Metro will propel Dubai to a new era of urban appeal


    By Matt Green

    The Dubai Metro’s Red Line will officially open for business on Tuesday and unlike so many public service projects strung around the world, will actually deliver to a long term time-line commitment. Of course the blue and silver driverless trains have been slipping back and forth in whisper mode beside the Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai’s main inner city thoroughfare and arterial interconnect with Abu Dhabi, for many months now.

    Dubai metro
    Dubai metro

    Considering that construction of the most modern Metro system on the planet only commenced on the fifth of the fifth month of 2005, a grand opening a few months beyond four years hence represents a monumental achievement in a practical sense. Putting the last statement in perspective, the Red Line stretches over a distance of 47 kilometres, with stations located on average every 1.5km. On eventual of completion of both lines, there is a Green counterpart; the linear track count will rise to 70km and the network will embrace 47 stations, nine of them underground.

    In an announcement made by Mattar Al Tayer, Chairman of the Board and Executive Director of Roads & Transport Authority (RTA), the Red Line will now go live on September 9 with a reduced complement of 10 key operational stations. The remainder will be brought into service in phases over the coming months as surrounding developments come online. Opening of the Green Line will be also be put back by three months.

    Officials from the RTA estimate that the system will ultimately carry 27,000 passengers every hour equating to 355 million passengers per annum once the two lines are fully operational. This is indeed a giant stride onward and upward from Dubai’s current ball-park public transport utilisation of just five per cent.

    Yet the arrival of the Metro, while undeniably beneficial from a global destination perspective does not merely represent another top-end statistic emerging from Dubai’s extensive public relations bank. The commercial and social impacts are simply immense, for advanced public transport plays a crucial role in facilitating faster and more sustainable growth. One only has to examine the advantages secured by other major cities with sophisticated travel connectivity in densely populated environments. London, Moscow, Paris, New York and Tokyo are all equipped with highly respected metros and are also renowned as epicentres of economic activity, a status that will no doubt be maintained as they work their way through the present downturn. In Dubai’s case, trains will run at a maximum speed of 90km per hour, with a final frequency target set at every 3.45 minutes during peak hours and every 7 minutes off peak. In the initial stages 11 trains out of an overall fleet of 62 will operate on Red Line carrying 3,500 passengers per hour in either direction, and arriving at 10 minute intervals. Customer service and commuter communication is a crucial factor which, if provided according to the pre-opening publicity campaign and the same standard as the service levels already in existence at Dubai International Airport, should rise to expectation.

    Nevertheless, climate coupled with the immediacy and proximity of feeder transport systems are paramount considerations for future success of the Metro. There is little that the RTA can do about the weather, but the “fishbone” integration of transport feeder network is extensive with 41 bus routes linking directly to Red Line Metro stations served by a fleet of 778 new buses. The intermediary air-conditioned passenger corridors will prove the telling factor. In terms of connecting communities on a more social basis the official Metro operating hours are from 6am until 12 midnight, the remaining hours are allocated to maintenance of both trains and track. New York for example is remarkable for owning one of the largest subways in the world in terms of track and the only American city where the inhabitants use more public than private transport, as a result of being able to travel any time – day or night. However, it will take time to wean Dubai residents away from the car culture and measures to make the cost saving differential between consistently driving a private vehicle and migrating to public transport more significant are likely.

    Transportation and land use are of course inextricably linked. Exemplary urban transportation systems expand both the range of housing locations and livelihood options. Facilitating non-motorised modes of transport and giving priority to public transportation also help reduce transport costs and protects the environment. Urban density is generally more cost effective than urban sprawl, which leads to low public transportation cost in medium to high density cities. Dubai’s existing developments are spread from Deira north of the Creek to Jebel Ali in the south along the main highways in the shape of the Emirates and Sheikh Zayed Roads. However, a continuously upgraded interconnecting road network has enabled the expansion of bus services linking into the new Metro but also it has to be said made life far more comfortable for self drivers.

    In low-density areas and the more fragmented residential communities and business parks, the car will probably continue to dominate the choice of transport, and the cost of extending reasonable connectivity to further flung developments will be high. The Red Line has established two main “park and ride” nodes offering free parking for some 2,800 cars at the Rashidiya station in Deira and for approximately 2,000 cars beside the Jumeirah Islands station toward Jebel Ali. The residential area within the Rashidiya catchment area is popular with many people choosing to live in the likes of Garhoud, Mirdif, Al Warqa and Mushrif but work in the southerly Tecom zones and beyond. Thus there will be choices to be made in terms of parking availability by potential Metro passengers currently faced with a relatively untroubled petrol engine passage along the Emirates Road.

    With high quality public transport of sufficient capacity in place there are likely to be additional methods of charging motorists, such as the expansion of the existing Salik gate toll system which has already been under close consideration. These measures will largely be aimed at both regulating driving in congested areas and also for managing car parking supply. When Dubai’s traffic congestion peaked there were serious constraints in terms of ability to do business and while this problem has been alleviated in part there are still significant improvements to be made. It can be noted that prime buildings in the central business districts are typically valued more and more by features such as parking capacity and accessibility of transport links as far as foreign investment is concerned.

    There is a school of thought that maintains considerably extended Metro associated car parking facilities will need to be subsidised by the RTA. The Mall of the Emirates (MoE) has already imposed parking charges to deter Metro users from offloading their vehicles in the MoE facility. Car ownership in the UAE has risen dramatically as wealth and population have expanded in recent years. However, hope does remain that improving transport infrastructure, such as the Metro, will eventually help bring the UAE in line with its European counterparts, such as Germany, where high car ownership levels do not automatically equate to high vehicle usage. Regular motorists living within walking distance of core networks need to be incentivised to leave the car at home and use public transport instead, but the hot summer months will become the acid test.

    Will the existence of a Dubai Metro station round the corner enrich the appeal of property assets in the vicinity in terms of prices and rental rates? Only a substantial migration to public transport and time will tell, with inner city shorter haul usage in all probability driving the first wave of demand. Certainly in Europe land prices in city districts convenient to existing or new metro access points have tended to rise in both residential and office locations.

    Public transport experts maintain that every $10 million (Dh37m) invested, modern rapid transit systems can return up to $30m in business sales alone.

    The fact that Dubai, besides the many other economy driving infrastructure fundamentals already in place, now has a thoroughly modern Metro; will certainly better position it for a new era of urban sustainability and foreign investment appeal.

    The writer is Associate Director – Research & Consultancy, CB Richard Ellis Middle East