Sunday, July 19, 2015

Six years on, insights from Dubai Metro’s traffic patterns


Dubai’s metro is a success story. It radically reduced Dubai’s congestion problems and sustained the city’s position as the leading convention and business hub in the region.


Launched in 2009, Dubai’s Metro is an impressive feat. As a frequent user of the Dubai Metro, I continue to be impressed by its spotless luxurious air-conditioned stations and its driverless trains. Its platforms are closed from the tracks by doors that only open when the trains arrive, offering security measures not present in most other city metro systems.

In addition to being an engineering marvel, Dubai’s metro passenger numbers reveal a success story. In 2014, it carried over 164 million passengers, up by 19% over 2013. Passenger numbers exceeded 44 million in Q1 2015, growing by 9% over Q1 2014. Assuming one round trip per passenger per day, one can deduce that the metro served 225,078 unique passengers per day in 2014, and 243,133 unique passengers per day in Q1 2015, which amounts to 10.45% of Dubai’s population of 2.326 million people by end of 2014. 

The metro’s effect in reducing street congestion in Dubai is very clear. Assuming one daily round trip per passenger, and 2 passengers per car, the metro reduced car traffic in Dubai’s streets by over 243,000 car-trips (or 121,500 car round trips) every day in the first quarter of 2015. 

Reportedly, Dubai’s metro still does not break even. The RTA in Dubai expects it to break even and cover all operational costs by 2017. Still, the metro offers many positive economic externalities to Dubai’s economy which justifies the massive investments made in the metro system. For example, Dubai received 13.2 million tourists in 2014, up from 11 million in 2013, a growth rate of 20%. A big segment of these tourists are conferences and exhibitions attendees. The World Trade Center, which hosts most big exhibitions in Dubai, has a metro station that carried 3.76 million passengers in 2014, up from 2.67 million passengers in 2013 (a growth rate of 40%). This busy metro station that serves the exhibitions hub in the city underpins Dubai’s attraction as the leading exhibitions’ hub in the region. That attendees and delegates can arrive and leave with ease and comfort on a metro line that also passes by many hotels in Dubai underpins the city’s competitiveness as an exhibitions hub. I recall that, before the metro, during the annual GITEX technology show, one can wait more than 2 hours just to find a taxi to be later stuck in a terrible traffic jam. 

The Leisure travel tourism is also a clear beneficiary. The airport metro stations of Terminal 1 and Terminal 3 served  over 5 million passengers in 2014. Moreover, five metro stations that cater to large and mega malls (Mall of Emirates, Dubai Mall, Ibn Batuta, Burjuman and City Center) served close to 20 million passengers in 2014, reducing pressure on parking spaces and reducing street congestions. Traffic in 2014 was 19% higher than in 2013 when the metro stations of these malls served 16.3 million passengers. 

Businesses benefit too. The metro stations serving the business hubs of Dubai Internet City, Dubai Media City and Dubai Financial Center carried over 22 million passengers in 2014 up from 19.9 million in 2013, a growth rate of 12%. 

Clearly, a state of the art public transport system is a massive and expensive undertaking. The metro in Dubai is yet to break even 5 years after its launch. The relatively long payback period of such infrastructure investments, coupled with their clear positive external benefits, make them ideal candidates for long term public sector investment. Dubai metro will serve the city’s population and visitors for decades, and will eventually generate a positive return on investment as a stand-alone project. Yet its clear contribution to vital business and tourism related sectors already benefit the economy and enhance government tax receipts which justifies its construction. Finally, a successful public transit system allows the city to grow sustainably with less pollution and congestion problems. Dubai Metro’s success story should be a case study for Amman and other cities already suffering from traffic congestion. 

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