Public Transport vs. Saudi Arabia’s Car Dependence

Two Saudi Arabian cities were listed in the World Health Organization (WHO’s) 2016 list, ranking the top 15 cities with the worst air pollution, a damning indictment of the Kingdom’s air quality.

The two cities in question are Jubail (fifth-worst: 152 µg/m3 of PM 2.5) and Dammam (tied for thirteenth worst: 121 µg/m3 of PM 2.5).

A Saudi Arabian factory releases emissions into the air. The Gulf country has in the past been put on the spot for pollution and poor air quality. {Image Source: Arab News}
A Saudi Arabian factory releases emissions into the air. The Gulf country has in the past been put on the spot for pollution and poor air quality. {Image Source: Arab News}

A research report titled A Case Study on Perceptions of Public Transportation in The Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia authored by Helen Palmer Peterson and Zulfat Al Kassim attributes this to the Kingdom’s steady annual population growth.

The report points out this growth has culminated in economic strength and rapid urbanisation, which have escalated automobile traffic.

“Local studies have shown that vehicle traffic is a significant contributor to poor air quality and thus, eventually, climate change,”

REPORT: A CASE STUDY ON PERCEPTIONS OF PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION IN THE EASTERN PROVINCE OF SAUDI ARABIA

The authors observe public transport is a cure in waiting for the Kingdom’s current predicament.

Unfortunately…

The paper states past perceptions of public transport and negative connotations have poured cold water on attempts to develop a comprehensive and efficient public transport system.

Speculation is also rife that major oil producers in the country incentivize the government not to develop an efficient public transport system so that Saudis and pilgrims continue to use private vehicles which promote their fuel business.

Social dynamics in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, which is home to many affluent Saudis, are a substantial contributing factor to the country’s poor uptake of public transport. That coupled with the dire state of public transport facilities means more cars on the roads.

Peterson and Zulfat’s report quotes another study that observes even if public transport were provided, wealthier families would still prefer to drive.

“Where there is heavy use of private cars and lack of public transportation, people who cannot afford vehicles become segregated and tend to be excluded from economic opportunities, which further limits their access to equal prosperity,”

REPORT: A CASE STUDY ON PERCEPTIONS OF PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION IN THE EASTERN PROVINCE OF SAUDI ARABIA

The paper further notes a perception that public transport is only meant for individuals who cannot afford private vehicles like wageworkers which poses a considerable problem for public transport use.

Cars stuck in heavy traffic are seen in central Riyadh on March 31, 2012. {Image Source: Fahad Shadeed via Reuters}
Cars stuck in heavy traffic are seen in central Riyadh on March 31, 2012. {Image Source: Fahad Shadeed via Reuters}

The report recommends that to counter this problem, transport systems must be carefully designed to include input from different demographic groups, i.e. economic levels, ages, and genders.

This way, the systems will allow access to economic and cultural opportunities that are otherwise out of reach for individuals who do not own vehicles.

Private Car Ownership is a Huge Problem

Another research paper dubbed Riyadh History and Developing Vision authored by Majid Aldalbahi and Dr. Guy Walker makes similar observations noting that population growth and high spending power among Saudis has resulted in a massive appetite for private cars.

Due to increasing car ownership, traffic congestion is becoming a serious problem, and introducing public transport is being considered by the planning authority as a way of reducing traffic congestion and meeting the future travel requirements of the city,”

REPORT: RIYADH HISTORY AND DEVELOPING VISION

The report also points out social factors are a huge reason for low public transport ridership.

It notes that women constitute less than 9% of the total Saudi Arabian Public Transport Company (SAPTCO) ridership.

The main reasons for this are service coverage and the lack of regard for privacy in SAPTCO buses.

Jitneys (buses that offer public transport) do not carry women.

In September 2017, Saudi Arabia through a royal decree lifted the longstanding ban on women driving, a move which was lauded by human rights groups although some observers have pointed out that these reforms are only a drop in the ocean in setting the Saudi woman free.

