Constructing urban transport systems in the Middle East

Meydan Racecourse in Dubai, United Arab Emirates

29 July 2015 - The Middle East is a major hub of developments in the transport industry. The integrated plans that many of the Middle Eastern countries are adopting include everything from rail and roads to metros, buses, taxis, walkways, cycling routes and even water taxis – essentially world-class transportation systems that could change the lives of many people in this region.

Aurecon has been involved in a number of projects in the Middle East, including major transportation infrastructure design and planning projects. In this article, Aurecon’s Graeme Bampton, Rail Technical Director, Middle East, discusses some of the challenges, drivers and issues surrounding the construction of urban transport systems in the Middle East.

What are some of the challenges in developing urban transport systems for the Middle East?

High quality, convenient and affordable public transport is still a relatively new concept in the Middle East. One of the challenges is getting people to use public transport instead of simply driving themselves around. Public transport can still feel like an alien concept to many people here because they’ve been relying on their private vehicles for so long. Many expatriates are starting to use the public transport systems, but there is still a lot of education and awareness that needs to take place in order to make the use of these systems more common among the local populations. Maybe the most important factor and the biggest challenge is generating the desire to make use of public transport as an alternative to the private vehicle. It is this final point that will call for some smart and innovative thinking.

Another challenge is the development of a usable, integrated transport system. In many of the countries in the Middle East, a variety of transport systems (such as rail, buses, taxis, walking between stations and so forth) are being planned, but the challenge is how to accommodate all these different types of transport modes into a properly integrated transport system. The connectivity between the metros and the taxis, where people will park their cars and how they are going to move between the various modes of transport all need to be developed, and this can go badly wrong if it isn’t meticulously planned and executed.

Furthermore, there are environmental considerations that need to be accommodated in the Middle East. It gets extremely hot outside and not only do the buses, metros and trains need to be air conditioned, but the actual train tunnels also need cooling because the dissipated heat within the tunnels can drive the ambient temperature above 50°C. High temperature can lead to major discomfort for passengers, increased equipment failures and higher operating costs, so this is a major consideration for any transport project in the region.

What is driving urban transport development in the Middle East?

Dubai is hosting the World Expo 2020 and this is creating unique opportunities for development and growth in the region – not only in the transport sector, but also in construction and new ventures.  With an anticipated 25 million visitors to the Expo and 70% of them predicted to come from overseas, this is going to place a huge burden on the existing transport infrastructure. Transport plans to accommodate this massive influx of people who will be attending the World Expo include an extension to the Dubai Metro with a dedicated station for the Expo. There has been extensive collaboration between the Dubai Airports and the Roads and Transport Authority in Dubai to ensure that visitors will be able to move around with ease during this period.

Another event that is driving development in the Middle East at the moment is the FIFA World Cup 2022, which will be hosted by Qatar. To prepare for one of the most widely-attended events in the world, Qatar Rail is currently developing a world-class, multibillion dollar public transport system. The programme consists of three major projects: the Doha Metro, the Lusail Light Rail Transit (LRT) network and the Long Distance Passenger and Freight network, which will be connected to the wider Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) rail network.

One of the key challenges is to achieve a major modal shift in a person’s day to day transport preferences. As mentioned, part of the solution calls for some smart and innovative thinking by the local governments, public and private sector property developers, employers and individuals themselves. If it is possible to reduce the average travel time of public transport to less than the equivalent private vehicle journey and ensure that public transport goes to and from the places where people live, work and socialise, people will switch.

Another option is to actively discourage the use of private vehicles which has become increasingly prevalent in other parts of the world i.e. physically make it difficult to use private transport through increasing tolls, parking and fuel charges, limiting parking etc. but this can prove hugely unpopular and often impractical.

Mobility is going to play an important part in the success of the Expo 2020 in Dubai and the World Cup in Qatar in 2022. Each city’s transport infrastructure’s ability to move huge numbers of visitors during the events and the legacy benefits to the existing and future populations all contribute towards the perceived success or failure of these events.

Developing urban transport system in the Middle East requires a large amount of planning and knowledge of the unique circumstances that impact transport systems in this region. Aurecon is proud to be involved in a number of these projects and we look forward to adding value in the transport sector in the Middle East.

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