Who will decide the future of GCC public transport?

07 November 2016

Cities cannot continue to grow without an efficient public transport system

The Dubai Metro’s ridership reached a total of 178.6 million passengers in 2015, equivalent to roughly 3.4 million a week. Not a bad number given that the metro is only seven years old.

In comparison, New York’s Metropolitan Transport Authority (MTA) reported 1.7 billion riders and the London Underground had 1.34 billion riders in 2015. The London Underground entered service in 1863, while New York’s first underground line opened in 1904.

These cities put in place a mass transport network that utilised the most innovative solutions of their time. More than a century later, these infrastructure have not yet outlived their use. In fact, their existence has contributed a great deal to ongoing rail innovation, from signalling to telecoms and security.

More importantly, the public transport infrastructure has underpinned the economic development of these cities.

It would be hard to imagine Wall Street and the London Stock Exchange contributing to the overall economy of these cities at the current levels without the train networks that transport thousands of financiers and other professionals between meetings every single day. Somehow the powerful networks that underpin billions of dollars in transactions every day have to be matched by a transport network that can efficiently transport people between places with ease when and where required.

It is also likely the transport infrastructure helped instill the value of time among the dwellers of these cities. With trains arriving and departing usually on schedule within minutes of each other, residents tend to mutually value promptness more, compared with dwellers of cities where the private car is considered the primary mode of transportation. Car dependence and road congestion, along with the ubiquitous presence of the cellular phone, have generally encouraged an arbitrary definition of being late for meetings in many emerging countries, for instance.

More importantly, those who built the transport infrastructure in these cities also tend to use it – whether they are consultants, policymakers, urban planners, engineers, mayors, or architects – along with their family and children. This significantly increases the stakes for all those involved to maintain the safe and smooth operation of these assets. This stands in strong contrast with many developing countries, where the “mass” in public transport stands for those who cannot afford to buy and maintain private cars.

One of the key factors shaping public opinion on the necessity of urban metros across the rapidly growing cities in the GCC is the hostile weather during the summer months. Policymakers in other regions, however, would be quick to point out that European cities also deal with hostile weather in the winter months.

It would be flawed to assume that a mass transport system – mainly rail – alone is responsible for the economic growth of these mega cities and financial centres, but it would also be flawed to assume that cities, including those in the Middle East, can continue to grow without an efficient public transport system.

The efficiencies obtained by pulling people out from driving a car to reviewing business briefs and presentations while in transit, or in attracting investors who are conscious about the environment, and in providing options for every resident in terms of mobility, could foster a multiplier effect resulting in higher productivity and overall knowledge and wealth creation.

But until decision-makers become convinced of the importance of public transport and start using those that are available, it is imaginable that the planned urban metro schemes across the region will continue to be delayed.

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