A woman looks at her smartphone. Saudi Arabia has in the past decade lifted some draconian laws that treated its women like second-class citizens. {Image Source: Quartz}
A woman looks at her smartphone. Saudi Arabia has in the past decade lifted some draconian laws that treated its women as second-class citizens. {Image Source: Quartz}

Conversely, until August 2019, it was enshrined in law that a male guardian must accompany Saudi women for them to move around even for the shortest distances.

That law was also done away with in keeping with the kingdom’s plan to shake off the women’s oppressor tag.

Before the changes, that responsibility was designated to the woman’s husband or a relative.

The woman had to use the same private car that her male guardian was opting for.

To perform activities such as opening a bank account, a woman needed permission from the male guardian in question.

The availability of private cars is a huge reason why women avoid using public transport.

Businesswomen and school-going girls depend on taxi drivers or private chauffeurs.

Transport Statistics

The study by Helen Palmer Peterson and Zulfat Al Kassim found that only 2% of Saudi Arabia residents use public transport. It adds that 85% of urban residents rely on private cars.

Traffic jam in Riyadh, the Saudi Capital. Research shows only 2% of the Kingdom's citizens use public transport. {Image Source: Royal Hasonking}
Traffic jam in Riyadh, the Saudi Capital. Research shows only 2% of the Kingdom’s citizens use public transport. {Image Source: Royal Hasonking}

The remaining percentage is accounted for by companies and institutions which provide transport to their employees.

The study further notes that very little government or privately sponsored public transport is in place. What exists is of poor quality or inadequate.

Obligations to the Gulf Region

Another report titled Public transport system in the Gulf region, a case study of the city of Riyadh, authored by H. Al- Faleh observes that Saudi Arabia has a mandate to develop its infrastructure to serve its citizens and guests and to facilitate the movement of people and goods within the Gulf region.

“Unfortunately, Saudi Arabia does not have an efficient public transport system although the kingdom is the largest oil exporting country which provides the necessary financial means for an efficient system,”

REPORT: PUBLIC TRANSPORT SYSTEM IN THE GULF REGION, A CASE STUDY OF THE CITY OF RIYADH

Lack of planning has led to the current system, which is currently characterized by deficiencies.

Poor infrastructure planning exposes roads in Saudi cities to flooding. {Image Source: Arab News}
Poor infrastructure planning exposes roads in Saudi cities to flooding. {Image Source: Arab News}

Riyadh, Saudi’s Capital, was designed to be a compact city. Eventually, it could not cope with the massive growth in population and the consistent influx of people into the Kingdom.

How to Move Around Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is a unique country in that social, cultural, and religious beliefs contribute massively to the public transport uptake levels.

Having established that, let us take a look at the most popular means of transport in the country, including Trains, Buses, Metros, and Taxis.

Buses

The Saudi Public Transport Company (SAPTCO) operates urban bus routes in Riyadh and Jeddah.

Fares are paid via rechargeable smartcards. The smartcards cost $3, while single bus journey tickets cost less than a dollar.

Bus fleet owned by King Abdulaziz Public Bus Transport Service. Bus transport in Saudi Arabia is highly digitalized. {Image Source: Saudi Gazette}
Bus fleet owned by King Abdulaziz Public Bus Transport Service. Bus transport in Saudi Arabia is highly digitalized. {Image Source: Saudi Gazette}

Recharging of the smartcard is done via the SAPTCO app or ticket vending machines.

The company also operates an extensive network of intercity bus services throughout the country.

