Linking the Cities of Jordan
Urban Crossroads #88



My December article dealt with Amman’s rapid growth and the necessity of developing Jordan’s other cities as nodes of population attraction. Otherwise, the country’s urban scene eventually may end up consisting of an unmanageable megapolis and a series of smaller urban centers that lack the necessary resources and features to support urban life of a decent quality.

In a country where the capital city continues to occupy a highly central and dominating role, diverting population growth towards other urban centers is an uphill task, but remains attainable. To further elaborate on this, consider the cities of Jordan - other than Amman - with populations of over 100,000 residents. According to the most recent numbers published by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs, these are Irbid (about 450,000 residents), Zarqa (440,000 residents), Ruseifa (230,000 residents), Salt (110,000 residents), and Madaba (110,000 residents). Aqaba recently surpassed the 100,000 population mark as its population was about 98,500 in 2007, but has been growing at a very rapid rate.

Some interesting remarks may be made about those cities (excluding Aqaba, to which I will return later in the article). Between them and Amman (which has around 2.5 million inhabitants), they house somewhere between two thirds to three quarters of the country’s population (the ratio increases when including the numerous smaller towns located near them). These cities surround Amman from all directions and are relatively close to it. Ruseifa is less than twenty kilometers away from Amman, Zarqa and Salt are less than thirty kilometers, Madaba is less than forty kilometers, and Irbid, the farthest of the group from Amman, is separated from it by eighty-five kilometers, or about an hour’s drive.

Because of this geographic clustering and proximity in relation to Amman, creating an integrated transportation system that effectively connects all these cities is a highly realistic and worthwhile goal. In fact, it may be argued that a most important first step towards achieving a level of equality between those cities and Amman is guaranteeing ease of accessibility. Anyone living in Jordan is in need of easy access to Amman, and would rightly feel marginalized when such access is not available. This access is needed as so many of Jordan’s institutions are located in the capital, whether it is centralized government departments, retail, entertainment, cultural, and health facilities, headquarters of local companies and country branches of foreign companies, a well-connected international airport, or embassies.

An effective, well-functioning transportation system that connects these urban centers is not difficult to imagine. In numerous European countries, highly-efficient, easy-to-use rail systems that link similar groupings of cities are commonplace. If a comprehensive transportation strategy is developed and implemented to connect these cities with Amman, a major disadvantage and liability of not living in Amman would be neutralized. In fact, some people then may even prefer to live in those cities rather than in Amman for various reasons, whether it is lower housing costs, proximity to relatives, or to avoid Amman’s more hectic pace of daily life. Cities such as Salt, Irbid, and Madaba also have the advantages of being surrounded by pleasant natural landscapes and including or being located in proximity to sites of great historical importance.

True, Jordan has a decent road system covering much of the country, but even the best road systems are not sufficient to serve the transportation needs of any populated geographic area, and need to be combined with rail transportation (as well as air transportation in cases of low population densities and vast geographic distances). Considering the proximity of almost all of Jordan’s large cities to Amman, a light rail system linking them, coupled with a combination of bus and light rail systems for inner city travel would be most adequate (light rail has lower capacity and lower speed than conventional rail systems, usually uses electric rail cars, and operates mostly in isolation from other traffic in the city but, if necessary, can be mixed with it).

Rail transportation systems are far more efficient than even the best road systems; they have a significantly higher carrying capacity and consume less energy. For example, a single railroad box car can carry as much cargo as three trucks, and trains can transport the same tonnage of cargo for the same distance as trucks using only one ninth the energy. Since they are not exposed to the congestion and dangers brought about by other vehicles on the road, they are safer, more reliable, and also can move passengers in large urban areas at much faster rates than roads, particularly at peak hours. These various advantages more than offset the significant capital and maintenance costs required for rail systems.

Developing a rail system linking Amman with the cluster of cities surrounding it will provide a cost-effective infrastructure investment. Such an investment would greatly contribute to achieving considerable stabilization in the country’s population distribution, and would effectively address and neutralize the issue of accessibility to Amman. It of course should be implemented as part of an integrated set of interventions such as putting in place green belts of forests and farmland to protect cities from urban sprawl, as well as developing the economies and public services available in urban centers outside the capital.

In this context, the large-scale multi-use urban developments taking place in Zarqa and the light rail system planned to connect it to Amman are of special importance. These initiatives will provide easy access between Amman and Zarqa, and also will enhance the quality of life in Zarqa through projects that address a range of issues including housing needs, employment opportunities, and the overall quality of the urban fabric. Once completed and functioning, these projects will provide very valuable lessons on how to proceed with similar initiatives that include the other major urban centers surrounding Amman.

The situation with Aqaba, the sixth Jordanian city other than Amman with a population of over 100,000 residents, is different. Located at the country’s southern edge, over 350 kilometers away from Amman, it does not benefit from proximity to the capital as do the country’s other sizable urban centers. However, its position as Jordan’s only sea port (and by extension, the country’s only coastal city), which also serves other countries in the region, provides it with a unique economic role and consequently a level of economic independence from the capital. It therefore presents a separate node of development that can generate considerable sustainable economic activity in the southern part of the country. The establishment of the Aqaba Special Economic Zone very much has aimed at building on the city’s unique characteristics.

Still, as with other cities in Jordan, Aqaba also requires easy access to Amman. Even though the city is growing at a fast pace and the quality as well as quantity of services and amenities available in it are improving rapidly, its inhabitants still feel disadvantaged by their distance from Amman. An anecdotal indication of this is how many of the professionals who have taken on well-paying, high-quality employment opportunities in Aqaba still maintain their permanent living base in Amman, and their families usually remain in Amman.

Again, a first step towards addressing this situation is resolving the issue of access between the two cities. The one to two daily flights linking Amman and Aqaba are far from enough to provide such easy continuous access. Even though two highways (one four lanes, the other two lanes) currently connect the two cities, road modes of transportation, as discussed above, remain insufficient and need to be combined with rail transportation. Admittedly, a 350-kilometer rail link between Amman and Aqaba will be costly, but at least a good part of the infrastructure for it already has been laid down through the Hijaz Railway and the rail line connecting Aqaba to the phosphate mines in Hasa and al-Abyad. Creating an Amman–Aqaba passenger rail line will provide a worthwhile long-term national investment project. The line not only would connect two important centers of economic activity, but also would greatly benefit the towns and cities located along it.

Considerable research and data collection will need to be carried out before embarking upon such ambitious national transportation projects. More needs to be known regarding issues such as the number of daily trips currently taken between the country’s various cities, the cost of these trips to passengers, the governmental subsidies provided to support them, who takes them, and why they are taken (work, business, to visit family, …). Projections also need to be made regarding the potential growth for these trips. I expect that the results not only will bring attention to the importance of these projects, but also to their urgent necessity.

Mohammad al-Asad

January 08, 2009