Fueled by demographic growth, urbanization and economic development, the cities of the Gulf Cooperation Council are growing at a rapid rate that is outpacing their current transport infrastructure and services.
The United Nations forecasts that 88 percent of the GCC will be urbanized by 2025, compared to a world average of 57 percent. What’s more, an increase in income levels will cause demand for mobility to outpace even the region’s rapid population growth.
So far, this surge in demand has been largely met by private vehicles and taxis, with public transportation accounting for less than 10 percent of all motorized trips. This approach has resulted in congestion, pollution and deteriorating road safety. It threatens to slow the growth of the region’s cities and undermine the quality of life for urban residents.
To address these challenges, authorities have been making massive investments in public transportation systems; regional governments have recently announced that they will pour a combined $26 billion into metro systems, trams and monorails. However, these investments alone will not change commuters’ habits and attract them away from cars and onto public transport. Other countries’ experience shows that careful policy formulation and planning are indispensable to the success of public transportation. For the car-dependent cities of the GCC, those lessons are particularly critical.
The path to public transport
Transport authorities must be realistic about how many people will actually use public transportation. With strong car cultures and populations spread over large areas, GCC cities will have to work hard to drag drivers out of their cars.
To reach even modest success, transport authorities must consider five critical steps. Although their implementation will vary by country, each serves a common goal: enhancing the attractiveness of public transport and dissuading individuals’ use of cars.
Focus on convenience: People will not use public transportation if it is not easy to do so, and thus public transport should first aim to be accessible. The recently opened Dubai Metro is a case in point: It is still working to reach a satisfactory and sustainable level of use with plans for “park and ride” facilities and better feeds from high-frequency bus services and taxis.
The cleanliness and comfort of stations and vehicles are also important in attracting riders from all socioeconomic brackets. Finally, fare levels and structures need to balance affordability for users with transport authorities’ goal of maximizing revenues. To offset the reduced convenience of public transportation, the cost of the trip to the customer — in both money and time — must be lower than the cost of the same trip using a car.
Integration: The easier it is for commuters to ride multiple modes — for instance, bus and metro lines — the more convenient public transport becomes.
There are two main levels of integration. The first one is at the station level; major interchange stations provide commuters with access to metro, tram, bus and taxi services. Metro stations in sparsely populated GCC cities would require strong feeders, such as buses and taxis. Fares and ticketing are the second level of integration: Allowing users to pay a single fare and use a single ticket for multiple modes is another element of convenience, particularly when the combined fare is lower than the sum of the fares on the different modes.
Smart card ticketing technology has now become the standard for many metros, as it offers users the added benefit of being able to use it for parking and various small purchases, such as newspapers and drinks.
Discourage car use: Disincentives for car use are probably the best way to encourage riders to use public transportation. Recent studies have shown that urban rail systems mostly attract riders who had previously been using the bus rather than those who had been driving — unless authorities impose severe restraints on the ownership and use of personal cars.
Such measures may include limiting car ownership (via sales taxes, import duties, and annual fees) and restricting car usage (via parking charges, congestion and road tolls, and fuel taxes). For GCC cities, the challenge is substantial. Taxing car ownership and fuel is likely to be contentious in an oil-producing region accustomed to low taxes and import duties.
The dynamic management of parking space and policies that charge for it would likely prove not only easier to implement but also be better targeted to specific congested areas of city centers. A number of cities, most notably in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have been moving in that direction recently.
Overall, in a region where very few people use the existing bus service, restricting car usage is inevitable if public transportation is to really take off. Measures can be gradually introduced over time as public transport becomes available and convenient.
Bring in the private sector: Private- sector involvement can offer a number of benefits to GCC cities in developing or operating modes of public transport.
* The greater efficiency that characterizes private-sector operation leads to reduced government spending on subsidies for urban transportation. Other countries’ experiences show that competition for operating franchises is the primary way to reduce subsidies.
* Public-private partnerships in infrastructure projects, such as rail transport and station development, alleviate the fiscal burden on governments and facilitate the projects’ execution. There is an increasing need for better financial management of these projects as GCC governments attempt to boost their reserves and ensure fiscal discipline, despite the oil boom of the last few years.
* Private operators tend to have the discipline and much-needed customer orientation to ensure high standards of service quality, reflected in service frequency, schedule suitability, maintenance, image and staff friendliness.
Create an enabling institutional and regulatory framework: Few of the above-mentioned policies and measures are possible without a solid and integrated framework for planning and regulation. Public accessibility, intermodal integration and disincentives for car use require well-integrated planning between the relevant government entities. Private-sector participation requires transparent and well-developed licensing, regulations and enforcement mechanisms. This is difficult in the current GCC institutional context, which remains largely fragmented and underdeveloped. Planning, regulation and enforcement responsibilities are often distributed among different uncoordinated entities with overlapping roles and responsibilities.
However, in the past few years, a growing number of countries have been establishing integrated transport authorities with a clear mandate for planning, regulating and enforcing all matters related to surface transport and traffic management. Not all countries may want to have a single entity; nonetheless, the allocation of responsibilities and the coordination mechanisms have to be well-established.
Public transportation may not be the sole remedy for the looming mobility challenges facing GCC cities, which demand a holistic approach that includes strategies for traffic management, non-motorized transport such as walking and cycling, and the integration of transport with land-use planning. But none of these strategies will dispense with the need to develop and promote the use of public transportation. Accordingly, following these vital steps to encourage public transport use will help public transportation reach its ultimate objectives.