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August 11, 2014updated 19 Jul 2021 3:55pm

Saudi Arabia’s second city is building an entire public transport system from scratch

By Jonn Elledge

There’s a bit of a public transport boom going on in the Gulf at the moment. From Doha to Dubai, Mecca to Muskat, money is pouring into new metros, monorails and intercity rail networks.

One of the most ambitious plans is the one for a new, integrated public transport network in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s second city. This plan is enormous. It includes:

  • Three metro lines (blue, green and orange), linking 92 stations along 152km of track;
  • A 93km commuter rail line around the edge of the city, providing a sort of outer circle;
  • A waterfront tramway, running for 48 km along the Red Sea coast;
  • A network of boat services connecting that waterfront with Obhur Creek;
  • A new smart card ticketing system.

It’s early days yet – the Jeddah Metro Company has only just hired engineering consultancy AECOM to manage the project. But the new network is expected to open in 2022, at a cost of around SR45bn (£7bn). That’s about half the price of London’s Crossrail. Amazing how much cheaper it is to build things in a low-wage economy with a tenuous grip on human rights. (Alright, cheaper land values are probably a factor here, too.)

The motivations for this ambitious plan are straightforward enough. Jeddah is the region’s commercial capital and, as the nearest metropolis to the holy sites of Mecca and Medina, a bit of a tourist centre. The city is growing fast, and its 3.4m residents are expected to number 6m in 20 years’ time.

So far, though, the city’s relied almost entirely on cars. At the moment, 89 per cent of journeys are made by road, and just 2 per cent by public transport. (The other 9 per cent, perhaps bravely given the climate, are done on foot.) You don’t have to be a traffic engineer to guess the result of all this.

So, the new public transport system is expected to take around 30 per cent of the city’s cars off the roads. It is, in fact, part of a bigger strategic plan, covering all the land use policies and infrastructure necessary in any city that expects its population to double in a generation.

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That plan also contains a litany of buzzwords – some meaningful, some not – that’ll be familiar to anyone with an interest in this sort of thing. The Jeddah of the future, we’re told, will offer “walkable streets” within “mixed-use districts”. To speed up commuting, it’ll see the “highest land use density next to transit”. The city is described with a series of flattering adjectives, including “modern”, “hi-tech”, “sustainable” and “equitable”.

This last word jars a bit – because, with the best will in the world, Saudi society is anything but. Women are banned from driving. They’re not banned from public transport, but they’re certainly discouraged from using it, and are required to use separate entrances and sit in segregated carriages. At present, Jeddah doesn’t allow women to use its buses at all.

This is not just ethically dubious, but economically idiotic: women who work end up spending more than a third of their income on taxis. (They’re not meant to use these either, but this ban seems to go unenforced.) One result of this is that women-only shops are finding it even harder than one might imagine to stay in business.

Will any of this change under the new public transport system? Nobody seems to know: in all the detail of Jeddah’s ambitious transport plans, what provision it’ll make for this half of its population goes entirely unmentioned. 

Image: Extract from a presentation given by Ibrahim Kutubkhanah, chief executive of the Metro Jeddah Company, in 2013.

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