Transport has become a priority component in 'smart cities', as they embrace a vision including automated vehicles and rail systems that can travel at or above the speed of sound.
Most GCC nations have placed implementation of smart cities in some shape or form at the heart of their future development plans.
As they are growing rapidly, cities such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha and Riyadh have had to put smart city plans in place to create a sustainable future. And mobility is a key component of any integrated smart city vision and implementation plan.
“When cities start thinking about becoming ‘smarter’ and more resilient and sustainable, they usually start with mobility and security as two of the priority areas in their smart city roadmap,” says Hazem Galal, PwC Middle East partner and global leader for PwC’s Cities and Local Government Sector team.
Over $21bn of transport projects are forecast for the 2016-17 period in the UAE, according to John Greaves, secretary-general of the Last Mile Consortia and chairman of the upcoming NATRANS Expo in Abu Dhabi.
Investment in Dubai is driven by Expo 2020, while Abu Dhabi’s strategy is in line with its Surface Transport Master Plan.
Investing in transport is considered to be more beneficial that many other types of public investment, because it enables many other things to develop in a city — and the same is true of 'smart' transport.
“If you invest in making the movement of people and goods easier, then you’re enabling many other types of social and commercial activity,” says Akin Adamson, Middle East director at Transport Research Laboratory.
Abu Dhabi and Dubai in particular have been leading the way when it comes to smart transportation, and are much further down the road in terms of investment and infrastructure than their GCC neighbours.
Aside from the Dubai Metro and Tram systems in Dubai, the two emirates have also invested in smart technology to enhance safety on the roads.
Authorities in Dubai are envisioning a city where all of its resources — including smart transportation — are optimised for maximum efficiency.
“Many years ago, there were quite a few horrific accidents that happened because of fog,” says Galal.
“Both cities, especially Abu Dhabi, took the lead on this by implementing sensors so that when there are [worsening] fog conditions, you are using the sensors and predictive analytics to really start making sure that you’re putting all the precautions in place - even to the point of alerting medical services in case of an accident.”
Galal says these sensors can be used to alert drivers to the conditions to encourage them to slow down.
“That’s all being monitored within a command and control centre,” he says.
Adamson says the next natural step for the UAE is to introduce ‘managed motorways’, similar to what has been introduced in the UK.
“It’s where you have a much larger amount of information being provided to drivers, for example, prior warnings of accidents or congestion, and variable speed limits to control traffic through congested areas, as well as warnings of people working on the roads,” he says.
“I think we’ll see a much higher use of technology to manage journeys end to end. It will start on motorways, but eventually I think it will end up on local roads as well.”
Enhancing public transportation is also an important part of smart transportation. strategies. Dubai has successfully operated 75km of driverless trains on its metro system since 2009, and in recent years introduced a tram system to complement it. While the metro has not been embraced by all segments of society, as the system develops and extends into other areas of the emirate, more people are expected to use it, particularly around Expo 2020.
“There are a lot of sceptics about the Dubai Metro, but it has been full to capacity and has been a huge success,” Adamson says. “Gulf states are very young and they are expecting things to happen very fast. When you think of evolution of transport systems in places like London, Paris and New York, that happened over decades. But in the Middle East, everyone expects it to happen over a small number of years. Some of that is realistic because the pace of change is much faster, but many of these things do not happen overnight.”
The Dubai Taxi Corporation (DTC) this year introduced smart buses equipped with state-of-the-art technologies, including surveillance cameras connected to the DTC’s Control Centre and a GPS satellite tracking system that sends text messages to inform parents of bus times to and from schools or homes.
The Dubai Tram is fitted with cutting-edge technologies for safety, comfort and efficiency.
Other cities in the region, while not quite as advanced, have been making strides in smart transportation.
“Riyadh for example, and many other cities in the kingdom, are going to be launching city-specific and national smart city programmes,” says Galal.
“I think with all the smart city projects that have been launched around the world — the region included — it’s really about building on where the others have started because a lot of these technologies are still at a very emerging stage. It’s very important for other GCC cities to build on the learning curve that both Dubai and Abu Dhabi have experienced so far and to make sure they design and implement solutions that are very well suited to their own natures.
“Take, for example, a city like Makkah or Jeddah. You have a very large surge in population with the Umrah pilgrimage season so that requires a very different profile of services than for the city visitors.”
Adamson says places like Oman are focussing on a slightly different transportation network.
“Oman has traditionally been a trading nation and it's looking at freight and the movement of freight as part of its national strategy,” he says.
Qatar’s government has launched a vision to become a smart city by 2030, including a series of initiatives and projects intended to move the country toward digitalisation and smart innovation.
