Oman plans public transport system to ease traffic woes

While many Omanis welcome the idea of public transit in theory, officials say it will be difficult to convince citizens to leave their cars at home.
Oman seeks to develop its public transportation system in a bid to ease traffic jams and lower road accidents. Stephen Lock  /  The National.
Oman seeks to develop its public transportation system in a bid to ease traffic jams and lower road accidents. Stephen Lock / The National.

MUSCAT// Facing rapid population growth, daily traffic jams and a reputation for some of the world’s most dangerous roads, Oman is turning to public transit.

The government has commissioned a Spanish consulting firm to create a master plan for a bus and light-rail network in Muscat.

The need for the system is “urgent”, said Khalid Al Dirai, chairman of the Omani Road Transport Association.

“The road projects that are being executed now in the capital of Muscat are not able to absorb the increase in population without development of a mass transit system,” he said at a conference here this month.

The consultancy, INECO, will complete the plan before the end of the year, said project leader Emilio Miralles Claver.

“It’s quite singular, the situation we found here,” Mr Claver said. “It’s a very modern city, developing with the economic level and so, but with a very limited public transport system.”

Currently, public transit in Muscat consists of two bus lines and a loosely regulated network of minibuses and taxis that ply the main motorway, Sultan Qaboos Road.

The master plan includes creating a public transit authority, expanded bus services, park and ride facilities and an overhaul of convoluted taxi regulations. A light-rail system is possible at a later stage, Mr Claver said.

“We consider that as a solution for the future, because it takes five or six years to implement.”

The main motivations behind the plan are decreasing traffic and limiting road accidents, Mr Al Dirai said. Oman’s population of about four million has risen nearly 47 per cent since 2010, putting increasing pressure on the Sultanate’s roads.

Shahzad Ahmed, a Pakistani expatriate in Muscat, sometimes braves two hours of traffic between home and work.

“There are more traffic problems every day,” said Mr Ahmed, 39. “I’m looking every day at maybe three or four accidents.”

A World Health Organization report last year ranked Oman among the 10 most dangerous countries for traffic fatalities. Police say accidents are down this year, but the numbers still concern officials.

In 2013, more than 900 people died in road accidents and nearly 11,000 were injured.

While many Omanis welcome the idea of public transit in theory, officials say it will be difficult to convince citizens to leave their cars at home.

“Public transport, to Oman, is something new,” said Hanan Al Rahbi, director general of planning and studies at the ministry of transport and communication. “The people, they don’t even know, some of them, what we are meaning by public transport. So we are facing the problem or the challenge of culture.”

“The infrastructure, it’s matter of money – we can solve this,” she said, at a conference this month. “But to encourage the people to use the public transport, you can say this is the most challenging part.”

Omanis and expatriates rely heavily on cars to get around, benefiting from subsidised petrol that costs a little more than Dh1 per liter.

“Without a car in Muscat, honestly it’s very difficult,” said 26-year-old Nada Ali. “If you don’t have a car, life doesn’t continue. It doesn’t go normally … Even the culture of walking does not exist.”

Most Omani households have at least one or two cars, said Anwar Al Harthy, 25.

“In our house now, we have three cars, and now we want to buy a car. Every person has a car.”

While public transit will be popular with expatriates, cultural reasons could prevent citizens from using it – especially women, Ms Ali said. Omani society is unlikely to accept the idea of women riding buses because of the possibility of gender mixing, she said.

“I encourage for there to be public transit and I hope that the culture will change as it pertains to young men, at least,” she said. “Women, it’s better for us to use cars.”

Several Omani men said they had no problem riding buses or a train, however.

“I would use this system immediately,” Mr Al Harthy said. “I know that it’s beneficial and costs less and is comfortable.”

Hailing a taxi in the midday sun, 60-year-old Ahmed Al Qasimi said that many Omanis already use shared taxis.

“I don’t drive,” he said. “The taxi is easier. I always go by taxi.”

In fact, perhaps the only category that might not benefit from the plan is taxi drivers, who have taken advantage of the situation to create an effective substitute for public transit, with ad-hoc stops and negotiable fares.

Abdulmajeed Al Balushi, 28, greeted the idea of public transit with a chagrined smile. It is a natural extension of Oman’s development, he said – and a way to decrease traffic. But personally, the taxi driver was not thrilled.

“If metro, buses, transportation come – we will lose out,” he said.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Published: October 22, 2014 04:00 AM

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