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Getting around the Gulf

Atkins | 24 Apr 2014 | Comments

The London Underground has been evolving and expanding for over 150 years, while the Paris Métro network took 50 years to reach saturation point. Now the Arabian Gulf States are under pressure to do the same, in a fraction of the time.

Rapid urbanisation, population growth, the rise in car ownership and the corresponding rise in congestion – these factors have compelled the Gulf states to invest in new public transport infrastructure to address these increasingly pressing concerns. But can these new transport systems rival the world’s best?

Under the circumstances, they’ll have to, according to Dr Ghassan Ziadat, Atkins’ director of planning and infrastructure: “There are only so many roads you can build,” he says. The existing roads are already over capacity, to the point where congestion is having an impact on the local economy and on the quality of life for residents, as well as contributing to carbon emissions that impact the local and global environment.

Even in countries like Singapore, where the public transport network is world-renowned and where owning and travelling by car is expensive, car ownership is still rising at four per cent a year. If governments stand any chance of tempting people off the roads when car travel is cheap – as is the case in much of the Gulf region – they need more sustainable, clean, affordable, accessible, well planned and integrated public transport services.

Despite the challenge, Dr Ziadat believes that the dominance of automotive travel in inner-city locations around the Gulf could be reduced significantly within a surprisingly short period. He refers to Hong Kong as the ultimate benchmark for the use of public transportation: it accounts for more than 90 per cent of all journeys. The Gulf states might never reach that degree of public transport participation, he says, but there are clear indications that people are looking for alternatives. For example, after the introduction of its new metro system in 2009 and 2010, Dubai is already investing in more trams and buses as it strives for a more integrated transport system. The government wants 40 per cent of journeys to be made by public transport by 2030. This is double its target for 2020 and up from only six per cent in 2006.

“Riyadh is putting in seven metro lines at the same time,” says Dr Ziadat. “Everyone is trying very hard to catch up.”

Saudi’s strategy

This is particularly evident in Saudi Arabia, where the government is working with a transport infrastructure budget of $17.3 billion in 2014. The total value of the road, port and airport projects expected to be completed between 2013 and 2017 stands at $25.5 billion.

Its rail ambitions are even more substantial. A multi-billion dollar metro project is planned for Jeddah, as well as for the capital Riyadh. A four-line metro system is already planned for Makkah. And, in one of the world’s largest railway construction projects, the government is developing the North-South Railway, which will link the Landbridge project running east-west with a new high-speed line connecting Makkah to Medina.

The kingdom needs to invest heavily to keep its people moving. According to the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs, 88 per cent of Saudi Arabia’s population is expected to live in urban areas by 2025, up from 48 per cent in the 1970s. And Riyadh is already one of the world’s fastest growing cities – its population is expected to reach 8.2 million by 2030, up from just over five million now (and compared with 150,000 in the 1960s).

There is also pressure from the local population to invest in public transport. It would provide an alternative means of travel for women, who are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. And, as Dr Ziadat adds: “Every year, millions of Saudis travel to Dubai and other parts of the world. They see the benefits of public transportation and they are beginning to ask why they can’t have the same to relieve some of the congestion in their cities.”

Connecting Riyadh

Dr Ziadat says the effects of public transport investment in cities such as Riyadh could have even greater impact than that witnessed in Dubai, in part because the numbers of people involved are larger (Dubai’s population is closer to two million). Planners also have the opportunity to learn from developments elsewhere and integrate the different modes of public transportation with urban design from the start.

By building seven metro lines in Riyadh simultaneously, as well as investing in enhanced bus and taxi services, they are helping to minimise how far people have to walk from their home or workplace to the station in the heat. They are also focusing on issues of accessibility.

There is also the bigger picture of how metro projects can influence development in the areas they run through, not least due to the boost to land values. Atkins designed two of the Dubai Metro stations to allow for future high-rise development above them, and similar discussions are being held in other parts of the region as a way to help finance these developments.

“The level of understanding and the appetite for transit-oriented development among clients in the Middle East is already on an exponential trajectory,” says Dr Ziadat, who adds that maintaining the necessary capital investment for the developments remains one of the biggest challenges of these large-scale projects – even for cash-rich Gulf economies.

Saudi Arabia is definitely thinking along these lines, he says: “We’re trying to integrate transport planning within urban planning. If you can integrate a development around a station from day one, and developers see that this is the plan, then they target those areas. Having that incentive will generate investment and encourage people to build.”

Incentives to change

Dr Ziadat highlights four main benefits to transit-orientated design. Easier travel can obviously offer both social and environmental benefits. It can provide easy access to jobs and services, as well as attracting investment. And efficient public transport can enhance a city’s image and reputation.

But getting people to use new modes of transport will remain a challenge. As happened in Dubai, the impact of these projects will be gradual.

“The adoption of a new public transport network is a journey in itself,” says Dr Ziadat. Few people in the region outside of Dubai are familiar with using public transportation, which means governments adopting metro systems will need to run public awareness campaigns. This will help to counter concerns about safety, quality and social impact, and explain to sceptics why the investment being made is a good thing.

Pricing is also an issue: “If the price it too low, people worry that it is just for those on low income,” says Dr Ziadat. “They will want to have first class wagons and economy wagons, as well as family-specific or women-only wagons.”

For new multi-modal transportation systems in the region to come close to rivalling those in Hong Kong and Singapore, the cities will need to drive changes in behaviour quickly. As a result, Dr Ziadat believes the high-level investment will be reinforced by measures designed to discourage road use.

“I suspect that, as happened in Dubai, governments will introduce parking fees and toll gates once their metro systems come online, and the cost of cars and petrol will be increased to discourage people off the roads, to try to beat the congestion. You can’t do that without giving people an alternative.”

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