With its immediate focus on the 2022 World Cup, work is well underway on the four-line metro system in Doha as well as a light rail system in the new city of Lusail.
Christian Gregoire, VP technical and strategy for Thales, which is installing the signalling system for both rail systems, says the rail projects are very much aligned to the government’s smart city plans and will include some of the latest technology that will improve speed and security.
Thales is undertaking a massive signalling enhancement of four lines on the London Underground system (4 Lines Modernisation). As it is a brownfield site, the new system requires an engineering team in Toronto to test it before it is deployed.
Driverless vehicles are part of Dubai’s plans for smart mobility solutions.
The same team will test the driverless trains and signalling for Doha Metro, and while it is a greenfield site, it still presents many challenges for Thales, not least the tight timescale of delivery.
Once installed, the new signalling on London Underground will allow trains travelling on the Circle, District, Hammersmith & City and Metropolitan lines to make journeys faster, increase overall capacity and boost service reliability.
While the trains themselves will not be travelling any faster on the tracks, Thales’ technology allows them to travel closer together. It is the same technology that has been used in Makkah Metro train system, which operates during Hajj.
The 'headway' — minimum time between trains — is reducing all the time, says Gregoire. “It’s not the speed of the trains, but more that the trains are closer together,” he explains.
“[In Makkah], we are in a headway of 90 seconds which is quite good. In the new generation in London, it will be a little shorter than this one. The headway we will provide for the new line, which is based on the same technology, will be a little better.
“We are ranging in headways between 70 and 90 seconds on average for the operations of these lines, based on similar technology, which is quite an improvement based on metro signalling, which often requires 120 seconds for the headway range.”
Dubai has taken rail transit a step further, with plans to develop a hyperloop (rapid transit) transport system that would enable travel between emirates to take between 10 and 15 minutes. A team from Hyperloop One, one company formed to develop Tesla founder Elon Musk's high-speed mass transport concept, has taken up a 12-week residency in Dubai as part of the Future Accelerators Programme.
Hyperloop One CEO Rob Lloyd remains confident that the project, which could run into billions of dollars in cost, will come to fruition.
“We believe that Dubai Future Accelerators is the venue that will put into motion the creation and implementation of a Hyperloop for Dubai to connect the entire region,” he says.
Dubai has also embraced autonomous driving technology, launching a strategy that is expected to generate economic savings of up to $6bn a year. The Dubai Autonomous Transportation Strategy also sets a target that 25 percent of all transportation trips in Dubai will be smart and driverless by 2030.
With potential speeds of 1,200kph, Hyperloop could ferry passengers from Dubai to Abu Dhabi in just 15 minutes.
Galal suggests that while the technology is there and the technology is impressive, it does not go as far as reducing the number of vehicles on the road. He says the “ultimate solution” would be to couple autonomous vehicles with a ride-sharing approach and business model to minimise the need to park these vehicles.
“Then you really have a winning technology and business model because a lot of prime real estate in many cities right now is transformed into parking lots and a lot of time and congestion is caused by drivers looking for parking spots,” he says.
Galal points out Abu Dhabi and Dubai, already have some of the well-established technologies to make mobility smarter, like ride-hailing apps Uber and Careem.
“Obviously technology is important, but it’s also about the business models that come with these technologies to make it cost effective, and also the regulations that would, for example, describe clearly how you work in the sharing economy, with the likes of Uber and Careem.
“The next step for both cities would be how to use big data the way some other cities around the world, like Chicago, have done, so that you’re even developing and making transportation data available and encouraging third parties to use it to develop more innovative applications and solutions,” he adds.
Sharing big data, Galal says, could have a significant impact on traffic congestion, for example, when companies use the information to develop apps.
“A lot of these cities [like Chicago], when they started using big data, it was to solve an internal problem they had with the number of resources that could develop apps. There are apps that can help you - as soon as you wake up in the morning - to choose the best mode of transport that would take you from point A to point B and give you trade-offs,” he explains.
“If you’re able to wake up in the morning and there’s an app that automatically tells you that instead of driving your car today, you’re better off taking the metro or any other mode of public transport and here’s the estimated time, and here’s the trade-offs in terms of cost and time and pollution, you can make those choices. These are apps that are available in other cities and hopefully we’ll have them here soon.”
Galal adds that it is encouraging for future development to see Dubai and other cities develop a good understanding of smart cities.
“It’s not only about technology — this is an enabling factor — but really starting to think about smart cities in a more integrated and cohesive manner and to start looking into all the enabling factors like regulation, business models, governance and all the other non-technological factors that are just as important in delivering a truly smart and sustainable city.”