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Smart transport modelling essential to Dubai’s future liveability

Downtown Dubai from Burj Khalifa

As a key part of its awe-inspiring vision to be a world leading smart and sustainable city, Dubai is developing a seamless and efficient transport network. But with population growth set to increase 400% and only a small proportion of the country’s land currently developed, creating a forecasting tool that accounts for such dramatic change is an enormous challenge.

Nadeem Shakir of global engineering and infrastructure advisory company Aurecon explains:

Engineers like to joke that the glass is neither half-empty nor half-full, but the wrong size to begin with. Jokes aside, it’s a useful reminder of the importance of modelling in engineering to ensure developments are the right size for their purpose.

How then do you model two decades ahead with limited data? And how can your model be accurate if your infrastructure will see a four-fold increase in population over 20-30 years?

Aurecon’s answer is: “You engineer a solution.” 

The status quo

Dubai is synonymous with the spectacular. What’s equally impressive is the Emirate’s drive to be one of the most technologically-advanced places in the world. Transport will play a major role in the development of Dubai, incorporating leading-edge technology such as driverless cars and super high-speed trains.

To underpin the importance of transport in Dubai’s future, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, UAE Vice-President and Prime Minister, and the Ruler of Dubai, has approved Dubai’s Strategic Plan 2021. The plan will transform the future of Dubai, to make it ‘a pivotal hub in the global economy’.

An improved transport network will also need to take into account the fast-rising levels of vehicle ownership. According to recent reports, Dubai’s vehicle density of 540 per 1 000 people in 2015 is the highest in the region and among the highest in the world. The number of vehicles in Dubai doubled between 2006 and 2014; and is forecast to reach 2.22 million by 2020.

However those projections could be affected by the growing relevance of driverless cars, which has the potential to optimise the transport network capacity with a better usage of road space and through a better selection process for route destinations. The technology should also reduce the total number of vehicles on the road by encouraging well-planned carpooling services and by enhancing Park & Ride schemes, thus promoting improved share for public transport.

The model for success

Aurecon is closely involved in creating the masterplan for Dubai’s transportation. One of our company’s most valuable contributions to this masterplan is transportation demand modelling, showing how Dubai’s transport network will cope with changes in demography and day-to-day usage over several years – or even decades.

Modelling in Dubai brings its own unique challenges. For instance, projects here tend to focus on pure development rather than operational upgrades; and are often very large in scale. The region has the luxury of having the major proportion of available land still undeveloped, compared with many Western countries where the opposite is true.

From a data perspective, this makes for some stark differences. The West’s large, developed areas make deriving data and extrapolating a plan reasonably straightforward. In contrast, there are currently around 2.3 million people in Dubai but the data from travel demand surveys is only available for about 1 per cent of the population. However, in terms of applying the model it’s a completely different order of magnitude. Within the scope of the exercise, Dubai’s population is predicted to rise to 10 million and developments are being modelled for multiple scenarios.

Consequently, the first and biggest challenge in terms of modelling for Dubai is data scenario management. Large masterplans evolve rapidly and the amount of data to handle is massive. Also, new sets of land-use information become available every day and there are fresh ideas for transport options to consider. This inevitably leads to hundreds of modelling scenarios. Therefore, the methodology has to be robust.

Tailor-made software

For any new development to flourish, a transportation system that integrates different modes of travel into one efficient, easily accessible and sustainable system is fundamental. While a seemingly sensible approach; defining, modelling and future-proofing such a system is a different matter altogether.

Many projects in Dubai have accelerated timelines with additional challenges:

One is the widespread use of strategic models for all levels of planning, right down to micro-simulation when its strength is really in providing a ‘big picture’ view. In an ideal world, a project would use a combination of micro-, meso- and macro modelling types. But with the relentless pace of development in Dubai, projects rarely have that luxury.

Similarly there is an issue around ‘point in time’. For example, a 2013 strategic model might be used for planning signal timings and phasing for a road that will be used in 2030. While this may work well in a strategic model, it might not perform well when analysed at a microsimulation level. Similarly, there could be inconsistencies related to trip generation information. The Trip Generation Manual developed by the Roads and Transport Authority- Dubai, gives information on vehicular traffic generated by different land uses. But this might contrast with information on the strategic model.

To better analyse the data and create more accurate models for the transportation masterplan for Dubai, Aurecon developed its own technologies. Its unique Geographic Information System (GIS) manages the many issues encountered during masterplanning. The GIS system integrates data from areas such as those being planned for future projects; existing surrounding and adjoining projects; and land use (via a land-use data conversion tool). This provides a better picture during scenario planning, which allows accuracy in terms of predicting how a particular development will function once built.

Aurecon also uses another proprietary software incorporating Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) tools to calibrate a strategic model’s travel demands to suit local requirements. This software is consistently applied to ensure the matrix is correctly adjusted. The origin, destination and internal trips for a specified zone are adjusted to produce sensible forecasts. And the VBA tools then solve the problem of under- or over-estimation in a particular strategic model.

Intelligent data ignites possibilities

While the challenges of masterplanning for the Middle East are varied, it is still one of the most exciting places to be for infrastructure and engineering. The explosion of data and real-time information is bringing greater accuracy to modelling and allows designers to map increasingly sustainable and innovative transportation networks. Alongside this, Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) and Smart Mobility Systems show us better ways to use technology and data to connect people and places across all transport modes.

The Danish physicist Niels Bohr famously quipped that “prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future”. But by using some of the most advanced modelling systems ever applied in infrastructure development, Aurecon is ensuring that Dubai can visualise how the shape of its future – an unprecedented advance in terms of masterplanning.

Such an advancement will benefit developers, architects, government departments and other stakeholders who collaborate to help Dubai and its growing population reach its goal of becoming a pivotal hub in the global economy. Or, to put it more simply, Aurecon has engineered a solution for Dubai’s complex planning problem. We have created the ‘right-sized’ glass. Now all Dubai needs to do is to decide what to fill it with.


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