Blog: 16 March 2016Public Transport: It’s not just about the trains…

Recently, I was directed to an article in the Economist titled “Let’s go together”. I’m not someone who generally reads the Economist – not because it isn’t a good publication, but more because every one of my friends who religiously reads it starts touting the opinions therein as their own and so by default it makes me feel a little, well, dumb.

However my interest was piqued in this instance by the slightly more enlightening subtext – Public transport is all the rage in the region, More is desperately needed. Finally something that I have an opinion about. An opinion that is informed through my own personal experience, both as a person trying to navigate many of the cities cited but, in particular, as a person on the ground in the early days when the metro in Riyadh (& Jeddah) were first mooted.

The article paraphrases the growing trend of many of the Middle Eastern countries’ investment in Public Transport. In the case of the Riyadh metro, this discussion has been going since the last review of the Metropolitan Development Strategy for Riyadh in 2009. At the time, the writing was already on the wall. Roads were over-crowded, and indeed every time you jumped in one of the city’s taxis you got to see more of the city than you intended to as they took you to every backstreet to avoid the latest new ‘transport’ initiative (aka the fly-over).

At the time, however, I couldn’t help but question whether the idea of a metro was really developed for the purposes of facilitating the movement of people around the city, or whether it was simply lip-service.

As planners, though, it didn’t stop us from getting excited. The proposed multi-modal transport system would not only take pressure off the city’s highways but make outer suburban areas better connected with the employment districts of Riyadh.

See, many people (including the author of the article in the Economist) question the potential success of the transit system in Riyadh and other cities, because of the lack of push factors, i.e what is pushing people out of their cars. Indeed, on the occasions I’ve filled up a 60Lt 4WD at a mind-boggling 5p a litre, you can see their point. Add to this free parking everywhere, a climate that would make an Australian sweat (and being one, I should know), and a public realm that resembles a parkour obstacle course, it is no wonder people were sceptical.

(At this point it is worth noting – like many of the places it refers to, there was a functioning, highly elaborate system of privately owned minibuses running around the city, which according to Saudi government statistics were already contributing to around 2% of daily trips – which, in a city of more than 6 million people, is quite a few.)

But the real challenge facing the city of Riyadh isn’t anything to do with the above. Well, not entirely. When the city updated its development strategy it aimed to reinforce a network of centres and sub-centres. And whilst these came with the expectations of higher density development – land assembly and a general distrust between the public and private sectors – this meant that still nothing was happening.

When the Economist reports a drab, low-rise urban area, perhaps what they were unintentionally referring to is that unlike the cities that we in Europe predominantly reside in, car-dominated cities tend to develop in long, thin corridors rather than concentrated centres of activities. In fact, if it wasn’t for an old town you would be hard pressed to say where the ‘city’ is in Riyadh. Now of course there is the King Abdullah Financial District. Nothing like going from nothing to something with a bit more some tacked on the side.

For the past year, Barton Willmore has been working with the Riyadh authorities, developing guidelines that will help bring meaning to the city. I’m not talking cultural meaning – but meaning in the planning sense. Utilising the metro stations as a mechanism for concentrating employment and other activities in line with Transit Orientated Development (TOD) principles (the same principles that have made my office near Tottenham Court Road Crossrail station a hard-hat area for the past 3+ years). Creating landmarks to improve legibility. Stitching the city back together to create critical mass in locations that can support higher-rise urban centre living at a lower per-dwelling cost. These are the real reasons these nations are building metros.

I don’t know if they noticed but the cities in question share several common features:

  • They are very large, and the growing proportion of the population is below 25;
  • Prospects of getting a job in these cities are quite low;
  • Prospects of getting on the property ladder, even lower; oh, and in case you’ve been hiding under a pile of magazines for the past year or so,
  • The primary source of funding that was subsidising everything isn’t worth as much as it used to be.

A straw poll of my young Saudi professional colleagues would suggest that a 2-hour each commute is not uncommon. So would they give it up to live in an apartment with a shorter commute? Almost definitely. Some have even gone further to describe combining this trip with a quick cycle to the station.

So what the article fails to acknowledge is that the introduction of the metro – which initially was for all intents and purposes a vanity project – is in fact far more fundamental to the survival of the city.

Posted with the following keywords:
Public Transport, TOD, Riyadh, Saudia Arabia, International