The lay of the land

The fast paced growth of Dubai presents no end of challenges to urban planners. COD takes a look at some of the most pressing issues.


Dubai is at a critical moment in its history as far as urban planning is concerned. An extra 432,000 people are projected to arrive in the city by 2010 boosting its population to more than 1.8 million, according to estimates from the Dubai Chamber of Commerce, and over the longer term the size of the population is expected to be larger still.

The population is set to be further inflated, albeit temporarily, by people travelling through Dubai following the opening of the new Dubai World Central International Airport, which is expected to have a passenger capacity of more than 120 million.

Dubai needs to strive to become a city which is greater than the sum of its parts

For urban planners, one of the key issues is the movement of people in the city. Overlooking for a moment the many exciting developments in the works, one simple question remains: how will all these people get around in the greater Dubai?

The road map

Opening last month's 2007 Gulf Traffic Exhibition and Conference, H.E Mattar Al Tayer, chairman of the board and executive director of the Roads & Transport Authority (RTA), outlined the measures that are being taken to create a '21st century state of the art transportation system' for Dubai to cope with the increased demand.

"We are presently working on road projects with a total budget of US$2.5 billion," he said. "To give you an example of the volume of work, we have increased the number of lanes across Dubai Creek from 19 in 2006 to 40 in 2007, and this will reach 100 in 2020.

But, of course, as he went on to admit, creating extra roads will only go so far to resolving Dubai's transport problems.

"Experience has taught us that building more roads by itself doesn't solve the problem of congestion - transportation must be planned and operated as a complete system with integrated modes of transportation such as bus, rail and water transport," he added.

Everyone knows, of course, about these extra methods of transportation. The jewel in the crown is the metro, the first line of which, the red line, is expected to be finished in 2009, followed by the green line in 2010. The metro will have four lines in total and once complete, will cover a total of 318 kilometres. The RTA has in addition said it is studying the possibility of adding more metro lines, and a fifth and sixth line are expected to be announced this year.

In a further bid to encourage people to swap their cars for alternative methods of transport, the existing bus network is set to be extended to a total length of 3,000km, and tram lines are also under study.

Dubai's marine network of water buses, which began in July, will also be strengthened, the RTA said.

These measures will be necessary, says Amer Khan, director of consulting services, at Parsons Brinckerhoff (PB). "As soon as a city grows over a certain size and activity, it cannot be sustained by purely car based private transport," he says, putting the crossover point at over a million. "A natural progress in the cycle of a city's growth is evolution moving onto a new dimension.

Introducing extra transportation methods is clearly a good start, but the real challenge may prove to be convincing people to use them, especially during the hotter months of the year when people may be more reluctant to leave the air-conditioned comfort of their own cars.

This is in fact one of the major challenges in creating an effective transport system, points out Professor Erik Ferguson, of the Institute of Urban Planning & Design at the American University of Sharjah. Short-term measures such as additional parking, for example, will help to alleviate the problem of heavy traffic, but over the longer term, these don't really help in promoting other methods of transportation, he notes.

"If you increase the parking supply in order to deal with this traffic problem, then you also make it more convenient for people to use their automobiles and less likely to switch to these new transit systems when they are put in. So you are sort of stuck between a rock and a hard place in terms of do you increase parking in order to deal with the traffic problems or do you maintain a tight supply of parking in order to make these new rail systems more attractive once they open it?," he says.

Steps being taken by the authorities to encourage people to switch from private to public transport include installing air-conditioned bus shelters. There are 139 bus shelters on the ground in Dubai at the moment with new ones being added every day. Approximately 1,000 are planned to be in Dubai before next summer, according to Right Angle Media, the firm that developed the concept.

Shared responsibility

With the growing number of large-scale communities being created in Dubai, however, the responsibility of the movement of people is increasingly seen as not just that of the transport authorities, but also of the developers, and consequently, of the masterplanners.

When the projected size of a community runs into the hundreds of thousands, as with some of self-contained communities in Dubai, equivalent to the size of a small city elsewhere, the planning of outdoor public space and movement of people around the city clearly becomes an issue.

"These masterdevelopers obviously do have a lot of responsibility for what is going on, and they do have to co-ordinate with some of the planning authorities like the RTA or Dubai Muncipality," said Todd Stermer, senior urban planner at Atkins.

The RTA acknowledges this. "One of the most important issues the RTA had to deal with at an early stage was the need to organise the relationship between land use and transportation planning," says Al Tayer. "With tens of master plans submitted for new developments each month, we worked with the government of Dubai to pass legislation that regulates procedures for developing master plans and traffic impact studies. This assures smooth accessibility for new developments and supports mixed-land use and transit-oriented developments.

Planning of the urban space is a shared responsibility, agrees Khan.

"It's all of those people, the authorities, the developers, the consulting community, the architectural community, the designers, all these people need to be aware of how it could benefit urban planning in general and agree on policies," he says.

"At the moment, many of the policies in place and regulations are very much geared to accommodating the car, whether it is the supply of parking spaces, the assessment of a community in terms of how much traffic it generates, it is all very much car oriented. What needs to be done are obviously revisions and modifications of the regulations to actually encourage and make it more rewarding for developers and occupiers to utilise public transport and that would mean things like restricting the number of car parking spaces in a community rather than maximising it," he says.


One development approach that is starting to take off in the region is Transit-Oriented Development (TOD).

TOD is 'the creation of compact, walkable communities centred around high quality transit systems, enabling a high quality lifestyle without complete dependence on a car for mobility', Khan said in a presentation at Gulf Traffic.

TOD is fairly well established in cities in Europe and North America, but it is a relatively new concept in the Gulf.

"I think Dubai in particular, and the Gulf in general, has the opportunity to take it to a larger scale because of the ability to execute projects much more quickly with a lot of capital investment. A lot of new areas are being developed so I think the opportunities here for TOD are fairly large, but it does need the authorities and developers to understand and make conscious decisions to plan communities in that way," Khan told COD ahead of his presentation.

Benefits of TOD are not merely limited to making a city less car-reliant and more walkable, but also help reduce pollution and energy usage, according to experts.

Whether TOD is adopted or not, as the pace of development in Dubai accelerates, the next few years look set to be critical in terms of the placement of different activities and connections between them.

The great planning challenge over the next decade or so will be uniting the individual elements of Dubai, argues Khan.

"Dubai needs to strive to become a city which is greater than the sum of its parts. It's got some great parts, we all know what they are but together they need to become a fantastic integrated urban development," he says.

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