TURNING Orchard Road into a pedestrian-only thoroughfare is not a new idea.
In 1991, an architecture student at the National University of Singapore envisioned a pedestrianised Orchard Road that is served by an underground road.
Such a road was highlighted in the Land Transport Authority's 1996 White Paper. But it has yet to be built.
Since then, pedestrianising Singapore's popular shopping belt has been mooted by various quarters time and again. The latest person to do so was Trade and Industry (Industry) Minister S. Iswaran, who last week said such a move might be necessary to revive Orchard Road’s lustre as a premier shopping destination.
The idea seems appealing but it must be deliberated thoroughly because, one, it is irreversible, and two, it could well have the opposite effect.
Proponents will cite a number of pedestrianised shopping streets in various cities as examples of success stories.
These include Brisbane’s Queen Street Mall, London's Carnaby Street and Tokyo's Cat Street, and Third Street Promenade in Los Angeles.
But note that most, if not all, are not premier shopping belts.
The world's top shopping streets are typically full of motorised traffic. Think of Paris’ 10-lane Champ Elysees, Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive, New York's Fifth Avenue and London's Bond Street.
So, it would be hasty for policymakers to conclude that heavy traffic is what ails Orchard Road.
That is not to say pedestrianised streets hold no attraction. If managed well, a clean and green walkable boulevard without traffic fumes can be a strong proposition.
Would making Orchard Road vehicle-free restore its shine? To answer that, retailers and the authorities must first find out why the place has lost some of its appeal.
If it is because of competition from suburban malls and the new and hip Marina Bay district, it should be no surprise.
If it is something that is fundamentally wrong with Orchard Road, then retailers need to identify and fix it.
Since 2004, the Government has been enticing property owners to build underground links along Orchard Road, such as one joining Paragon to Ngee Ann City. No one has taken up the offer despite the huge monetary incentives.
Is this reluctance to change also what is preventing Orchard Road from reinventing itself?
Ironically, the planners who forced pedestrians underground at this junction are now talking about a Shibuya-style "scramble crossing" at the junction of Bideford, Cairnhill and Orchard roads.
Clearly, there is a need for a holistic and coherent approach to the issue.
For instance, what will closing Orchard Road do to traffic in the city? The road is a major and crucial arterial thoroughfare in the downtown network, and you cannot shut it down without impacting the network.
More immediately, what will property owners do with the tens of thousands of car park spaces in Orchard Road if it is fully pedestrianised?
The effects of empty shopfronts may well cascade to a bigger exodus, and before you know it, Orchard Road would be a ghost town.
Last but not least, the question that begs to be asked is: Will the people who patronise premier shopping destinations be the sort who prefer public transport?
The rich prefer cars, whether it is in Singapore or Paris or New York or Zurich. If Orchard Road becomes car-free, there is a good chance it will evolve into something other than a premier shopping district.
If that is something the planners want, fine. Perhaps then Orchard Road will finally be able to distinguish itself from the sea of mini (and not-so-mini) replicas which have popped up (and will continue to pop up) across the island.
But if not, they should sit back and examine all the issues and implications very carefully before deciding to crimp or ban traffic from the area.
Retailers and the authorities must first find out why the place has lost some of its attraction.