Photo courtesy of Mark McCarthy
The city of Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, is known for pushing the limits of design and technology. Home to the world’s tallest skyscraper, first luxury underwater hotel, and largest mall, the city recently added the world’s longest driverless metro system to its list of impressive attractions. Historically, a strong economy drew foreigners and investors to be a part of Dubai’s rapid growth. Traffic congestion and insufficient transit services prompted city officials to begin designing and developing a state-of-the-art metro system in 1997, to improve mobility and provide an alternative to driving. After four years of construction, Dubai’s metro opened in September 2009.
Dubai’s metro is impressive. The Red Line is 32.5 miles long (the CTA Red Line is 21 miles long) and is estimated to carry 32,000 passengers per hour. Taxis, bicycles, buses, and water taxis provide feeder services to the rail network, and the managing agency built three park-and-ride facilities along the line capable of accommodating 6,000 cars each. Dubai’s metro operates five-car trains, with a standard silver class, women and children only, and first-class gold section for VIP passengers. Trains arrive every 90 seconds and travel an average of 67 miles per hour. Retail opportunities along the corridor maximize station use, and on-board Wi-Fi networking allows passengers to stay connected.
While the costly new service will reduce some of the city’s congestion problems, Dubai is not immune to the world’s economic situation. The city known as the economic superpower of the Middle East has seen real estate prices crash, and hundreds of major construction projects put on hold or canceled altogether. A city built on its reputation in real estate, finance and tourism, today’s Dubai is a much different story from when the metro system was conceived. While 29 metro stations and two lines were scheduled to open this year, only one line and 10 stations were ready for the inaugural event. The total system cost $7.5 billion — 75 percent more than originally estimated.
Some people have criticized the metro for being more of a novelty attraction than a means of transport for commuters. Rather than connecting people with job centers or to housing complexes, Dubai’s metro provides service to the largest shopping center and other tourist attractions. Fuel prices are low and car ownership is high. Dubai’s completed metro system still has to prove it can attract a consistent level of commuters and compete with the personal vehicle.
Back at home, we can learn from the lessons of Dubai’s metro. By evaluating the way limited dollars are being spent, we can maximize the benefits of our transportation investments. When we connect people to destinations and provide reliable and predictable services, cities can gain the many benefits of transit, including cleaner air, shorter commutes, less congestion, and more efficient land use practices. In Illinois, HB4590, the Transportation Investment Accountability Act, encourages a system of evaluation for all new transportation projects in the state to achieve these benefits and more.
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