Today, Dubai will open the first phase of its Red Line Metro, bringing the first advanced transit system to the United Arab Emirates. The 32-mile long project runs along Sheikh Zayed Road and parallel to the waterfront, connecting downtown with the city’s artificial palm-shaped islands and reaching most of the new skyscraper districts that have come to define Dubai’s look. Yet with the economic crisis, the legendary traffic and population growth that plagued the city until as recently as last year are nowhere to be found and, as a result, the Metro’s effectiveness won’t be clear until the next market upswing. But the design of the transit network and the city as a whole put into question whether anything can be done to tame Dubai’s notoriously unfriendly pedestrian environment.
The Metro project’s price increased rapidly during four years of construction, eventually reaching $7.6 billion. These monumental costs have strained the Emirate city-state’s finances, which are already mired in debt as a result of years of speculative real estate development. But the Red Line is just the first of five planned lines; the 12-mile Green Line, which will intersect with the Red Line at two locations, will open next summer. A Purple Line connecting the city’s two airports is currently on hold. Only a new property boom will allow the city to fully implement its transit plans.
In several ways, the Dubai Metro represents the next generation of transit technologies, offering its users conveniences and comforts seen nowhere else in the world. Each of the Red Line’s 29 stations are fully climate-controlled and have track-side platform doors, a feature becoming the standard in the industry. At Union Square station underground downtown, direct cross-platform transfers will be offered between the Red and Green Lines once the latter line opens next year. Five-car trains manufactured by Kinki Sharyo, builder of light rail trains for Sound Transit and Valley Metro, are fully automatized and driverless. Each will offer three classes of service divided by carriage, with the Gold Class offering leather seats and wifi and the Silver Class providing private areas for women and children — a feature shared by the Cairo Metro. Despite its huge growth in recent years, the city-state in some ways remains attached to its Islamic fundamentalist traditions.
Dubai’s planners estimate 600,000 daily users by the end of the year and 1.8 million by 2020, when the full network is expected to open. Those forecasts seem optimistic for a city of 2.3 million unless the city’s growth streak resumes its pre-crisis momentum. But even if the legendary traffic jams on Sheikh Zayed Road are a thing of the past, the Metro will offer fast service to the city’s primary destinations, covering the route in just over an hour, with frequencies of abound three minutes. One even wonders if the five-car trains are too short to handle the city’s eventual capacity needs — despite the downturn, Dubai has successfully positioned itself as the trade center of the Middle East. The airport has quadrupled passenger movements in the past ten years alone.
But the Metro’s design is inherently incapacitated by the city’s layout. The reliance on Sheikh Zayed Road for virtually all cross-city traffic — it’s a fourteen-lane highway — has led to the construction of skyscrapers, malls, and resorts along its spine, which in turn have been built to meet the needs of drivers, not pedestrians. This is not a place through which to walk around comfortably.
The Red Line Metro’s path is mostly elevated in the median or to the side of that highway, meaning that getting to stations requires crossing the road in enclosed bridges. The rail system’s stops are quite beautiful, with golden roof-lines and fantastic interior circulation systems, but they will be out of the direct reach of most of the major buildings in the city. Compounding matters is Dubai’s relentless heat, which can reach up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the summers. The 1/2-mile radius on which American planners typically rely to design transit-oriented districts does not really apply here, because people will not want to be outside for much time at all, let alone on shadeless, empty streets. As a result, a majority of people using the Metro will take taxis or buses to their final destinations rather than walk there.
Could the Metro have been designed with more walkability in mind? Perhaps: it could have been dug under some of the skyscraper districts to provide direct access to buildings. But that would have added significant costs and likely extended the completion timeline by years.
The Metro does have some definitive merits — its downtown stations are located underground and bus connections will be provided at every stop. But the city’s administration has yet to rethink the manner in which the region is developing, even with the completion of the first phase of the Metro. This comes in opposition to Abu Dhabi, the neighboring emirate, which has spent the last few years developing a comprehensive plan to rebuild the city in a way that promotes livable, walkable neighborhoods oriented around a new metro and tramway system. Dubai’s Metro may attract high ridership, but it won’t make the city much of a nicer place to be, because the old modes of auto-focused construction will remain the de facto standard.
Image Above: Dubai Metro Station, from Flickr user saharsh