In Dubai, about 26% of GHG emissions are contributed from transportation. This is the second highest contribution to GHG emissions in the city after electricity and water production. Addressing transport related emissions is vital to be able to get Dubai closer to its goal of reducing GHG emissions.
Switching to less carbon intensive transport modes like public transit or electric cars is more sustainable. This can also help to reduce GHG emissions and energy use. The discussion around efficient, safe and less carbon intensive transport in cities usually centers around promoting a more sustainable transport network combining different modes of transport.
Ebrahim Mahomed, an urban planner and mobility consultant in the region, shares his views on shifting to a more sustainable transport system in Dubai. Ebrahim has worked on enhancing transport integration and promoting sustainable urban mobility in the region. He previously worked on a major rail infrastructure project in the UK and his earlier experience in housing regeneration and urban development in the UK and Southern Africa reaffirms his belief that urban planning and transportation go hand-in-hand especially in rapidly developing cities like Dubai. Ebrahim is an advocate for walkable and cyclable cities that are universally accessible.
Inside a Dubai Metro Station. Image credits: Zuhair Lokhandwala.
Ridership on the metro, buses and abras have seen a massive growth in Dubai in the past decade. At the same time the number of the cars on the roads are also increasing. What can you say about this trend with regard to sustainable transport?
The increase in public transport ridership in Dubai over the past few years, is extremely positive f. Both of these trends are expected given that the population has been steadily increasing and that there has been an increase in investment in public transport infrastructure.
Although the increase is reason for optimism, it is important to look at the total number of trips made using public transport modes. The total number of daily commuters on public transit like the Dubai Metro is only about 14%, which is significantly less as compared to other cities across the globe. Having said that, many other cities are older with more mature transport systems, so over time with the correct measures, Dubai’s public transit ridership will likely also feature amongst the list of those cities globally.
There is no doubt that public transport use in Dubai is increasing, but we need to be cautious. Dubai is still growing and private-led development in a city known for the speed of its development can result in a fragmented growth pattern with new developments spread out, which over time will be the impetus for urban sprawl. In this scenario, it will appear that transport infrastructure provision, in particular car-based infrastructure, is constantly having to cater to this growth pattern.
With fuel prices being relatively low, and cars being being ever more affordable it becomes more efficient and quicker for people to get to places using a car. This is why cars are still a very popular choice in Dubai and the rest of the region. In fact in Dubai, about 76% of daily trips are made by cars.
Another factor is that the public transport system is not yet fully developed. For example, if I live Sharjah and I work in Dubai, how many options do I really have for my daily commute using public transport? The car is the most convenient option. Authorities have realized that this is an issue, and there are an increased number of buses now available to the metro stations and commuter buses between neighbouring Emirates. This is a good sign but it may not be enough.
Outside a bus stop. Image credit: Zuhair Lokhandwala
Authorities are catering to the needs of current development patterns which have resulted in a heavily car based transport system. What are the biggest challenges to change this?
The first thing to do is to take a step back and look at what is making car travel so easy. Why do people choose to do that? This will lead you to think about how the city is built. With everything so spread out, jobs are not exactly close to homes. Can we have a model where people don’t need to get into their cars and drive for 30-40 min to get to and from work everyday?
At the moment it appears that road infrastructure, in many aspects, is catering to the demand of sporadic developments that are not always connected to public transit systems and denser areas. If there is a development of 150 villas built in the desert, it’s obvious that roads are needed to connect this development to the rest of the city.
If you multiply this effect over time it will no doubt result in urban sprawl. There should be a concerted effort to build more compactly and close to existing parts of the city so that the public transport system can be extended easier. It is positive to note though that many more developers are opting to regenerate older parts of the city and we are witnessing this along the Dubai Creek, in parts of Bur Dubai and an increase in density along certain corridors in Jumeirah.
To start building the city differently we need to see more collaboration between the likes of Dubai Municipality, RTA and DEWA and the private developers. We are beginning to see signs that things are changing, but this definitely need this to happen at a wider scale and much more quickly.
Another challenge is changing the mindset of people. Owning a car is seen as a sign of progress or ‘having made it’ for many people in Dubai. This cultural challenge can be difficult to address more-so due to the current overall urban form of the city which lends itself to being car-friendly in most parts for now.
Water taxis or Abra's. Image credit: Zuhair Lokhandwala.
Many cities across the globe use transport demand management (TDM) as a tool to help reduce car based emissions and decrease traffic. We don’t see too many such solutions in Dubai. What is your opinion on this?
Transportation demand management (TDM) is a tool that can help to manage an existing transport system in a better way to reduce emissions, pollution and traffic. This can definitely help in Dubai as well, but TDM requires a myriad of initiatives, some pull-factors and some push-factors, to be truly effective.
For example, increasing road tolls alone will unlikely see any major benefits especially if car users do not have much choice and will ultimately just prove to be unpopular. An increase in the choice of modes of transport, including walking and cycling, and connecting these to public transit systems, will help make TDM more effective.
To develop public transit systems that cover the entire city also takes time, so in the interim, solutions should not completely vilify motor cars. They can be part of an overall system of mobility, and this includes motor cars used as taxis or as car sharing solutions. Until public transportation can be relied completely to get to and from almost all parts of the city, all modes of transportation should be considered with the emphasis on trying to minimise carbon emissions. In this way cars may not have to be used to complete full journeys.
One thing that can be done do very easily in the current scenario, is to introduce carpooling. At the moment this is not formally allowed, and authorities should look to ways of making this possible, There are a lot of single-occupancy vehicles out there and that number can be brought down very easily by encouraging carpooling.
Transport systems should be viewed as a combination of different modes of travel. And this should reflect in the implementation of transport demand management strategies as well. For example, to make things even more efficient utilizing multiple transport modes is crucial.
Street in Satwa. Image credits: Zuhair Lokhandwala.
Active travel (like walking and cycling) for short trips can help decrease car use as well as provide health benefits to residents. The harsh climate and lack of proper infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians is very discouraging for residents to actually choose to cycle or walk over using their cars. How do you think we can help make this a more realistic choice?
Dubai has been taking steps towards increasing pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. But we need to think of this as being a part of the wider public transport system. There are kilometers of cycling lanes in the desert used mostly for leisure. This is a great initiative and encourages people to get more healthy. But we need cycling to become a part of the transport system. A sustainable transport mode cannot exist by itself.
The weather does play a role in discouraging people to choose to cycle of walk in summer, however during the cooler months, it can be a realistic choice. The key thing is to think of sustainable solutions early on during the design process. It is a lot more easier and cheaper to implement solutions like shading or wide enough and continuous footpaths then.
It can be far more challenging to retrofit existing areas of a city with dedicated cycle lanes or even continuous footpaths that are accessible to people with determination as well. Let’s take the example of old Dubai. To try and introduce new infrastructure for walking or cycling in many older parts of the city is difficult because there simply isn’t sufficient space. It’s not impossible though. Changes can be made by being bold. One option it to convert one lane of parallel parking to a pedestrianized zone. It can be tested out on one day on a weekend perhaps. Many cities like Tokyo and New York have implemented such schemes. It is definitely possible. There is a lot of potential for sustainable transport modes, it is just about facilitating this change.