Will we be riding a modern metro and bus system that takes us across Amman with comfort and ease? Any serious discussion about Amman and its problems is bound to hit upon the issue of transport. Wether we’re complaining about the increasing occurrence of traffic jams, how Amman has turned into a car city, how we have lost some precious pedestrian areas, the tragedy of traffic accidents, social inequality and the city’s identity.. transport has something to do with it.
Public transportation can be singled out as Amman’s biggest failing over the past decades.
In some old photos of Amman, you can see busses, marked with numbers, rolling through downtown Amman. Could it be that, at one point, the level of public transport in Amman was actually on par with the city’s development?
But at one point, things started going wrong. We got rich quick on oil money from the Gulf (in the mid 1970 onward). We all wanted bigger houses, preferably far out of town and, with that, bigger and more cars. Public transport fell of the public agenda and so the public transport system simply did not keep pace with the city’s growth and development.
Solving the transport problem in Amman became a matter of building bridges and underpasses that cost millions of Dinars and only invited more traffic onto the streets. Public transport was ignored in favor of coming up with “traffic solutions”.
Today, we are a car city. We don’t walk and we definitely prefer not to take the bus. That’s not to say that there aren’t hundreds of thousands of bus users in the city who simply HAVE to take the bus. But everyone wishes for a private car. I even once heard a radio commercial for a car brand that mocked the practice of riding the bus!
Our public transport system in Amman is very inferior, considering the city’s size, wealth and level of human development.
In short, what is needed is a public transport revolution in Amman.
What many people don’t know is that the beginning of such a revolution has already taken place inside the Greater Amman Municipality. My work with GAM over the past year on branding the city, has given me a perspective on what is happening. I also found out that even people who have an interest in urban and city planning issues do not know that new thinking on public transport is taking root inside Amman’s Municipality.
So what is happening?
Well, first there is the issue of official awareness. GAM has taken over the responsibility of public transport in Amman, which used to be handled by the Public Transport Regulatory Commission. I have heard Mayor Omar Maani decalre, more than once, that public transport is at the top of GAM’s priorities. What’s also important that the vision for public transport at the level of the top leadership at GAM is one that is inclusive. It is very dangerous when public transport is viewed as a service for the “less fortunate” only. A capital city like Amman needs a high quality system that attract poor and rich and middle class citizen, old and young, men and women, able bodied and physically challenged people.
Public transport should neither be seen as “cost” of a “charity” program, neither as a “profit center” to make money from. Affordable and well functioning city transport services should be there to create economic opportunity (people should not pay half their salary just to get to work), give people a sense of social equity (families without cars should not be treated like second class citizens) and to give the city a sense of real “citiness” (a city is not a collection of villas and apartment blocks and cars, but a rich space for social interaction).
That level of understanding is there at GAM
Then there is the issue of leadership. That too has witnessed a change in Amman. Today, Ammanis need to know that there is a qualified Jordanian team responsible for planning and improving Public Transport in Amman. That team is headed by Dr Ayman Smadi, (view this presentation by Dr Smadi on the transport challenges and solutions for Amman) who has spent the past two decades doing research and development work on transport systems and traffic in the US. His team also comprises young, qualified Jordanians who specialize in the field.
So what is this team up to?
First of all, there is the so called Bus Rapid Transit system (BRT), which means that certain main streets in Amman will get a dedicated, closed-off bus lane (for example University/Queen Rania Street) where special large busses will operate between modern, specially designed stations. It is like having a train system without having to lay tracks.
This BRT system is now being designed with the help of a specialized global company, Steer Davies Gleave which has recently been awarded a contract to do that.
To better understand what a BRT system is, here is a very helpful blog post and video from Nasimjo, who wrote about the Istanbul BRT last year.
The BRT will form the backbone of Amman’s transport system of the future. Of course it will also include regular bus services, but hopefully with better busses running with regular schedules, stopping at proper bus stops (which will be installed city wide).
But the more exciting prospect for Amman’s transportation future is the introduction of rail, either in the form of a metro system or or a so-called light rail system. It is exciting to see the very early incarnations of a a proposed map for this system with three lines. Due to the hilly nature of Amman, this system will sometimes run overground and sometimes underground. It is a very expensive endeavor but probably a necessary one. The cost of not having a good transport system of Amman is also immense (fuel costs, road costs, environmental pollution, lost time in traffic jams).
The studies for this rail project are under way already.
So what does this add up to? First of all, the public transport revolution in Amman will not happen overnight. A city like Dubai built a super modern metro system in 3 years. But the Ammani plans are more of a 10 year endeavor, with some elements appearing within the coming few years.
The scary part of all of this exciting stuff that all the proposed systems end up being delayed (like the Amman Zarqa rail line that I’ve been hearing about since I was a teenager!). We just have too many example of ambitious, progressive projects in Jordan that end up being shelved for a million reasons.
A lot of responsibility falls onto GAM. Is there enough political will at the level of the city leadership and indeed at the level of the country’s leadership to bring about this revolutionary shift, that moves Amman (and also other Jordanian cities) from a congested car city to more manageable, European style, city of public mobility?
But there is a role for Ammanis as well, especially the Ammani “elite”. Honestly, what is needed is a paradigm shift in people’s minds. A whole Ammani movement needs to embrace GAM’s transport vision. Citizens from all walk of life need to support it. People with social and political influence need to believe in it.
Those who are using whatever public transport facilities we have in Amman would naturally welcome the improvement of such services. But it is the people with big cars in their garages who need to understand that Amman will never be a good city, clean city, safe city or a “cool” city without a modern transport system. People need to shake of their “it’s the government’s responsibility” mentality and start getting interested in what is happening beyond their private homes and gardens.
It is about regaining Amman’s public spirit, which might have been there at one point, but certainly got lost when too many people started treating the city as a bedroom and not as a place to come together, work together and celebrate together.
It is not a matter of supporting this or that particular project or a certain municipal leader. It is about getting interested in how the city functions and for once taking ownership of our urban environment.