How the Middle East is leading global urban mobility development, by Ralf Baron, Thomas Kuruvilla, Morsi Berguiga, Michael Zintel, Joseph Salem and Mario Kerbage
In the Middle East, population and urbanization have been growing rapidly, and some of its countries could drive major development and growth initiatives and become top global economic performers in record time. However, to do so, these countries must catch up with standard urban development issues extremely quickly. A full set of urban-growth challenges stands in the way, including traffic congestion, transportation safety and security, the cost of public transportation, high usage of private vehicles, and environmental considerations.
As another indication, Arthur D. Little’s Urban Mobility Index 2.0 report, which analyzes the maturity and performance of urban mobility systems around the world, revealed that Africa and the Middle East were the lowest-performing regions, with respective average point totals of 37.1 and 34.1 out of a possible 60. This may be compared with leading cities in Asia and Western Europe, which scored well above 50.Government and public authorities in the Middle East have generally followed one of two models when looking for solutions to address these major transportation challenges.
The initial approach decision-makers followed was to invest heavily in roads and public transport infrastructure, raising the transportation network’s capacity to absorb the greater demand. This “transition model” is inspired by the evolution of transportation networks in the Western world, where it took more than a century to build, develop and maintain advanced public transport networks. Cities in the Middle East have tried to follow these models and strengthen transport-mode offers in short time frames, often focusing on roads and rail networks. Governance methods are reinforced in parallel through the launch of transport supervision authorities, which have mixed roles covering planning, investments and regulation (for instance: RTA in Dubai, ADA in Riyadh, PART in Kuwait).
While this approach solves short-term urgent issues, such as congestion, it also faces the risk of not being sustainable enough to address long-term difficulties. Addressing the challenge of congestion solely from the supply angle, through investments in traditional transport infrastructure, will not solve the long-term problems for two main reasons.
Firstly, given the very high (and continually increasing) growth rates on the demand side, expansion in infrastructure capacity will not be enough. For example, road capacity in Dubai increased by 36 per cent between 2006 and 2014, yet the number of registered cars in the country doubled in the same period – without including the large inflows of non-Dubai-registered cars entering and exiting the Emirate every day. The city has started to think about new “out-of-the-box” ideas to address the problem differently.
Secondly, this traditional approach ignores current trends in urban transportation, particularly around major technological and behavioral changes. Today, we can see clearly that the dominance of the private car as the main means of transportation is coming to an end. The “sharing economy” means services such as e-hailing and car sharing and the rise of digitally enabled transport modes are booming all over the world. Given the young, connected population in the Middle East, this is creating a greater shift in transport habits than in other geographies. For example, in Saudi Arabia, 50 per cent of the population is below 25, and 77 per cent owns a smartphone, driving a sharp increase in e-hailing usage – the local Uber service announced a month-to-month increase of 50 per cent in the number of trips taken in 2016.
A few advanced cities have taken different paths, trying new approaches to reinvent their transportation networks in order to respond to challenges. The key principles of these new approaches are to:
♣ Develop a holistic view of the mobility model ex ante
♣ Integrate all available mobility modes seamlessly and holistically
♣ Consider both supply and demand levers to reshape urban transportation
♣ Effectively leverage innovative, new mobility modes (such as shared or autonomous transport)
Middle Eastern cities provide a favorable environment for this new mode for multiple reasons.
♣ They do not have heavy legacy transport infrastructure to manage.
♣ Infrastructure rollouts are faster and easier given the short decision-making process.
♣ Most of these cities are undergoing ambitious transformation plans with the aim of increasing their attractiveness: an innovative urban transportation experience is seen as a strong lever for differentiation.
At this moment, we can see that the Ecosystem approach – usually implemented in a broader “smart-city context” – is a true game changer leading to progressive urban development opportunities. The model opens the door to create true impact in a city:
♣ Push public transport modes via integrated offerings, hence reducing congestion and carbon emissions.
♣ Provide a seamless customer experience – search, book, pay – integrating mobility and other sectors.
♣ Promote complementarity between transport modes, rather than competition.
♣ Prepare the city to accommodate the future mobility modes.
Drawing from the experience of the Middle East
Set solid foundations on the supply side: This includes infrastructure investments as well as investments in new mobility modes. On the infrastructure side, Dubai is a role model in rapid decision-making, planning and deployment of big infrastructure initiatives. The recently opened Dubai Water Canal, which runs through the heart of the city, took only three years to move from the start of the planning process to opening.
Set awareness for the necessary shift in mobility demand: Public transport’s share of journeys is only 14.4 percent in Dubai. This is very low compared to other major cities in Asia, Europe and the US (where it reaches 35–55 per cent). One explanation for this might be climate related, but the major reason is the mindset of users. Historically, individual transport was the only possibility users had. Now Dubai is aiming to jump directly from an individual-centered mobility system to an integrated one.
Think of mobility as an integrated ecosystem: The set-up and optimization of single mobility modes and infrastructure components is important. But Dubai understood at an early stage that the entire system could only be successful if single modes were networked and integrated in a system that solved a mobility “challenge” for the user: to go from A to B. A trip on the metro from station to station is worthless if the user does not know how to proceed from there, especially with a hot climate and (still) underdeveloped walking and cycling options. The solution is to integrate on the supply side as well as on the demand side – infrastructure and mobility modes have to be interlinked like a well-oiled machine in order to provide a seamless mobility experience.
Be at the forefront of new mobility technologies: Dubai is continually searching for the latest new technologies. Innovation labs, international experts, panel discussions, fairs and visiting trips are all used to identify technologies that might move the mobility system forward. When potentially successful “pearls” are identified, decision-making and pilot programs are rapid. In this process, Dubai essentially works like a start-up company: if an opportunity is spotted, it is tested.
The dramatic growth of urbanization is a global trend. It puts tremendous stress on one of the core functions of an urban area – the mobility system. It is therefore worthwhile for any and every urban developer, technology provider and traveler to study how the new ecosystem approach is being applied. When it comes to mobility, we may see learning becoming truly bidirectional. Middle Eastern centers have followed the traditional European and American development path for quite some time. Now they are setting their own priorities. Cities in other parts of the world should observe and learn from their experiences.
The authors all work for Arthur D Little in various locations in North America and Europe