Mind games on the Metro

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    DUBAI // To most people, it will be a handy new way of getting around the city.

    But for sociologists and transport psychologists eagerly awaiting its opening on Sept 9, the Dubai Metro will be a giant, mobile laboratory of human behaviour.

    Leading transport psychologists are already in touch with universities in the UAE and the Gulf, hoping to find partners to collaborate on studies of how a new Metro system affects a city’s development – and how it might change the outlook of the people who live there and their relationships with one another.

    Speculation is that taking the Metro could lead to a less stressed commuting population that is better read and more comfortable mixing with different social groups.

    The Dh15.5 billion (US$4.2bn) driverless railway is on target for the September opening of its Red Line. At rush hours, up to 40 trains an hour are expected along the 52km of track, which stretches the length of Sheikh Zayed Road from Al Rashidiya to Jebel Ali, stopping at 29 stations including Burj Dubai, Business Bay and Dubai International Airport.

    Most of the trip – 44km, is on a raised viaduct, but 4.7km are underground and 3.3km at ground level. The Green Line is expected to open in March 2010, when 18 stations will serve the 22.5km of track, of which nearly 8km will run underground.

    Richard Wener, professor of environmental psychology at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, has already contacted NYU Abu Dhabi and the Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar.

    “It’s an incredible opportunity,” he says. “The opening of a new system is a great opportunity for research. NYU is opening a campus in Abu Dhabi and they have all sorts of research and teaching opportunities. I was hoping I could find a partner to conduct a study somewhere in the UAE.”

    Another awaiting the arrival of the trains with enthusiasm is Dr Jens Schade, of the Technische Universitaet Dresden in Germany, who specialises in transport psychology.

    “Dubai would make a good case study and would be very interesting to follow,” he says.

    “We have so many cities with problems, like China who now have so many cars who came from a mass transport system and may have to go back to other means of transport and Dubai is the opposite.”

    All the experts agree the Metro will benefit city-dwellers hugely – provided they can be persuaded to abandon their cars. This, they say, is one of the challenges facing the Roads and Transport Authority (RTA).

    “If you do something every day, it is very difficult to change that,” says Dr Schade. Opportunities arise when people move to a different city and have to consider which form of transport will be best for getting to work, but “if you do one of these things already, it is very difficult to change”.

    In Dubai, he says, people are accustomed to travelling by car: “They will need a very strong nudge to use the rail system.”

    The RTA is working hard to provide that nudge, making sure the Metro will be as easy to use as possible, including offering a unified prepaid card that can be used across a range of public transport – the Metro, buses and water taxis. By the time the Red Line opens, 33 bus routes will feed its 29 stations, with a maximum target waiting time for a bus of 10 minutes.

    The aim, said Peyman Younes Parham, director of the RTA’s marketing and corporate communication department, recently, was to make using the Metro as easy as possible. For example, radio-chip technology will allow customers to pay by swiping their mobile telephones at the turnstile.

    Currently, the Dubai commuter has no option other than to sit it out in the city’s notorious traffic. Twice daily, there are tailbacks on one of the city’s most important arteries, Sheikh Zayed Road. Running alongside, the Red Line should appear as a lifeline – and yet it is not clear how many people will take it.

    “There is so much congestion in so many countries and people are used to it,” says Dr Schade.

    “It is like rain in Ireland, nobody complains about it.”

    Yet previous studies around the world have offered evidence of the clear benefits of rail travel over commuting by car. Between March 2002 and August 2005, Prof Wener and other researchers studied commuters travelling between New Jersey and Manhattan. It had, they wrote in a report entitled “Leave the driving to them”, “long been theorised that there may be significant health risks for individuals who commute to work by driving in congested conditions. Conversely, it is widely thought that there may be commensurate benefits to individuals who take public transportation”.

    And that was what they found.

    Stress was one factor; despite the perception that drivers are more in control of their own destiny, the study found that people who commuted by car “showed significantly higher levels of reported stress, more negative mood, indicated the trip was significantly more effort, and felt that their trip was significantly less predictable compared to train commuters”.

    The reality was that for drivers the “commute takes more effort and is less predictable”.

    Train commuters were also fitter. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a basic daily fitness regime of walking 10,000 steps. The study discovered that train commuters walked an average of 30 per cent more steps every working day than drivers – and that more than 40 per cent walked at least 10,000 steps a day, compared with just over 14 per cent of car commuters.

    Rail travel can also have a benefit for employers – and for the economy. Previous studies, said the report, had shown that, “Commuting by car has been found to elevate physiological markers of stress parameters”, such as blood pressure and the production of mood-altering hormones, and could lead “to increased absenteeism, reduced job satisfaction and decreased task motivation”.

    Stress is a factor all too familiar to drivers in Dubai; nevertheless, they feel the best option is to drive because they think they have more control over where they want to go.

    In fact, found Prof Wener, you lose control by driving. You can’t turn off and change your route, any route you take will be jammed.

    Then there is the predictability of the commute. “Predictably is a type of cognitive control. When something is predictable, you can get your mind around it and prepare for what is coming.”

    His study found the train to be far more predictive than driving. “If it is late, it’ll be late by only a few minutes and you know within a few minutes of when you will be arriving. Whereas in a car, you leave home and the route seems reasonably open, it takes 30 to 40 minutes. The next day it takes two hours and there is no rhyme or reason to it.”

    The difficulty, says Dr Schade, is that the car is not just a functional tool: “It is a status symbol and it shows my status, and my wealth in general. That is the problem. I think it will be very difficult to get people into the rail, even if there are big advantages with time and whatever.”

    Nevertheless, some are predicting that wide social changes could arrive with the trains. For one thing, people will find themselves with time on their hands and could start to read far more than they have before.

    “I find on the train, I get most of my reading and frankly most of my work done,” says Prof Wener. “Sometimes I have a better period of work on the train than I would in the office. You can close your eyes and put the earphones in. It is a great private period.”

    One Dubai-based clinical and forensic psychologist believes that over time the railway will change the city in subtle but significant ways. For one thing, he says, people from sections of society who previously have never mixed will find themselves sitting alongside one another.

    “Psychologically it will [lead] to a balance in society as people become more acquainted with such cultural integration, through transportation,” says Dr Raymond Hamden. “It will also influence where people sit in the workplace or in a restaurant.”

    The city, he says, “will inherit that predicable benefit; no matter what the reason it gets started, it will have psychosocial benefits”.

    There will be a limit to the social mixing on the metro, which will have three classes of carriage: Gold, Ladies and Family and Silver. Prices have yet to be announced but according to the RTA they will be affordable. “The Metro will be split into three zones and [customers] pay one price within that zone. As you travel outside it, you will pay a little more,” says Mr Parham.

    Whatever the social impact of the Metro, the RTA is banking on it clearing Dubai’s car-hardened arteries: “We cannot afford for people not to ride it,” says Mr Parham. “The whole movement of Dubai will be pinned on the Metro.”

    Eugene Harnan  www.thenational.ae