By Patrick Hallgate, managing director of transport, Serco Middle East

While I have never professed to being able to look into the future, I have always advocated the importance of looking towards it, and planning with sufficient foresight so as to avoid costly mistakes. This is particularly important when we are considering something as critical as a country’s infrastructure asset.

It is all too common for a city to build for demand that is already there and then to experience constant constraint in its growth. Better to truly plan for the future and allow the city, and therefore its economy, to grow into it.

Luckily, the GCC has a solid track record of developing robust masterplans, with the intention of avoiding such pitfalls. The expansive road infrastructure arriving before housing, pricing technologies such as toll roads to manage demand, and the construction of metro systems prior to the saturation of highways are all good examples of avoiding this predicament and encouraging economic growth.

Regardless of advances in smarter working practices and technologies that attempt to reduce the need to travel, recent history has shown that there remains an increased demand for networks and infrastructure systems that will move increasing quantities of people with ever-shorter journey times.

For the major cities in the world, getting this right can contribute as much to economic growth in terms of attracting business as any other single factor. My contention, however, is that we often get caught up in the ‘what’ rather than the ‘how’ when it comes to defining success.

Game-changing development

A good current example of this would be Hyperloop, and the hype that surrounds it. It is undoubtedly a project with truly breathtaking possibilities, but implementing it in a rush, or without consideration of a wider transport masterplan, could undermine the economic viability of the system and fail to deliver on such an exciting promise.

The reduction in journey times possible via such a system is truly game changing (imagine a journey of less than 60 minutes between Abu Dhabi and Riyadh), but will only be realised if the entire ecosystem that surrounds and supports it is planned and introduced in the correct way. If planned poorly, crowded terminals far from city centres, lengthy, airport-style immigration processes and poor links to connecting transport modes could easily cause the end-to-end journey time to triple. Under these circumstances, much of the promised benefits over air travel are automatically lost.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that any of these factors are besetting the current hyperloop projects, but merely that their consideration in planning this incredible vision for the future is as important as perfecting the technology itself.

Recognising opportunities

Significant gains can also be made through shifts in policy and utilisation of existing technologies to a greater advantage. With mass automation of road travel on the horizon, expansions in these technology platforms provide major opportunities in the shared mobility space.

US cities have seen mixed results in the introduction of shared taxi apps, where fares can be reduced for shared journeys. However, further incentives could be offered where congestion is problematic to increase the attractiveness of such schemes.

These would be great introductions for fully autonomous journeys where the end-to-end points must be pre-set thus allowing the system to determine optimised sharing to reduce congestion.

As with all such technologies, there is a reliance on a core quantity of users to get them off the ground, and incentives to attract both users and technology providers could see the start of an exciting shift towards making shared mobility the norm in the future.

The true breakthrough here may need to wait for the technology to catch up, but the implementation of more local, autonomous vehicle solutions for the first and last mile could help both commuters and property developers, when integrated with systems already in operation, such as the region’s metro networks.

Getting these systems in place on the metro line masterplans is an ideal first step, but there are significant pockets of land available around the existing systems to make this a reality right now in the region. Small steps such as these would certainly contribute to the overall wellbeing of the cities’ inhabitants and make significant strides towards limiting on-going congestion challenges and supporting a greener transport agenda.

Whether it is the implementation of a ground-breaking technology or a small modal shift by a collective group of people, the opportunities to make major advances in the way we travel around our cities are there for the taking. The most successful cities will be those that adapt the fastest to the successful implementation of their masterplan, ensuring that the infrastructure can meet and indeed exceed the demands of their users right now, and well into the future.

By Patrick Hallgate, managing director of transport, Serco Middle East

Building Future Cities_MashreqThis article is extracted from a report produced by MEED and Mashreq titled Building Future Cities. Click here to download the report

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