Building the Missing Links

12th January 2021
Noor Hajir
Head of Transport Planning & Mobility

As major cities around the world grapple with antiquated transport networks unable to cope with the increasing demands of a rapidly growing urban population, the United Arab Emirates is in a strong position to rethink the traditional mobility model.

New transport technologies from electric and automated vehicles to sky pods and hyperloops offer the potential to transform the urban environment and contribute to a more sustainable, interconnected transport system.

It is clear electric vehicles (EVs) will play a key role in this transformation. Governments across the region have introduced incentives such as free charging, parking, and exemption from tolls. Abu Dhabi aims to convert 20 percent of government fleets to EVs in 2020, and Dubai aims for 30 percent of new vehicles to be electric or hybrid by 2030. The number of EV charging stations in the UAE is rapidly rising, with facilities being introduced in malls, hotels, and public car parks.

Autonomous vehicles do offer the potential for more efficient use of road space and in turn increased lane capacities.

Autonomous future

With the addition of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and big data to EVs, the possibility of partially or fully self-driving vehicles emerges.

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) bring potential benefits including better traffic management capabilities, more efficiency, and improved safety on the road. It is expected that AVs will require less space – they do not change lanes unnecessarily and can maintain constant speeds and distances – so roads and motorways can be narrower, freeing space for development or other modes of transport.

“Autonomous vehicles are the future of transport,” says Ravi Suri, senior advisor to multinational consultancy KPMG’s advisory division in the UAE. “The UAE is leading the charge, ranking in the top 10 in KPMG’s Autonomous Vehicles Readiness Index.”

As part of Dubai’s Smart City strategy, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, vice-president and prime minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, announced that by 2030, 25 percent of all transportation trips in Dubai will be smart and driverless.

However, doubt exists about the likely impact of electric and driverless cars on traffic congestion.

“Privately-owned autonomous vehicles are still very traditional in terms of vehicle occupancy levels, which are on average between 1-2 passengers per vehicle. In that sense, the number of vehicles on the road will not change significantly. However, autonomous vehicles do offer the potential for more efficient use of road space and in turn increased lane capacities, with the elimination of driver behaviours such as unnecessary lane changing,” says Noor Hajir, Head of Transport Planning & Mobility, WSP Middle East.

“This will result in an increase in lane capacity of around 30 percent, but not much more than that. In contrast, some research even suggests that as low occupancy autonomous vehicles and shared car ownership schemes become more prevalent, convenient, and cheaper, they may in fact attract a portion of existing high occupancy public transport users, resulting in increased numbers of vehicles on the roads, thus offsetting any benefits gained from improved road efficiencies.”

Monica Menendez, director of the Research Centre for Interacting Urban Networks (CITIES) and associate professor of civil and urban engineering at New York University Abu Dhabi says that in order to improve mobility, we need to rethink private vehicle ownership.

“As we think about the future of transportation, we need to start moving away from the idea that everyone needs his or her own private car,” she says. “This shouldn’t come as a surprise if we understand that while the demand for mobility might continue to increase, the space allocated to roads will either remain the same or increase at a much slower speed. As a result, population growth, especially around urban centres, might lead to disproportionate increases in traffic congestion and all the negative externalities associated with it.”

It is clear reducing the number of private vehicles alone is not enough and integrated mass transit solutions are key to reducing road congestion, air pollution, and energy and oil consumption.

Sky pods offer advantages such as reduced per kilometre infrastructure costs compared to the significant excavation costs of underground metro systems.

Essential projects

Despite the economic slowdown seen in the region since 2015, the UAE is still spending on essential mass transit infrastructure. There are transport projects worth a total of $34.3bn under execution in the UAE, with the biggest, spend on Abu Dhabi’s Midfield Terminal complex and the Route 2020 extension of Dubai Metro’s Red Line.

There are also about $85bn-worth of projects at various stages of pre-execution, according to regional projects tracker MEED Projects. This includes a range of pending packages for developments such as Al-Maktoum International airport and Etihad Rail.

The UAE’s efforts are showing results globally. Abu Dhabi and Dubai ranked within the top 50 cities on the Urban Mobility Readiness Index 2020, prepared by Oliver Wyman Forum and The Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California in the US.

Analysed across 43 metrics, including regulation, infrastructure, social impact, and the ability to adapt future technologies, the index highlights some of the key strengths and challenges of Dubai and Abu Dhabi’s urban mobility strategies.

Further innovation is on the cards in Dubai and Sharjah, with plans to introduce sky pod transport systems with passenger and cargo units suspended from aerial rails. They are said to be power-efficient and will occupy a smaller land area than conventional means of transport.

“Sky pods offer advantages such as reduced per kilometre infrastructure costs compared to the significant excavation costs of underground metro systems. The narrow structural posts of sky pods also require considerably less right of way spatial provision than at-grade alternatives, which is particularly beneficial in developed urban cores with limited space availability in existing right of ways,” says Hajir.

“Another benefit is the ability to scale capacity and speed based on demand and distance travelled, with different pod capacities ranging from 4-80 passengers. Lower capacity pods provide a viable last-mile solution for passengers travelling on low demand routes, without the need to change tracks or systems.”

New and improved public transport modes will become available, but there is a risk uptake will not be widespread unless they are properly linked and accessible to the public. To avoid this, planners need to consider development from a whole-journey perspective.

“Current design guidelines in the United Arab Emirates focus on vehicular or mass transit-based models. They don’t stipulate the requirement to implement last-mile solutions in design. Approving authorities should consider updating existing design guidelines and approval processes to ensure these solutions are imbedded early on in the design process. This includes public realm spatial provisions such as wider footpaths to allow for e-bike and e-scooter stations and laneways, as well as the impact on overall network demand calculations. They should also address operational opportunities and constraints such as safety protocols with regards to multi-modal shared spaces, and integration of smart technology,” says Hajir.

“In fact, in some cases, existing public policies and procedures have proved to be a constraint for new mobility modes, such as licensing and insurance requirements for operators.”

Future mobility solutions will involve retrofitting existing transport infrastructure to enable micro-mobility devices such as bicycles and e-scooters as well as introducing more pedestrian walkways.

But questions remain about where responsibility lies for integration and who should pay for it. “You have to consider the return on investment. The private sector will not voluntarily uptake such solutions unless they prove profitable, whether it be through direct revenue from fleet rentals or an increase in property value as a result of increased accessibility and retail footfalls. However, these benefits are not often measured during the development stage, and are typically sabotaged by traditional value engineering processes,” says Hajir. “Therefore, there needs to be that push from the public sector, whether that is through education, incentivization, or enforcement.”

Managing a seamless, flexible, and integrated transport network is no small task. But with its growing investments in a widespread 5G network, the UAE is well-placed to introduce digital solutions.

Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) used in smart cities leverage technologies such as the Internet of Things and Big Data analytics to monitor and actively manage traffic. As well as route planning and integrated payment systems, ITS can improve efficiency and reduce pollution.

Government-backed initiatives through agencies such as the Mena Centre for Transport Excellence, a joint effort by Dubai’s Roads & Transport Authority, and the Belgium-based International Association of Public Transport (UITP), have been established to promote advanced transport management solutions. These will lay down the foundation stones needed for the UAE to achieve its future mobility ambitions.


An original version of this article originally featured in the MEED Mashreq Construction Partnership’s Construction Megatrends report. Click here for a full link to the report.