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Urban mobility growth: The leading example of the Middle East

By Ralf Baron, Thomas Kuruvilla, Morsi Berguiga, Michael Zintel, Joseph Salem, Mario Kerbage.

Over the last decades, the Middle East has witnessed fast population growth, from 186 million people in 1990 to 323 million in 2015. Its urbanization rate has increased rapidly during the same period, from 54 percent in 1990 to 63 percent in 2015. Some countries in the region, such as the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and others, have been in a position to drive major development and growth initiatives that would allow them to become top global economic performers in record time. These countries must therefore also catch up with standard urban development issues extremely quickly. Being leaders in rapid expansion and urbanization, they have a full set of urban-growth challenges on their management agenda:

  • Traffic congestion: An average trip in Dubai takes 29 percent longer than it would under uncongested conditions. While this is better than journey times in most large Asian cities (Bangkok 61 percent, Jakarta 58 percent and Beijing 46 percent), it is still behind the best in class in the West (20 percent or less).
  • Transportation safety and security: Middle Eastern cities have high road-traffic death rates, although in some countries the situation is improving (for example, the UAE has 10.9 deaths per 100,000, versus 32.1 per 100,000 in Iran).
  • Public transport cost: Public transport is expensive. Metros can cost millions of dollars per kilometer of track, and with low oil prices, even major producers are cutting back their budgets.
  • High usage of private vehicles: The use of public transport in Middle Eastern cities has yet to become common practice, representing only 14.4 percent of motorized trips in Dubai, for example (Source: UITP).
  • Environmental considerations: Transportation contributes heavily to a city’s air pollution, and lack of environmental protection measures can lead to disastrous results. Cairo has a pollution index of 95.86, Beirut 87.37 and Tehran 87.22 (source: numbeo 2017).

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.

Meeting challenges: two choices of models

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.

Transition model

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 (metro, tramway). 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 percent 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 percent of the population is below 25, and 77 percent owns a smartphone, driving a sharp increase in e-hailing usage – the local Uber service announced a month-to-month increase of 50 percent in the number of trips taken in 2016.

Ecosystem model

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.

Key takeaways from the example of Middle East urban mobility

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 percent). 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.

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