The most popular routes include:

Riyadh-Buraidah

Riyadh-Arar

Riyadh-Dammam

Riyadh-Mecca

Riyadh-Medina

Riyadh-Jeddah

Riyadh-Hofuf

Riyadh-Khamis Mushayt

Riyadh-Ḥaʼil, Hofuf

Riyadh-Ḥafar al-Bāṭin

Data Corner

A research paper dubbed Emerging Big Data Sources for Public Transport Planning: A Systematic Review on Current State of Art and Future Research Directions authored by Khatun E Zannat and Charisma F Choudhury published in 2019 observes that big data sourced from smart cards and mobile phones can be used to assess performance which includes bus services in Saudi Arabia.

“The use of big data is also observed in evaluating the performance of PT such as the impact of fare policy change on PT ridership and the relationship between transit fare, space, and justice,”

REPORT: EMERGING BIG DATA SOURCES FOR PUBLIC TRANSPORT PLANNING: A SYSTEMATIC REVIEW ON CURRENT STATE OF ART AND FUTURE RESEARCH DIRECTIONS

Taxis

Because of the various social factors captured in this article, taxi transport is quite popular in Saudi Arabia.

Early 2020, Saudi Arabia’s Transport Ministry made significant changes to the regulations governing taxi transport in the country.

The changes were designed to reflect Saudi Arabia’s desire to become a financial hub.

Some of the tweaked regulations include those governing maximum vehicle age, taxicab meters, and technology to communicate to passengers with limited knowledge of Arabic.

The most regulated taxis are those that operate in Riyadh. It is standard practice for cabs to have fare meters, but drivers are always open to negotiating the fare before the cab departs.

The pricing of cab fares is structured to include the base rate where the minimum fee is $1 while a passenger forks out between $0.50 and $1.00 for every kilometre covered.

Uber is the digital app with the most extensive presence in Saudi Arabia. It is available in Riyadh, Mecca, Medina, and Jeddah.

An Uber driver poses for a photo. The American digital taxi company has the largest market share in the kingdom. {Image Source: Uber}
An Uber driver poses for a photo. The American digital taxi company has the largest market share in the kingdom. {Image Source: Uber}

Careem also has good coverage in Saudi cities. Its services are available in Jeddah, Medina, and Mecca. The company operates intercity travel between these three cities.

Data Corner

International insurance company BNP Paribas Cardif in a report dubbed Big Data and Environmentally Friendly and Sustainable Transport observes that Big Data and telematics could be used to enable vehicles in Saudi Arabia to use self-diagnostic and reporting capabilities to alert the driver when a defect or incident occurs.

The paper observes that Big Data and ecology go hand in hand.

Automatic tire pressure monitoring systems are another prime example of this: under-inflation (at least 0.5 bar below recommended pressure) is not only extremely hazardous but also increases consumption by 2.4%, resulting in 58 kg of carbon emissions per year. So, Big Data makes vehicles easier to maintain and subsequently improves their performance and sustainability,”

REPORT: BIG DATA AND ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY AND SUSTAINABLE TRANSPORT

Trains

Since Saudi Arabia is a country driven by petroleum, the country’s transport infrastructure is light on the rail.

According to International Union of Railways data, by 2019, Saudi Arabia only has 2,939 kilometres of railway tracks, which is less than Serbia (3,724 kilometers) and Mozambique (3,116 kilometers).

Saudi Train makes its way through the desert. All train operations are handled by the newly formed Saudi Railways Company. {Image Source: Wikipedia}
Saudi Train makes its way through the desert. All train operations are handled by the newly formed Saudi Railways Company. {Image Source: Wikipedia}

In 2019, Saudi Arabia’s trains ferried approximately 300,000 passengers, which is 130,000 more than in Latvia.

The train station in Medina is accessible to Non-Muslims as it is situated outside Central Medina; however, the train station in Mecca is not open to Non-Muslims.

Tickets are acquired either through the company’s website or at ticketing offices located in train stations.

Data Corner

Saudi Arabia hosts the holy city of Mecca. Every year, millions of Muslims worldwide travel to the country for Hajj (the annual pilgrimage to Mecca that all believers are expected to complete at least once in their lives).

Such an influx of people requires the country’s transport system to be at its best.

