Transforming transport in the Middle East

Atkins | 29 May 2015 | Comments

Major transport projects are being planned for the Middle East over the next two decades. This extraordinary level of investment will help cities meet the needs of the increasing number of people flocking to them and, as regional transport strategist Roger Cruickshank explains, it could also underpin sustainable development.

Twenty years ago, the Middle East opened its doors to an influx of people and investment. Towns and cities grew in line with development. So too did the road networks and, inevitably, traffic congestion. In Saudi Arabia, older cities like Jeddah and Riyadh can come to a standstill during peak hours, while the current management solutions in Doha in Qatar are struggling to match the rapid rise in the number of cars on the road.

Better connections

To ease the pressure, billions of dollars are being allocated to new rail and metro projects. According to the news and business intelligence service, MEED, every country has announced plans for a scheme. That, it says, equates to more than 33,000km of mainline routes as well as 3,000km of metro. The Middle East is embarking on what Atkins’ Roger Cruickshank describes as a “transport transformation”.

“We’re about to see a huge shift from roads to rail in many of the major cities,” he explains. “And the change is likely to be relatively sudden. If they were being constructed in Europe, large-scale infrastructure projects such as these could take decades to build. Here, they can come to fruition in as little as three or four years.”

One of the most ambitious projects currently underway is the Riyadh Metro. It has six lines (Atkins is the lead designer for three) and 85 stations, and it’s due for completion in 2019 . The metro will link parts of the city that haven’t even been built yet and could open up others that have traditionally been too onerous to reach with ease. This is all part of a wider scheme that also includes a new bus system.

Through their investment, authorities are hoping to get people out of their gas-guzzling vehicles and on to public transport. But forming better connections also helps them achieve wider sustainability aims.

All change?

As the stations take shape, developers throughout the Middle East are being encouraged to seize the opportunity to integrate them into strong, vibrant communities via transit-oriented development (TOD) – the creation of residential and commercial space around transport hubs. It offers attractive development opportunities while delivering benefits for residents, and it’s inherently sustainable.

TOD is well established in places like Hong Kong and Singapore but there are additional challenges to realising the potential of this approach in the Middle East.

“We have to appreciate that some parts of the cities are still in the early stages of development,” says Cruickshank. “That means we need to be flexible and allow for change because the demands of today are not the same as those of tomorrow.”

Cruickshank emphasises the importance of careful planning and balancing the desire for an immediate return on investment with the ability to deliver long-term benefits: “The economy of a nation or a city will change over time. If you create flexibility within a masterplan, particularly in relation to transport, you’re giving developers an opportunity to react when sectors and markets rise and fall. Spaces can be converted to match the shift in demand, without having to start building from scratch. It helps avoid boom and bust scenarios and creates cities that have the resilience to withstand volatility in the market.”

Cruickshank gives the example of a residential tower that is designed with the future in mind. The internal structure and layout would be flexible. If the demand for homes in the area decreases, while office space is at a premium, the building can easily be reconfigured to accommodate a change in use.

This forward-thinking approach allows developers to maintain the viability of their portfolio while the benefits to the city are increased because the schemes are consistently responding to local conditions. On a city-wide scale, flexible design around transport hubs translates into the benefits of development being shared, which helps modulate rental prices and balance construction and investment across a number of areas.

A phased approach

Another city being transformed through its investment in transport infrastructure is Doha. The first phase of the Doha Metro, where Atkins is the lead designer for the Red Line South and Gold Line packages, is currently being constructed. It includes 35 stations, more than 100km of track and has an expected completion date of 2019. The new service will keep the crowds moving during the 2022 FIFA World Cup but the longer-term objective is for the creation of an even bigger network that will stimulate economic development and bring communities together.

The dramatic change in capacity requirements pre- and post-event presents a challenge for planners. But authorities are increasingly looking at the infrastructure they’ll need to help them realise their long-term vision for their countries and improve opportunities for their citizens.

According to Cruickshank, the Doha Metro offers an ideal opportunity to use phased construction to their advantage. People’s response to the first 35 stations and surrounding developments can be gauged and the response used to inform the second stage of metro works, which include another 50 stations.

Lessons learned

The Middle East already has a track record in transit-oriented and sustainable development. Cities that are now planning their metro schemes are looking to Dubai Metro as an example of what could be achieved – six years after its completion, it’s being hailed as a major success. More than 14.8 million journeys were made on the red and green lines of the metro in January 2015 alone. That’s an increase of one million on the same period the year before.

“The success of the metro there has demonstrated that sustainable cities of the future will have public transport schemes at their heart, but the challenge will be ensuring that any new network integrates into the urban environment,” says Cruickshank.

In Dubai, for example, the metro links major destinations, population centres and amenities and services are being expanded to more closely match users’ requirements. The real value of the metro however is arguably that it has made well integrated development with strong public transport connections, attractive public spaces and clear access an expectation, rather than an aspiration.

Imagining a greener future

The incredible level of investment in infrastructure across the Middle East creates opportunities for authorities and developers to build sustainable communities, as well as transport schemes. And Cruickshank believes there is value in thinking big and looking outside the region for inspiration.

“Atkins has worked with clients and partners in China to bring about remarkable change in this area. Our ambitious approach to low carbon development has resulted in state and national planning laws being adapted so sustainable design is being put at the heart of policy.”

Around the world authorities are being forced to consider how their cities will respond to the increasing number of challenges we’re facing. Rapid urbanisation, the need to diversify economies, find alternative energy sources, and address climate change mean that action is needed now if we’re to create the successful cities we desire.

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