Public transport system a priority

One sunny day in January 2008, I was astonished to find that the lecture "Lessons not to learn from American cities", had pulled many policymakers, academics and students at the LKY School of Public Policy in Singapore.

There, Harvard's Alan Altshuler, himself a former transportation secretary, made a persuasive case for public transportation, arguing that nations should not a leaf from the US, where the state of national public transport was deplorable largely due to Detroit Three's private interests dominating the public interests.

The event changed my worldview. To address traffic's structural issues, Oman needs to prioritize establishing a public transportation system rather than keep relying on the supply-side economics.

Rise in population tallies with commuting needs for work or leisure. Oman has witnessed staggering growth in population in recent years, largely due to high influx of expatriates roughly correlating with the country's economic output.

In last three years, the compound annual growth rate of expats has been 30 per cent against 4 per cent of the nationals, resulting in aggregate reaching 3.9 million from 2.7 million.

Commuting needs — sans public transport — translate to higher demand for private transportation. Statistics show that around 10,000 new vehicles hit the roads each month.

The ever-shrinking road space causes traffic congestions and accidents, drains productivity, time and energy, and increases carbon footprint. Conventional wisdom suggests increasing road capacity as the antidote to declining road space.

Unfortunately, this supply-side prescription does not address the view that increasing the road capacity will improve the road-space in short-term, however, would be unsustainable without arresting the demand.

This does not mean that new roads should not be built; rather, they should be paved to increase road coverage, not capacity, to connect remote areas with the main arteries.

In short, Oman needs to reduce demand for private transportation by establishing a public transportation system, backed by an ecosystem of integrated mass- and light-rapid trains, feeder buses, accessible taxis, and friendly walkways for pedestrians and bicycles.

The thesis for Muscat Metro is simple: (a) Muscat Governorate hosts 1.2 million, 30 per cent of the entire country; and (b) while spatial population density for Oman is variable and low (partly due to land endowment), it is 300 persons per square kilo meter for the Muscat Governorate — over 20 times the national metric. In sum, Oman needs localised, intra-city or intra-Governorate solutions for traffic management. I know some will picture the ambitious Oman Rail project, which intends to connect the governorates, and Oman with GCC Railway grid with Muscat Metro.

Not exactly. First, Oman Rail's preliminary designs show that its objectives, although erstwhile, are different; they intend to primarily serve logistics sector's goods. Second, it shall carry commuters, but long-haul. The Muscat-Sohar route has nine inter-city passenger stations, however only two fall within Muscat Governorate. It defies the spatial population needs.

 "A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars; it's where the rich use public transportation," argues Enrique Penalosa, the mayor who pioneered  public transportation in Bogotá.

The author is a freelance contributor based in Muscat. All the views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of Times of Oman.


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