A research report titled Big Data Analytics for the Development of Hajj, Umrah and the Visit in the Pursuit of the Ambitious Vision of the Kingdom in 2030 authored by Esmat Mohamed observes that, while Big Data Analytics has not been widely explored in Saudi Arabia, the technology presents a lot of solutions for the country’s transport networks.

One of the ways Big Data could be applied is to curb fraud and compliance.

“When it comes to security, it’s not just a few rogue hackers; you’re up against entire expert teams. Security landscapes and compliance requirements are constantly evolving.  Big data helps you identify patterns in data that indicate fraud and aggregate large volumes of information to make regulatory reporting much faster,”

REPORT: BIG DATA ANALYTICS FOR THE DEVELOPMENT OF HAJJ, UMRAH AND THE VISIT IN THE PURSUIT OF THE AMBITIOUS VISION OF THE KINGDOM IN 2030

Metro Systems

Saudi Arabia currently has two metro networks in Riyadh and Mecca, while another two, in Jeddah and Medina are currently under construction.

The Mecca Metro

The country opened its first metro network in Mecca in 2010. The line is known as Line S or the Al Mashaaer or Al Mugaddassah Line.

The Mecca Metro in full swing. The line only operates during the Hajj Pilgrimage. {Image Source: International Railway Journal}
The Mecca Metro in full swing. The line only operates during the Hajj Pilgrimage. {Image Source: International Railway Journal}

The 18.1 kilometre line comprises nine stations and connects the holy cities of Arafat, Muzdalifa, Mecca, and Mina and only operates during the Hajj Pilgrimage.

Although the line operates for one week every year, the metro ferries an average of 3.5 million passengers during the Hajj.

Authorities plan to build a much more extensive network with four new lines being mooted.

The Riyadh Metro

Although it is yet to be officially opened, The Riyadh Metro will be the most advanced of Saudi Arabia’s networks.

It comprises six lines and 84 stations and is expected to serve 3.6 million passengers per day and reduce car trips by 250,000.

Construction of the $22.5 billion project started in 2014. It is the second metro line constructed in Saudi Arabia.

The Riyadh Metro had been scheduled to be opened mid this year but is yet to be launched. All test runs have been completed and the line is expected to be opened soon. {Image Source: International Railway Journal}
The Riyadh Metro had been scheduled to be opened mid this year but is yet to be launched. All test runs have been completed and the line is expected to be opened soon. {Image Source: International Railway Journal}

Gulf News reported that authorities were planning to launch the metro in mid-2021, but that is yet to be realised. That said, the opening is in the offing and might happen anytime.

Data Corner

A research report dubbed Rapid Transit Systems: Smarter Urban Planning Using Big Data, In-Memory Computing, Deep Learning and GPUs authored by Muhammad Aqib, Rashid Mehmood, Ahmed Alzahrani, et al. observes that Big Data integrated with three other technologies – Graphics Processing Units (GPUs), deep learning and in-memory computing – could be used for large scale and faster prediction of metro system characteristics.

The prediction allows better spatiotemporal planning of the whole urban transport system, including the metro subsystem, and its various access and egress modes,”

REPORT: RAPID TRANSIT SYSTEMS: SMARTER URBAN PLANNING USING BIG DATA, IN-MEMORY COMPUTING, DEEP LEARNING AND GPUS

Public Transport Will Emerge Victorious

The title of this article is public transport vs Saudi Arabia’s car dependence.

The overdependence of private cars in the country is simply not sustainable.

It is not a matter of whether public transport wins but a matter of when.

The Kingdom is already updating its transit systems in Riyadh, Mecca, Medina, and Jeddah.

Proposals for two metro lines in Damman have also been fronted and are being considered.

Based on the evidence we have seen so far, we can predict that Saudi Arabia will fully embrace shared transport at some point once all the important factors are reconciled.

It will happen because mother nature can never be beaten.

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