Moving Around Amman
Urban Crossroads #50

My last article dealt with the subject of moving around the city. The article discussed walking, as well as using public transportation, taxis, and private vehicles. It also discussed alternative transportation methods, as with sharing cars and riding bicycles.

How about moving around Amman? Let us begin with walking. I am not saying anything new by stating that it is extremely difficult and unpleasant to walk between any two points in Amman. Just to make sure, a few days ago I asked my nine-year old daughter to walk with me to a nearby shop to buy a few items. The experience was an adventure, to say the least. We rarely walk, and usually drive when we need to go anywhere, even to locations that are very close by. Our recent walk together provided us with a strong reminder as to why we do so. Soon after we started walking, we reached a major street that is close to our home, and we needed to cross it since the shop is located at the other side of the street. My daughter told me I must be crazy to even think about crossing the street, but I told her we should be adventurous and give it a try. She was right. We went through a five-minute hair raising experience of waiting for the fast moving cars to pass by before we were able to cross to the median in the middle of the street, and from there we waited for another few minutes as vehicles zipped right by us before we were able to cross to the other side of the street. Other than that, we had to walk by rubbish thrown all over the place and by piles of building debris. We continuously had to maneuver our way along dysfunctional sidewalks with poor paving that often is dangerous to walk on, regularly interrupted stretches of sidewalks and changing sidewalk heights, trees in the middle of narrow sidewalks, and cars parked on the wider stretches of sidewalk.

What is ironic and sad about all of this is that services usually are located quite close by to where one lives in Amman. In the area where I live, for example, there is no shortage of stores located within walking distance that sell most of our daily needs. However, the experience of walking to those stores simply is too dangerous and unpleasant. We also are blessed in Amman with very moderate year-round weather. Considering all of this, it truly is a shame that Amman is not a pedestrian friendly city.

What about other forms of transportation? Let me answer this question with another anecdote. A new colleague - an engineer who graduated from university this summer - recently joined us at work. She does not own a car, and has been facing problems commuting between her home and work. During the summer period, she sometimes has to wait up to fifty minutes before she can find a taxi. Also, she pays an average of 1.6 JD each way (before the recent hike in gasoline prices) whenever she takes a taxi between her home and work, which are about 10 kilometers apart. When you multiply the taxi fare by two for a round trip, and consider that the average person goes to work 20 times a month, this would amount to 64 JD per month. Since a newly graduating engineer in Jordan such as my colleague makes somewhere between 300 and 350 JD per month, this amounts to 17% to 20% of her per-tax monthly salary. This is too large a percentage to have to pay simply to go to and from work.

I asked her if she ever uses public transportation, and she said that during her last two years in high school and during her first two years of college, there was a decent bus line that passed close to her house. The bus fair was reasonable, the buses were well-maintained, and a bus passed by every 10 minutes. With time, however, the level of maintenance suffered, and the buses became dirty and rundown. She also had to start waiting for over 30 minutes before a bus passed by, which meant that they became very crowded. This is uncomfortable for all, and especially for women in our society. She said that as a result, she has not used public transportation at all for over three years. She actually has less of a problem with transportation than many others, such as those whose salaries are lower than hers, and therefore have to spend an even larger percentage of that salary on commuting to and from work, or those who live at one edge of Amman and have to commute to work all the way to the other edge.

Considering that she already is paying a large amount of her salary to take taxis to and from work, and considering the inconveniences of using taxis (you cannot always find one when you need it; some drivers can be rude or reckless in their driving), she decided the best option would be to buy her own car. Since she understandably is worried about buying a used car because of the constant repairs a bad used car might require, she decided to go for a new car. She looked at the most affordable one she could find, but even for this, she will need to take a loan that will eat up about half of her monthly salary for a few years. She finally will have the flexibility of using a car whenever she wants. However, this will cost her a great deal of money. What that great deal of money will get her is the opportunity to drive in what has become a highly-congested city - often stuck behind vehicles blowing poisonous vehicle emission smoke in your face - and to share the streets with the many aggressive and inconsiderate drivers of Amman. What a deal!

Obviously, getting around Amman is no easy task. This also applies to getting around the country, where again, no adequate public transportation systems exist, and the driving habits along our highways are terrifying. However, this is another story.

We clearly need to completely rethink transportation policies or strategies in Amman and in the country, assuming any exist. Walking is too dangerous and uncomfortable. Most people cannot afford to use taxis alone. Public transportation, which should be the primary form of transportation for most in any large city, has deteriorated over the past years into a system of socio-economic differentiation, and no one who can afford other means of transportation uses it. Driving is a truly unpleasant experience considering the levels of congestion and the dangerous driving conditions in the city.

I recently read that as a solution to traffic congestion and rising gasoline prices, the importation of scooters will be allowed in Jordan after being banned for decades. In principle, scooters are very appropriate for getting around the city. They do not take much space, and they consume relatively little gas. However, it is very reasonable to assume that those on scooters in Amman will be no more responsible in their driving than those in larger vehicles. When we add the ingredient of scooters with their drivers irresponsibly zipping between cars to the aggressive driving habits of a good number of Amman's drivers, and I shudder to think of the consequences.

Mohammad al-Asad

October 6, 2005