Dubai’s vision for a 20-minute walkable city

10 March 2023
Dubai could benefit from Lisbon's micro-mobility strategy and Barcelona's equally successful superblock concept, says DHB Holding's Omar Delawar


With a population that has more than tripled since the 1990s, Dubai has recently announced an ambitious new vision to become a 20-minute walkable city.

This means that residents and visitors will be able to walk to all the amenities they need within 20 minutes, including shops, schools, mosques, parks and public transportation.

By prioritising walkability, Dubai aims to create a more sustainable, liveable and healthy city for all. This vision is aligned with broader efforts to enhance public transportation, reduce carbon emissions and improve the quality of life for residents.

Urban commuting

A crucial component of the 20-minute city concept is micro-mobility, defined as the use of small, lightweight vehicles designed for short trips of only a few miles and which travel at low speeds, typically under 25km/h. 

Micro-mobility is not a new concept. Before the rise of the automobile, bicycles were the primary mode of transport, particularly in urban areas. However, as cars became more affordable and more roads were built to accommodate them, micro-mobility options gradually disappeared from our cities.

The decline of micro-mobility can be traced back to the early 20th century. The automobile industry, booming at the time, heavily marketed cars as symbols of wealth, success and freedom. People started to view cars as a necessity, and governments invested intensively in building networks of roads and highways to support them.

Bicycles became associated with poverty or as a luxury sport in some cities. This shift in public perception led to a decline in micro-mobility infrastructure, consequently creating more traffic congestion and greater dependence on fossil fuels.

In recent years, however, micro-mobility has regained importance in our modern cities as it offers a convenient, affordable and eco-friendly alternative to traditional modes of transport. It helps reduce traffic congestion and carbon emissions in a world of continuously increasing populations. 

While Dubai is known for its impressive architecture and beautiful landscaping in public spaces, local communities' public realm lacks a micro-mobility strategy
Omar Delawar, DHB Holding

Micro-mobility strategies

The rise of micro-mobility solutions, such as electric scooters, bicycles and mopeds, has been hailed as a promising solution to the problem of urban congestion and pollution. However, as their popularity grows, so do the challenges associated with their use. 

While Dubai is known for its impressive architecture and beautiful landscaping in public spaces, local communities' public realm lacks a micro-mobility strategy. Bicycles and e-scooters are popular in many areas, such as Jumeirah Beach Residence (JBR), but these are often shared with pedestrians and cars and can become overcrowded, making them unsafe for users and lacking studied connecting routes. 

Many city managers have failed to recognise the importance of developing a comprehensive micro-mobility strategy that includes the vehicles, infrastructure and policies necessary to support safe and efficient micro-mobility networks. Simply placing bicycles and e-scooters on the streets without considering these factors is a recipe for failure as citizens may not use them, which could lead to significant financial losses for both the government and micro-mobility operators.

Cities that fail to properly connect their micro-mobility within their road and planning infrastructure network often experience adverse outcomes. In London, micro-mobility has become a significant concern for cyclists and scooter riders, with safety and road infrastructure being the primary issues.

The use of e-scooters has been a topic of discussion in London for several years, but it wasn't until 2020 that the government approved their use on public roads in designated areas. However, the lack of dedicated cycle lanes and infrastructure to support their use, coupled with the volume of traffic in the city, means that e-scooters pose a significant risk to their riders, pedestrians and other road users.

Cyclists in London faced similar challenges. The city's narrow and busy streets and the lack of dedicated cycling infrastructure make it difficult and dangerous for cyclists to navigate through the traffic. Cyclists often have to share the road with larger vehicles, which can lead to accidents and injuries.

A series of tragic accidents in recent years have highlighted the risks associated with micro-mobility in London. In 2019, a cyclist was killed by a lorry in East London, while in the same year, a pedestrian was hit and killed by a cyclist in the West End. These incidents have brought the issue of road safety to the forefront of the public debate, with many calling for more significant investment in infrastructure to protect cyclists and other micro-mobility users.

Lisbon reshapes mobility

While London faces significant challenges in integrating micro-mobility into its road infrastructure, there are examples of other cities that have managed to do so successfully. Lisbon, for instance, has been praised for its forward-thinking approach to micro-mobility. The city has implemented an extensive network of cycle lanes. It has made significant investments in public transport, making it easier for people to access different parts of the city without relying on private cars.

Lisbon has also introduced a shared electric scooter scheme, which has proven hugely popular. The scooters are equipped with GPS and are programmed to slow down in designated areas, such as pedestrian zones, ensuring the safety of both riders and pedestrians. The city has also implemented a "calm traffic" policy, which prioritises the protection of vulnerable road users, such as cyclists and pedestrians, over the speed of motor vehicles.

Superblock concept

One crucial factor that can impact the success of a 20-minute walkable city is the prevalence of single-use destinations. Developers must avoid creating further large single-use developments and gated communities, prioritising car access over pedestrian and cyclist traffic. 

An innovative solution Dubai could consider in its current master plan, which would also expedite achieving the 20-minute vision, is the superblock concept. Successfully implemented in Barcelona, it could be adapted to suit the context of Dubai.

The superblock concept was first introduced in Barcelona in the early 2000s. It involves reorganising the urban fabric by grouping several city blocks into a larger superblock unit. Within the superblock, streets are redesigned to prioritise pedestrian and cyclist traffic, with limited car access. The superblock concept has successfully reduced traffic, improved air quality and created more public space for social activities.

One possible approach is to consider each of the existing communities in Dubai as a superblock. Each community or group of communities can be reorganised to prioritise pedestrian and cyclist traffic with limited access to cars. The public realm of each neighbourhood can be designed to encourage the use of safe micro-mobility options without jeopardising the safety of users and by connecting them to public amenities and mass transits through a designated network within the public realm. By doing so, residents can easily access amenities such as shops, mosques, schools and parks within a 20-minute walk or bike ride within their own community.

The concept of this superblock with accessible, safe micro-mobility integrated within its public realm presents an excellent opportunity to incorporate safe and accessible walking and cycling paths within each community in Dubai. However, urban designers must increase diversity and proximity within these communities to achieve a safe, accessible and successful micro-mobility vision. These changes can encourage residents to embrace micro-mobility and reduce their reliance on cars within their communities. 

Dubai can benefit from the success of Barcelona's superblocks and Lisbon's micro-mobility strategy and avoid the safety mistakes of other cities while adapting it to its own context. This will accelerate making Dubai a walkable city and creating healthier, more sustainable and liveable communities for its residents.


A MEED Subscription...

Subscribe or upgrade your current package to support your strategic planning with the MENA region’s best source of business information. Proceed to our online shop below to find out more about the features in each package.