By Peter Feuilherade
This article was first published in MENA Rail News on 24 September 2013.
In the next decade, the population of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries is forecast to soar by 30% to over 50 million people – and more than 85% of them will be living in urban areas, according to the UN. Governments in the region are spending billions of dollars on public transport infrastructure and services, to divert traffic from roads and reduce air and noise pollution.
The total planned investment in railways, metros and trams in the Gulf states over the next 10 years is put at almost $150 billion. In addition to a GCC-wide rail network that aims to connect all six states by 2018, almost $30 billion worth of contracts have been awarded in recent months alone to build metro services in the capitals of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, while metro projects are also under way in Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, Jeddah, Mecca and Medina.
The benefits to the economy – including greater efficiency due to reduced traffic, and significant cuts to travel times – are self-evident.
But as growing populations and increasing prosperity boost car ownership, luring commuters away from private vehicles and taxis and persuading them to switch to public transport is a major challenge.
While in London, for example, public transport is used for about half of all journeys, only about 2% of Riyadh’s six million residents currently use public transport. The figures for Jeddah and Bahrain are 4% and 5% respectively. Dubai, with the most developed public transit network in the GCC, reported 165 million journeys in the first half of 2013, or almost 12% of potential users. By 2030, when construction of Dubai’s 422‑km metro and tram network is completed, the aim is to achieve a user rate of 30%.
Mattar al‑Tayer, head of Dubai’s Roads & Transport Authority (RTA), said in July 2013 that residents of the emirate and visitors “do grasp the benefits and advantages of using public transport means, including the psychological and physical relief of riders, reducing traffic accidents, cutting expenses on fuel and maintenance of private vehicles, and avoiding the hassles of finding parking space…”
But many factors are still impeding greater take-up of public transport across the GCC, including poor public perceptions, heavy dependence on private cars and taxis, the absence of standard policies and regulations and the lack of private sector capacity to support this rapid development.
With fuel prices in the region among the cheapest in the world, heavily subsidized by governments, this only serves to promote the continued high use of privately-owned vehicles.
Public attitudes towards the curtailment of subsidies remain resistant to change, but the option of raising fuel prices to promote greater use of public transport is beginning to appear on the political agenda. In August 2013, Saudi Arabia's High Commission for the Development of Riyadh mooted raising fuel prices to make more motorists use public transport. "High fuel prices will prompt a considerable number of private car owners to depend on the metro and buses for their commuting," the Saudi newspaper Arab News quoted the commission as saying. Riyadh is also considering imposing fees for car parking to discourage people from using private vehicles.
Another option is road tolls. In 2007, Dubai was the first city in the region to introduce toll systems on some major roads, but surveys have shown that many Dubai residents remain reluctant to use public transport until it becomes considerably cheaper than personal transport.
Qatar, for its part, has ruled out parking fees or congestion charges, saying they are not feasible until people have safe public transport options.
If coercive measures against car use are to be avoided in an oil‑producing region where the public expect low taxes and import duties, the alternative must be to make using public transport more attractive.
A July 2013 report by global consulting firm Booz & Co said the convenience of passengers was paramount, and customers wanted public transportation that was easy to access and use, as well as being pleasant to ride. “To reach a sustainable level of usage, a metro in the GCC should heed lessons from successful systems that have proper feeds from high-frequency bus services and taxis, as well as ‘park and ride’ facilities for car users. Station and vehicle cleanliness and comfort are also critical to attract riders from all socioeconomic classes,” the report added.
Riyadh’s new 177‑km six-line metro network, due for completion in 2019, is described as the world's biggest current investment in public transport. The Riyadh Development Authority has hired some top international architects to design stations intended to be “tranquil oases for travel, shopping and dining”, to place the metro at the heart of life in the Saudi capital. One of the stations, Olaya, will feature elevated public gardens and an undulating roof inspired by desert sand dunes. Ibrahim al-Sultan, the official supervising the project, told Reuters news agency that the metro will "enhance the quality of life" of Riyadh's six million inhabitants.
Riyadh metro to enhance "quality of life"
Some Saudi women see the new metro as offering them greater independence by overcoming the ban on women driving in the Kingdom. The Riyadh metro will include "family class" carriages, intended to give women privacy and peace of mind like the "ladies only" carriages on metros in Dubai and Cairo, among others.
The Dubai Metro, too, plans to extend sections reserved for women and children in carriages during peak hours, after complaints and surveys found that these were often more congested than the rest of the train.
A statement by the RTA in August 2013 said the number of women and children travelling on the Metro had increased noticeably, “thanks primarily to the growth in the public transportation culture among the public from different social cross-sections”.
Constant connectivity is another essential, now that technological achievements mean public transport users worldwide expect to be able to use smartphones and tablets during journeys, as well as receive up to date travel information via smart technologies, on social media as well as display screens in carriages, on platforms and station concourses, shops and restaurants.
Dr Muna Hamdi, founder and leader of Intelligent Mobility: Future Vision (iMFV) and ITS Arab director of research, told MENA Rail News that the first priority for GCC public transport planners should be multi-modal connectivity, providing seamless travel for people and goods between transport networks.
Dr Hamdi also stressed the need for integrated planning and regulation at the GCC level.
“The most important step is to develop a multi-modal GCC regional strategy that takes into account the rapid change in technology (planning flexibility) and economic growth, as well as environmental and cultural aspects of a healthy and prosperous society. The lack of convenient travel options for a considerable time in the Arab region, personal wealth and the availability of fuel have encouraged dependency on personal transport,” she said, adding that “adaptation to the local culture user needs and aspirations” was paramount.
But experts caution that planners in the GCC must be realistic about how many people will use public transport. The Booz & Co report predicts that in the light of the current strong car culture in the region and its far‑flung populations, public transport is unlikely to account for more than 30% of motorized trips in GCC cities.
“Even to reach that figure, treble the current level, transport authorities will have to do more than build public transport systems based on demand and transit-oriented development. They will need a holistic approach based on integrated modes of transportation, customer convenience, reduced private-car use, private-sector involvement, and an integrated planning and regulatory framework,” the Booz report concluded.