postcard: al ain

A couple of weeks ago, I had the honor of joining a consulting team working on Bus Rapid Transit in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates.  Al Ain, pop. around 500k, is straight south of Dubai, inland, and it could not be more different.  While Dubai is a performance for the world, Al Ain is calm, satisfied and a bit inscrutable.  Expat workers abound, including plenty of professionals hired from the West, but this feels like a city for Emiratis.

Built around a series of oases, Al Ain has been a crossroads and watering place for millennia.  Like most such places, it's a bit of a chokepoint, defined by the Omani border and the massif of Jebel Hafeet rising to the south.   


What's here for a transit  blog?  This:


"Grow a vision with public transport," with the obligatory child photo.  (Another shows an Emirati man in agal and ghutra gazing thoughtfully into the distance.)  Al Ain recently started up a bus system, and has a nice downtown station under construction.  As you'd expect in the Emirates, it's mostly used by low-income guest workers from surrounding countries.  Emiratis, who are a minority of the workforce, are mostly relatively wealthy and generally drive.  

But why, if that's today's reality, would a public transit system be unveiled with such modern and air-conditioned buses?  And why did they undertake this kind of marketing and imagery, designed to get Emiratis thinking about public transport and why it might be important for the city's and country's future?

Often, in the US, I encounter the attitude that buses are just for the poor and that therefore there's no point in spending more than the minimum on them.   Plenty of US cities have bus systems whose service and infrastructure still convey that attitude.  In these situations I'm always pointing out that transit dependence, like income, is a spectrum, that there are people everywhere along the spectrum, and that transit can therefore grow incrementally in relevance in response to modest, incremental investments.  Even poor people make choices, and those choices have consequen  This is, among other things, a reason to care about the quality of bus services, rather than just longing for trains.

That line should be a harder sell in the Emirates, a wealthy country where (a) decision-making is concentrated in an elite, (b) the middle class is far smaller and newer than in the US, and (c) the underclass consists of foreign "guest workers" who have little political influence.   But the Al Ain bus system, and its vision-heavy marketing and investment in look and feel, suggests they may grasp the idea better than many Americans do.   They are envisioning a future when a more diverse range of people will be motivated to use transit, as the car becomes less attractive or affordable for a host of converging reasons. 


3 Responses to postcard: al ain

  1. Eric O November 6, 2013 at 8:45 pm #

    Great observation. This attitude seems to travel without question with Americans, so sensitized are we to the environmental cues of poverty. I sometimes get the impression that the planning issues people I talk to, would they ever be startled to find themselves in the presence of one, would actually flee from a bus. I can literally read it on their faces when (in my more naive moments with folks I discern mistakenly to be more experimentally minded) trying to sell them on the idea of inducing TOD with bus transfers. “Think about it,” I goad, “there’s the design opportunity for TOD: create the high-grade pedestrian environment needed for attractive connections which make the car people rue the fact that they are stuck with no place to park. Right there, right on the road!” I thereon try to hype the elegance of a high frequency network only to find my polite and well meaning compatriots still blinking at the thought that I’m mentioning buses. As if I couldn’t actually be serious!
    Your suggestion to shift the focus on the spectrum of choices and the incremental gains of utility is probably a better tact but still a hard sell. I think it helps to point to analogies. Twitter is actually a great example. There are the people who immediately get twitter as a cultural art, there are the people who dip in sporadically, mainly for amusement, there are the people who discover the incredible potential and even beauty of utility incrementally, there are those who just lurk for god knows what reason, and there are those who will never get twitter no matter how well you try to package it to them. The trick is to focus on improving the experience of the adaptable middle kinds, who draw on and contribute to the momentum of the experience for everyone.

  2. AlYourPalster November 6, 2013 at 10:19 pm #

    Boy you sure get around.

  3. Paul November 6, 2013 at 11:47 pm #

    Not only does Al Ain – and by extension the Emirate of Abu Dhabi – seem to understand the importance of developing a quality public transport system, but they have put a lot of effort into developing very robust long range comprehensive plans. When I look through the various planning documents for Abu Dhabi Vision 2030 from the Urban Planning Council (, I am struck by how thorough, well-thought-out and exemplary the emirate’s planning vision is. I think – but I don’t know for sure – that Abu Dhabi developed the UPC as a reaction to what it saw in Dubai and to ensure it avoided becoming another sprawling, auto-centric emirate.
    Abu Dhabi is clearly thinking about its future and the long-term livability of its residents (both urban and rural). I hope this vision comes to reality, and I look forward to when I visit the UAE again to experience the results of these plans. I also hope Dubai and other governments in the region will keep an eye on Abu Dhabi’s planning process to learn a few lessons about how to appropriately plan for a growing, modern desert city.