, negating any purpose.

YIH also serves as a transfer point. Notice that besides UTown, there is one other residence that is not along the route of BTC1: Ridge View Residential College. According to OCA, students at RVRC are recommended to take A1 to YIH and transfer to BTC1.

Can we just forbid alighting at CLB?

It’s not quite so simple. Currently, there are no boarding-only stops within the network. Disallowing alighting is hard to enforce. We can choose to only open the front door instead of the rear door, but if a student wants to alight the bus at CLB, the bus driver cannot possibly physically restrain him and keep him on the bus. Contrast the situation with forbidding of boarding. This occurs at the end of route at CP11/BIZ2/PGP that we see. In those situations, a student cannot remain on the bus because the bus won’t go anywhere! A driver can also enforce no-boarding by not moving off if someone boards. He cannot, however, enforce no-alighting the same way.

Can we reroute B?

We could perhaps reroute B1 to enter NUS via Kent Vale and then Museum. However, that would then remove one IT-UTown link. This was actually tried previously in 2017, but there was so much resistance to it that it somehow became a C amendment instead.

Another way might be to swap the Kent Ridge Terminal – UTown sectors of B1 and BTC1, so that BTC1 would ply from IT to UTown while B1 would connect Kent Vale. This, however, wouldn’t get rid of the issue of non-law students crowding the bus for UTown-CLB demand.

It would also mean that Kent Vale has no connection to BTC.

So how now?

As can be derived from the arguments above, the argument in favour of amending BTC1 to stop at UTown mainly rests on principle, while the arguments against it cite very relevant logistic constraints. In effect, to give UTown direct access to BTC1 will necessitate taking direct access away from halls or Kent Vale residents.

The most optimal routing, to serve UTown, would be to cut all stops between UTown and PGP. However, it is unlikely that students will be in favour of this. I did a census with the help of NUSSU, and among Kent Ridge-dwelling Law students, the breakdown is 94 UTown vs 49 Hall students. Yes, it’s a nearly 2:1 ratio, but the number is not insignificant and means that one-third of Law students on the Kent Ridge Campus stay in halls. I would need a consensus from all Law students that skipping of stops is possible, not to mention professors.

However, this does not mean that the amendment is not worth pursuing. I still strongly believe that the principle reasons alone are strong enough for me to bring the matter to OCA for a proposal, even if it is unfeasible now. Consider everything I have said a summary of what we’re up against, within the current framework until 2019.

This year (2019), OCA has also embarked on a transport mobility study, with external consultants from MobilityX who are reviewing the entire ISB network as a whole. The issue of connecting UTown to Law School has been raised to them, and they appreciate the problem. The review is holistic and includes plans to possibly redraw the network and source for new layover points, so a vastly different BTC route may even be possible, which would solve the problem. It is my hope that a solution is found in the near future.

Update (2020)

During the zoning period, Service BTC1/BTC2 was suspended and replaced by a zoned ISB route, DD1/DD2. As with all zoned routes, this route was restricted to passengers belonging to the zone it served. It started and ended at Bukit Timah, and called only at UTown and Kent Vale within the Kent Ridge campus. During the zoning period, the commuter profile between KRC and BTC was a bit different, with most law students being allocated residence in UTown. Those staying in other zones could ride the bus belonging to their residential zone to UTown to transfer to DD1/DD2.

Update (2021): Service BTC now serves utown

I am proud to announce that the latest round of service amendments for the New ISB Network, based in part on the aforementioned transport mobility study, have accomplished the goal of connecting UTown to and from BTC. The revamped Service BTC (no number) starts and ends at Bukit Timah, removing some of the constraints, and calls at UTown before heading to Kent Vale to resume the previous BTC1 route, thus avoiding the issue of demand from UTown to CLB passengers. The new route was designed with input fro the mobility consultants as well as the feedback from regular engagement with the Bukit Timah Campus community, during focus group discussions in 2019, 2020 and 2021.

I am glad that the feedback and input of stakeholders, since my time in the NUSSU EXCO has been heard. Truth be told, when I was in the EXCO in 2018, I did not imagine that the BTC bus would come into UTown during my time at NUS. That was in view of the constraints of the time, and the fact that I was still new to the ISB network.

The ISB landscape has changed a lot since then. A key change that I might consider instrumental to this improvement is that bus drivers now sign their trips virtually via a mobile phone app, which means that trips no longer need to start and end at the pre-existing bus terminals. This is how Service DD1/DD2 and now Service BTC can start and end at Oei Tiong Ham Building, and only make one pass through the Kent Ridge Campus and UTown.

There were also other factors. During zoning, we took the opportunity to try out connecting only UTown to Law. And along the way, since the original publication of this article, both I and OCA learned a lot more about student travel demands. This process of amending Service BTC based on input from passengers started while I was still a NUSSU representative, but I am now interning at OCA and working with them, putting the insights I have gathered over the years to good use.

The last important change is that the entire network was revamped simultaneously with this, with resources being reallocated all across the board for a more efficient service provision. This was made possible by us using data, such as timetabling data (which people had been calling on NUS to use for years) to properly estimate travel patterns. Some sacrifices were made, like the demise of Services B and C, and a slight reduction in frequency of Service BTC. But this enabled us to meet key needs of our campus connectivity according to the valuable input from our stakeholders.

I am most happy that we were able to use all these factors to meet a need that people have been asking us for for years. Personally, I would like to thank the people of Bukit Timah Campus for contributing your feedback and input, and not being afraid to keep asking for what you needed. I would also like to thank the NUSSU 40th EXCO for supporting me on this BTC idea since 2018.

I would like to thank my friends (the “deputy deputy welfare secretaries”), some of whom spent hours brainstorming ideas and drawing route maps on paper, and other NUS students who threw ideas at me. I never ignored those ideas, and as hopefully is evident from the analysis in the above article, I really did raise every single idea at meetings where feasible. Some of the ideas ended up in the final routing. And of course, I would like to recognise and give credit to OCA for never giving up on this amendment itself, constantly taking the idea seriously, and for truly relooking the idea once the situation changed and what was impossible became possible. They have really proven that this issue, for years, was one of constraints and not of unwillingness. I hope that students can see from this that the school and student representatives are really interested in students’ welfare.

So I would encourage everyone to continue contributing ideas in a constructive manner. Educate and familiarise yourselves on the ISB network and the constraints faced, but don’t be afraid to ask, and don’t be afraid if the answer is no (for now). Sometimes, the “for now” is not for ever.

I shall leave this article up as a good example of both the constraints faced by planners and the fact that we can still find ways to work around them and improve our bus services according to principle.

2 thoughts on “Why letting the BTC bus into UTown has been so hard thus far

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