The planning director for New York’s subway network envies anyone who can design a transport system from the bottom up, unconstrained by existing infrastructure. Dubai has a leg-up, he says, but should learn from mistakes of others. Eugene Harnan reports from New York
As Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority prepares to launch the Metro with a goal of getting 30 per cent of the city’s population on to public transport by 2020, it might well lend an ear to the New York subway system’s chief planner, who has been there and done that.
The New York Metropolitan Transport Authority has been in the business for almost a century, enough time to know what works and what does not. Over the years, it has come to appreciate that market research, urban planning and real-time communication are the keys to moving millions of commuters every day while keeping fares affordable and balance sheets intact.
“I’m sure it will be a whopping success,” said William Wheeler, the MTA’s director of planning and special project development, when asked about the Dubai project. “They have a leg-up on everyone else, because we had to retro-fit our transit.”
Still there is much that can go wrong. It may not be easy to get people out of their cars and on to public transport, Mr Wheeler said, so the RTA should “know their customers” and what motivates them to drive.
“The reason they drive in New York is because they are subsidised to drive,” Mr Wheeler said, speaking in an interview in his Manhattan office next to Grand Central Station. “They get free parking, they get an employee-of-the-month break on their tolls, their employers give them something to drive.”
If the RTA can determine why people in Dubai would rather drive, he said, then the authority might be able to find ways to make public transport competitive.
The RTA has invested Dh15.5 billion (US$4.2bn) in the region’s first driverless train network, whose 53km Red Line will launch two months from today. The Green Line is expected to open in March 2010, and a Purple Line after that. Although the Dubai Metro’s passenger numbers are expected to be a small fraction of the 516.8 million people who rode New York’s subway system in the first four months of this year, it does not mean the RTA is short on ambition.
Each Dubai train will consist of five carriages, one of which will be the more expensive but luxurious Gold Class. But are two classes really necessary?
“It may not be worth the additional public resources to set up these high-end services,” Mr Wheeler said. “They should really know who their competition is and why they are driving.”
Years of research at the MTA found that the fewer changes a commuter must make on a train or bus ride, the more he or she will be inclined to use public transport.
“A one-seat ride is the ultimate,” Mr Wheeler said. “You get in your seat once and you stay in it. If you have to transfer, particularly, in an outer area from a bus to a commuter rail line, it presents an obstacle.”
The fare structure, too, is a big factor. “Pricing is very important if you know your customers and demographics,” he said. “We carry lots of rich people and poor people and lots of people in-between. One of the things that makes it work very well is if you have electronic devices like metro cards to pay your fare and give them lots of different choices.
“On a typical transit car if you have 100 people, every 20 people will be from a different market. They will not be going to work; they’ll be doing something else, and therefore, their ability to pay will be different. There are lots of different markets.”
The MTA introduced discounted cards in 1996, Mr Wheeler said, and the number of passengers rose significantly. It also uses a “fare box operating ratio” to determine pricing, whereby 50 per cent is paid by the city government and 50 per cent by the commuter.
“We are at record levels now,” he said. “The more options they can provide for discounts, then your ridership will explode. That is what happened to us.”
Mr Wheeler also stressed the importance of informing passengers in real time about overcrowded stations or delayed trains.
BlackBerry users, for example, could receive messages alerting them to late trains.
But the most important consideration, he said, was the location of the lines relative to where people live. If people were not near a line, they would not use it.
This bodes well for Dubai, because the Red Line will serve some of the most densely populated areas, including Bur Dubai and Deira, which have become more famous for traffic snarl-ups than for cultural heritage.
The RTA’s rail master plan has sketched in the Blue Line that will link with the Red line in Al Rashidiya and run parallel with Emirates Road and finish on the Waterfront at Palm Jebel Ali, taking in Dubai’s new airport and Arabian Ranches.
A Purple Line is planned to link with the Emirates Station, run parallel along Al Khail Road and circle the new airport before finishing on the Palm Jebel Ali. But developments along these routes have been scaled down, and the completion dates for both lines have been put back.
Mr Wheeler believes that the location of main developments is vital to the success of any public transport system.
“There are lot of arguments that say it is better to develop in densities where you can use energies more efficiently,” he said. “I don’t know what it is like in Dubai in terms of development patterns, but if we had the opportunity to decide how to grow, we’d grow in clusters, grow in ways that you can be served. If land use is dispersed you have a difficult time serving it by transit.”
In New York, the MTA has struck deals with property developers to operate bus feeder routes from their developments to train stations.
In Dubai, the RTA will have 41 new bus routes to feed the Red Line’s 29 stations, and officials say everybody will be within 500 metres of an air- conditioned bus shelter.
“Transit systems don’t like to build a lot of parking,” he said.
“It is expensive, and there never seems to be enough of it. It is to their benefit if people can almost walk to the train. It is proven you can walk a mile and not realise you have walked that distance depending on how you animate the sidewalk.
“If you put a lot of retail on that route or develop it in a clever way, it does not feel like a long walk.”
Mr Wheeler agreed that the desert climate could hinder commuters who needed to walk to the station. But he offered a solution that has been tried and tested in New York: “They could use bus rapid transit. You pay before you get on the bus, it’s faster to load people on to the bus and even if they are on highways, they have their own right of way. They feel like rail and don’t require the heavy investment of rail.”
The bus rapid transit could cruise through traffic lights because of a device that changed the signals to green as the bus got closer. “The bus barely waits at intersections,” he said.
“The trick is when you are making improvements to the highway system you set aside a lane just for the transit route.
“If Dubai has the chance to determine how they want to develop, that is the best way to start transit.”
Before the RTA tries to persuade commuters to leave their cars behind, Mr Wheeler said, the authority should look closer at its entire infrastructure and determine how much funding is allocated to each sector.
“As Dubai plans, I think they have to think about the relationship between the inexpensive fuel and how much highway building they do and how they are going to invest in transit,” he said.
“If the national Government makes transit investment on a par with highway investment, at least they would have a shot.”
One way to turn a metro system into a cash cow, he said, was to own the land around the stations.
“The operators in Hong Kong have it down to a tee. I think it is the only transit system in the world that makes a profit because they own the property, and they develop it.”
Metro operators around the region and the world will be looking closely at the launch of Dubai’s Red Line.
“It’s an exciting part of the world,” Mr Wheeler said. They have a lot of things to look forward to but they should learn from everybody else’s mistakes, especially from our mistakes, in particular how they develop land.”
Eugene Harnan www.thenational.ae