Public transport challenges

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BY RAYNALD C RIVERA  www.thepeninsulaqatar.com

DOHA: Though Qatar has been witnessing rapid economic and demographic growth, its public transport sector seems to be lagging behind as mounting challenges beset its progress.

Before the state-owned Mowasalat transport company took the helm of the country’s public land transport system six years ago, the streets of Doha were dominated by around 2,000 orange-and-white coloured taxis catering to the country’s then 750,000-strong residents.

The Qatar Statistics Authority, in a recent report, said Qatar’s population has reached 1.7 million and is expected to grow to 2.5 million by 2020.

Despite the increase in the number of people in the country the transport company has not been seen as exerting much effort to augment its fleet to meet the surge in demand, with the number of taxis at only 2,200. The shortage of taxis is evident in the mushrooming of illegal private taxis that ply around Doha.

Hapless passengers are left with almost no choice but to hire these illegal cabs whose drivers demand more than the Karwa fare, especially outside the city, where there are virtually no Karwa taxis available to take passengers to their destinations.

While some of the drivers of illegal taxis do the work just for a few hours to earn some extra money, many of them drive full-time as they find it more lucrative than a regular job, with many customers preferring their services to that provided by Mowasalat. One reason is that many passengers find it more convenient to call a private taxi than a Karwa one. Booking a Karwa taxi has been tough for many customers as it takes a lot of time to get a call through and many times taxis are not available — another proof of the shortage.

Even Karwa drivers have devised ways to earn extra cash — by manipulating the taxi meter; not using the meter and instead asking for a higher fare; or taking multiple passengers going to different destinations on the same trip.

By changing the mode of the meter from that for normal tariff to one for outside Doha or night charge, a taxi driver can trick the passenger into paying double the usual fare. The taxi meter starts at QR4, with QR1.2 charged per kilometre during daytime inside Doha city. The running rate between 9pm and 5am in Doha is QR1.8 per kilometre. The rate outside Doha is QR1.8 per kilometre at all times.

Most Karwa taxis recently had sensors installed in the front passenger seat that automatically turn the meter on once a passenger takes the seat; however, some drivers manually switch off the meter after having the passenger agree not to use it in return for a cheaper fare, which is really not so.

Karwa drivers justify their devious methods saying the management does not provide them enough compensation to support themselves and their families back in their home countries.

On top of all this, taxi users now face an additional burden with the Mowasalat management recently announcing that taxi fares are to be increased because of inflation and high maintenance costs.

Those who wish to travel without burning a hole in their pocket have the option of riding on any of the hundreds of Mowasalat public buses plying on 57 routes inside and outside Doha. The fares are low compared to the taxis — starting from QR3 within Doha limits to QR9 for the farthest destination in the country. A passenger may also buy a two-way ticket for QR5 or a day pass for QR9 that entitles one to any number of bus rides inside the city until 12 midnight.

Currently there are 260 Karwa buses that carry 80,000 to 100,000 passengers daily, according to Mowasalat officials. Last year, a total of 24 million people used the bus service, making it one of the most popular public transport services in the country.

The frequency of the bus trips varies from one every 15 minutes to twice a day, though sometimes road works or lack of buses causes delays. The resulting inconvenience to passengers increases manifold during the summer months because many bus stops do not have any shelter and those that do provide little relief from temperatures that can reach 50 degrees Celsius.

Mowasalat had announced plans to erect air-conditioned bus shelters, but they have not seen the light of day until now.

There is another problem: the bus drivers also resort to illegal practices such as asking alighting passengers to return their ticket and issuing the used tickets to other passengers. Mowasalat has been keen to curb such practices and deploys inspectors to conduct random checks of the buses from time to time at bus stops.

This problem might become a thing of the past when an electronic ticketing system is implemented next year wherein bus passengers will pay using pre-paid smart cards instead of cash.

Compared to Dubai, which crossed the 1.8 million population mark in the first quarter this year — slightly more than Qatar’s population — this country has a long way to go in terms of improving its public land transport system.

The most populated among the seven emirates in the United Arab Emirates, Dubai boasts a large government-run transport system. While its bus system has expanded its fleet from 500 last year to more than 1,500 this year, with nearly 200 routes on weekdays, it also has a large number of taxis with state-owned Dubai Taxi Corporation running more than 3,000 taxis apart from the 4,000-plus taxis run by privately owned companies such as Cars Taxi, National Taxi, Cititaxi and Metro Taxi.

The chairman of the board of directors of Mowasalat, Jassim Saif Al Sulaiti, recently said in an interview that another taxi company was likely to be launched next year. Although this may play an important role in easing the taxi shortage, it may at the same time worsen traffic congestion.

Having a second taxi company in the city could also be a boon to the public as competition could result in lower fares and better services.

Commuting by taxi here has always been costly despite petrol being cheap; so many people find using their own car better than using public transport.

The much-anticipated Qatar rail network and Doha metro system, which have been conceived based on the success of the Dubai Metro, will be built at an enormous cost but are expected to provide numerous benefits including lower traffic congestion and an alternative means of transport for the majority of the population.

Dubai’s driverless metro, launched last year, proved successful in encouraging people to use public transport; it has seen a sharp increase in the number of passengers from an average of 35,000 daily last year to 110,000 this year.

But for Qatar there is still a long way to go as the 300-kilometre multi-billion dollar Qatar rail project, which will be constructed in several phases, is expected to be completed only by 2026.

Governments around the world have been keen to persuade more people to use public transport instead of private vehicles, as mass transport systems have many advantages, both economic and environmental.

Public transportation lessens the number of cars on the road, lowering gas emissions, easing traffic congestion and reducing an individual’s carbon footprint.

Improving Mowasalat’s services could be the best way to lure the majority of the population in Qatar to utilise public transport for the good of the country as it takes huge strides in economic development.