Public Transportation
Urban Crossroads #6

A street in Amman seen from inside a taxi car. (The JordanTimes)

A street in Amman seen from inside a taxi car. (The JordanTimes)

A street in Amman seen from inside a taxi car. (The JordanTimes)

A city is as good as its public transportation system. A good public transportation system is one that covers as much of the city as possible. It is one for which stops along routes are regular and frequent, and for which routes and their schedules are easy to understand by users. Of course, a public transportation system also should be clean and safe.

An effective public transportation system provides the inhabitants of the city with access to its various areas. It allows access for people who cannot drive, those known as the "transportation disadvantaged": the under-aged, the elderly, those who cannot afford a car or taxi, those with physical impairments. There also are people who simply prefer not to drive. Public transportation provides all of them with mobility, which they otherwise would not have; mobility to reach places of employment, education, culture, and recreation.

Public transportation is a far more cost-effective and efficient way of moving people than the private automobile. The next time you stop at a traffic light, count the number of people in each of the passing vehicles. You will notice that the majority of cars have only one person inside them: the driver. A good-sized bus, on the other hand, can accommodate over 50 people, and in many cases has all of its seats occupied. The more people use public transportation rather than private automobiles, the less traffic congestion and air pollution we would have.

Public transportation provides a healthy way of interacting with the city, in contrast to the automobile. The automobile transforms the city into isolated points of use. Those in a car move between places of residence, work, shopping, or recreation at relatively high speeds, isolated from the areas between those locations. When using public transportation, one usually needs to walk a few minutes to reach a public transportation stop, and another few minutes after getting off a public transportation vehicle to reach the point of destination. Walking is the best way of interacting with the city, and public transportation provides for increased pedestrian activity. On a related note, a good and heavily used public transportation system brings together the people of the city, irrespective of their gender, age, or socio-economic status.

Amman used to have a reasonable public transportation system, which was based on the "service" system, the white cars that follow specific routes and take up to five passengers. Each route connected the downtown area to a location in the surrounding hills. If you wanted to go from Jabal Hussein to Jabal Amman, for example, you would take a "service" car to the downtown area, and from there you would walk a few minutes to a "service" line that takes you to Jabal Amman. Everybody used it: the young and old, the women and men, the rich and poor. The users included the affluent merchants of Amman, who would take "service" cars to commute between their houses in the hills and their shops downtown. The system worked well. However, when Amman grew during the 1970s beyond the immediate hills surrounding the downtown area, the "service" system did not keep up with that growth.

The situation is very different today. Public transportation in Amman has come to embody a system of economic differentiation. If you have the money, you buy your own car or use a taxi. If not, you use public transportation. In this context, it is interesting to note that 55% of workers in New York City use the bus or subway to get to and from work, and we know how much Americans love their cars. These users include the bank executive and the bank janitor. Ironically, available statistics indicate that only 30% of people use public transportation in Jordan. Obviously, this is not a healthy situation. Public transportation should play a more active role in transporting the people of Amman.

Options such as the subway and light rail are not economically feasible for Amman. The city has become widespread enough that the financial costs of installing any of the two systems would be prohibitively expensive. As in many cities in the world, a good bus system remains the most cost-effective public transportation mode. In order to make Amman's existing bus system more efficient and attractive to various segments of society, there is a need to provide more, better, and cleaner buses; to provide clear and easily accessible information about bus routes and their schedules; to provide more frequent and regular intervals between successive buses on a given route; and to provide well-designed bus stops at adequately placed locations. In addition, when the street width allows, a street lane may be dedicated to buses, which provides some relief to those buses from surrounding traffic congestion. In some cities, complete street have been turned over exclusively to buses. Finally, a most effective, though unorthodox, means of improving bus service in Amman probably would be to encourage or even require high level government officials to use public buses for their daily commutes to and from work.

Mohammad al-Asad

May 27, 2004