Hopes for better employment, education, and social life opportunities have led to more and more people migrating to cities in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. As a matter of fact, the percentage of people living in urban instead of rural areas has increased dramatically from 20% in 1950 to more than 80% today, and it is estimated to surpass 90% by the year of 2050. As a result, the number of vehicles on the road has increased significantly, causing major delays that inconvenience the public. This magnifies the need for a public transit system.
Thus, the first concept of a metro system in the Kingdom was introduced in Riyadh city in 2014 with an estimated cost of $22 billion and a total length of about 176km. The Riyadh metro project impresses by being the pioneer mass transit project in Saudi Arabia and it aims to provide comprehensive coverage through multi-modal and potentially demand responsive system.
Nonetheless, more than two years later, most of Riyadh’s main streets are paralyzed from construction, which will go on for at least three more years. This mode of transportation is going to be implemented in other major cities in the Kingdom. Jeddah, for instance, has already introduced a new metro project.
Saudi cities have not experienced an efficient public transportation system yet, which raises some important concerns. First, cars are the main mode of transportation in Saudi Arabia, one which affords the users privacy and freedom to move independently, factors greatly valued in a conservative society. Saudis may not be willing to give away the freedom that cars allow. As one of the most conservative societies in the world, the Kingdom might take longer to adjust to a change from cars to public transit systems. Therefore, when building a new, massive, and expensive public transit system, the authorities should consider the future consequences, such as changes in demographics and public opinion.
In this context, Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) might be a better public commuter system for Saudi cities that are looking for an alternative to the expensive and disruptive metro system currently being built in Riyadh. Although the metro is a groundbreaking project for the Kingdom’s capital, it might not work for other cities, not the least given the huge costs it involves. This is where BRT comes in as a viable alternative.
This high-quality, efficient mass transport mode is easy to implement and adapt, and fits the Kingdom’s 2030 vision. It provides capacity and speed that is comparable with urban light and heavy rail. The BRT also has dedicated lanes, smart stations, and includes a ticketing system that allows
faster boarding and departure. Cost-wise, the Kingdom could build more than twelve Bus Rapid Transit systems for the price of one Riyadh metro project.
A point to note is that as a first public transit project, with an uncertain demand for trips, any public transit system will have to be adaptable. It is here again that the BRT comes out ahead, since it is much less expensive to build in comparison with the tracks required for the metro.
In addition, the metro system requires a higher capital cost than BRT, which might affect the expected revenues. According to Edmund Cassidy, who has worked on a variety of rapid transit projects, another transportation option is Light Rail Transit, since it’s less expensive than the metro. BRT, however, costs half of an already more affordable LRT project. The construction and development time for BRT is shorter than for LRT and metro because it can be implemented much faster. This will save more money and it won’t cause the traffic congestion and delay that the metro construction causes, either.
In 2009, bus rapid transit construction on average cost $10.9 million/km2, compared to metro costs of $92 million/km in Dubai for example3. The current Riyadh metro project costs $126 million/km, almost twelve times higher than a BRT project.
Since the oil prices went down, the Kingdom has been going through an economic slowdown marked with budget cuts. In 2016, the Saudi Vision 2030 was introduced to counter and power through such challenging periods. The vision was built around three themes: a vibrant society, a thriving economy and an ambitious nation. The purpose of this was to help the Kingdom regain better control over the economy and financial decisions. “Qawam” is one of the vision programs that was intended to increase spending efficiency and effective resource usage while limiting waste. The expected cost savings of BRT projects compared to metro projects would align well with the “Qawam” initiative.
Although it is considered to be one of the most efficient public transit systems, BRT may have some issues, such as higher operation and maintenance costs in the long run when compared to the metro system. It might also be difficult in some Saudi cities to assign lanes for BRT only. However, especially with the global recession and decline in oil prices, the benefits are like to override the cons in many cities and it is worth evaluating whether or not BRT is a viable alternative before embarking on metro projects in further Saudi cities. The Bus Rapid Transit might be a better public commuter system for Saudi cities, since it is cheaper, faster to implement, easier to adjust and evolve, and aligns with the Kingdom’s 2030 vision.