Why don't we Build a Metro Instead?

هذه المقالة متوفرة باللغة العربية أيضا.

 

Ali Attari

July 2017

A new video visualizing the possibility of one day having a metro in Amman has recently gone viral. The video, which superimposed Arabic text and pictures of Amman on footage of other operational metros around the world imagines a scenario that many Jordanians dream of. This plea to build the Amman metro is supported by an idea that has been entertained by different decision makers in the country, most recently former Amman mayor Aqel Beltaji. While I would like to see Amman served by a metro some day, the reality remains that a metro project would require an absurdly long time to implement, and an enormous financial investment that may reach up to twenty times the investment required for the Amman Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project that is expected to be running by 2019.

The Center for the Study of the Built Environment (CSBE) recently prepared an informational animation about the Amman BRT project that highlights some of the key differences between metro and BRT projects (see below). Amman’s current situation is defined by an overwhelming reliance on taxis and personal vehicles to meet the mobility needs of its residents, with less than 15% of those needs being fulfilled by public transportation. This is cause for alarm in a city of more than four million inhabitants. Moreover, it is a city where the number of cars is rising about 8 - 10% per year. A decent public transportation system is considered an integral part of any functional city, and allows for better connectivity and accessibility for all segments of society. There is an urgent need for restructuring Amman’s transportation system, and this means focusing on the more realistic option for the city, which is the BRT project.

 

The Amman BRT’s troubled history attracted a lot of negative attention because of the financial corruption and mismanagement accusations that led to a halt in its construction for five years. This has caused many to be overly critical of the project, and to view it with skepticism at best. Construction was resumed in 2016 after investigations found that most of these accusations were void of any truth.

Metro systems are known for their large capacities and uninterrupted travel. Since they are underground, they do not interfere with street-level traffic networks, and this allows both to take on a larger capacity of people without interfering with each other. These advantages unfortunately come at a hefty price because of the substantial infrastructure and time investments required to realize a metro. For example, the recently inaugurated New York City Second Avenue subway line was proposed around a century ago, cost an estimated $4.4 billion for 3.2 km of tunnel, and took over a decade to construct. In Greece, the €3.5 billion Thessaloniki Metro project was expected to open in 2016, but the date had to be pushed back until 2020 due to significant archaeological remains that were found along its path, which is an issue that is likely to also appear in Amman. This does not mean that all metro projects face these problems. Cities such as Dubai and Beijing have been able to construct parts of their networks in record time. There are many reasons for the discrepancies we see in the time required for completion between the different metro projects being constructed, one of which is bureaucratic processes, which often collide with the political will (or lack thereof) to initiate a metro project. In some cases, other barriers appear such as having to work around existing infrastructure networks, or having to deal with problems of mismanagement. 

Much like a metro, a BRT system employs a strict operating schedule that is supported by electronic ticketing and quick passenger processing. Instead of being underground, a BRT system runs along street level, but on its own dedicated lanes, thus requiring minor infrastructural interventions. The infrastructure required for a BRT system comes at the cost of road-space for cars, but such a system is able to cater to a larger amount of people in comparison.  It employs double-buses (also known as articulated buses) that can accommodate up to 150 passengers (i.e. replace the equivalent of 110 cars), and offers high-frequency arrivals, which means that users do not have to wait long for the next bus to come. At a total cost of JD 172.5 million, the BRT project offers a viable public transportation system that costs a fraction of the price of a metro. Metro operations and maintenance are also far more costly than those of a BRT system, which will result in higher ticket prices and negatively impact accessibility.

It is difficult to envision a realistic plan for a Amman metro in the foreseeable future simply because of its exorbitant cost. Amman is in urgent need of a functional public transportation system, and the BRT system offers an affordable solution that can be implemented relatively quickly (one of course should disregard the period during which it was on hiatus because of political reasons). A metro would be a great long-term project for Amman, but it should not come at the expense of the ongoing BRT project. 

My thanks go to Mohammad al-Asad for his feedback in developing this article, and to Yasmine Abuzeid for creating the image used in it.

Graphic by Yasmine Abuzeid

Graphic by Yasmine Abuzeid