MAKE IT DO WHAT IT DO

Saudi Arabia 2017 | TRANSPORT | FOCUS: RIYADH METRO

Riyadh Metro stands out as one of Saudi Arabia's greatest-ever building projects and is set to revolutionize how people get around in the capital.

The Riyadh Metro project is the largest single infrastructure project being built anywhere in the world today in terms of cost and mileage. Since initiation in 2014, construction of the project has come aboveground, literally and figuratively. In late 2016, most of the tunneling was completed, and today the aboveground sections, flyovers, stations, and ground-level tracks are being completed at a rapid rate.

During the tunneling process, construction caused traffic delays in an already congested city, and grumbles were forthcoming. Today, the mood has shifted. Massive cranes lay concrete sections on elevated tracks that run for kilometers over the city. Modern stations are taking shape. It is apparent from a short drive across Riyadh that the city is on the brink of an unprecedented transformation.

With almost 6 million people, Riyadh contains nearly the population of the entire country of Oman, or about twice the city of Dubai. There are nearly no public transportation options, and the city has an area nearly the size of the state of Delaware in the US. This makes for crippling traffic and transit time when travelling, for example, from the north, where King Khalid International Airport is located, to the south, where the Diplomatic Quarter can be found.

What is interesting today about the Riyadh Metro project is how it fits into the Kingdom's larger ambitions. Officials are pushing through reforms under the banner of Vision 2030 with a vigor rarely seen in years where Brent crude prices were higher. Each segment of the vision seems to have been carefully planned to tie in with others, and the metro has clear benefits to the Kingdom's largest metropolis.

The vision wants Saudis to be more connected to their government and to have more options for what to do with their time. The Metro offers to bring together parts of Saudi society in a way that other infrastructure simply cannot. It will link all parts of the city and deliver access to entertainment venues, government offices, malls, and workspaces, bringing people together in public spaces. In Riyadh, these forces are certain to indelibly change the cultural makeup and ambiance of the city.

The metro, however, also does not stand alone. It will be complemented by a citywide bus system, said to be optimized with app-based mobile technology that minimizes waiting time. When combined with an already extensive adaptation of ride-hailing services like Uber and Careem, which have both seen substantial investments by PIF, the same wealth fund that is bankrolling the metro, Riyadh has found itself to be significantly more connected.

There are questions of whether Saudis, used to riding in their cars, will even take the metro. However, at least half of the Kingdom's population is under 25, and the expense of cars is a burden for many.
There is also more at stake than mere convenience. For example, the King Abdullah Financial District, a multi-billion dollar megaproject consisting of 59 towers that is nearly finished but has no significant tenants, will have its own dedicated metro station. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia's social contract is a carefully balanced affair. Fuel prices are expected to rise each year, and will be followed by a VAT tax as well as even higher utility prices. Efficient and affordable public transportation will ease the burden on consumers in Saudi Arabia's largest population center and will make the reforms that Saudi Arabia must undertake in the coming years easier to swallow.