Dubai metro train stands at a platform. Source: iStock.

+ World class cities need world class public transport infrastructure to support their rapid growth, to avoid chronic traffic congestion, and to support the development of healthy and vibrant communities.

When travelling on the Dubai Metro recently, I was struck by an overwhelmingly positive feeling about the future of sustainable transport in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The gleaming new system is a fantastic asset for the city, which I am sure will provide a focus for a new model of sustainable development.  It certainly gives the opportunity to break from past patterns of unsustainable, car-dependent urban growth in the country. 

The main cities of the UAE, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, have a history of sprawling, low density development, driven by the construction of excessive highway infrastructure and relatively low costs of motoring.  But to their credit, the visionary leaders of these Emirates now understand that world class cities need world class public transport infrastructure to support their rapid growth, to avoid chronic traffic congestion, and to support the development of healthy and vibrant communities. 

In Dubai, this led to the opening of the 52km Metro Red Line in 2009, followed last year by the 23km Green Line.  The Metro has been an overwhelming success, supported by three park-and-ride stations, a network of feeder buses, and the Salik road toll system. It has carried over 100 million passengers since its opening and is now operating close to capacity during peak hours. Work on the stalled 15km Al Sufouh Tram is also progressing again with new contracts being awarded in recent months. 

In Abu Dhabi, recent announcements that preliminary design is proceeding on 18km of Metro, 40km of Light Rail Transit lines, and a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) loop indicates a positive commitment to public transport investment from the city’s leadership.  

I accept there’s still a long way to go. It will take time for development to intensify around stations, as reluctant developers begin to realize the benefits of accessibility to public transport, including increased land values.  

The pedestrian environment needs extensive remodeling to overcome current barriers to access. To meet this challenge, the Dubai RTA are developing ‘Pedways’ (elevated or underground walkways) which will link Metro stations to surrounding buildings, providing a good basis for these improvements. 

Local bus networks need to become the foundations of the public transport network.  And the culture of excessive car use needs to change to one of balanced use of sustainable modes. The new wave of speed cameras, paid parking zones and the ubiquitous parking wardens on their electric scooters is certainly making people think twice about their travel choices!

There is still work to do. But riding a clean, modern Dubai Metro train through the old town, or walking through a state-of-the-art station adorned with wonderful public art promoting a strong cultural identity of the city, one cannot help but admire the vision of the leadership and see a positive future for sustainable urban transport in the UAE.