Driving The Future: Is Sustainable Transport Taking Off In The GCC?

With electric cars, drones and other new modes of transport, technology is accelerating the cause of sustainable mobility. But is the Middle East prepared?



Statistics from the United Nations tell us that 54 per cent of the world’s population currently lives in urban areas, a figure that is expected to increase to 66 per cent by 2050.

Standing at 746 million in 1950, the urban population of the world is projected to reach 3.9 billion in 2014 and a whopping 6.4 billion by 2050.

On the ground, experts suggest, this will translate to: more people, additional vehicles, growing congestion, greater pollution, heightened stress and an endless list of unfavourable conditions.

Converging at the 12th edition of the four-day Michelin Challenge Bibendum (MCB) in Chengdu, China, transport experts from across the world stressed that the need of the hour is out-of- the-box thinking in a move towards sustainable mobility.

Addressing the gathering, Groupe Michelin CEO Jean-Dominique Senard, said that promoting sustainable mobility is more than a dream or a utopia.

“Today, and every day, technological innovations are helping to improve the environmental, safety and cost performance of all means of transportation, whether individual or collective,” he said.

A green paper released at the conference highlighted trends concerning each stakeholder in the industry health, with a focus on reducing stress, noise, pollution and accidents; reducing greenhouse gases; raising questions about the energy transition in transportation and energy efficiency; the lack of public financing; congestion; and the need for inclusive mobility to support economic growth and job creation.

The paper recommended five ‘game changers’ to address these areas including setting ambitious global CO2 emissions reduction objectives, implementing ultra- low emission zones (ULEZ), and providing creative door-to-door solutions for people.

The paper also called for re-organising urban last-mile freight delivery systems, and promoting private investment in transport infrastructure.

It also recommended five actionable levers including encouraging the emergence of innovative ecosystems; supporting new technologies; facilitating the introduction of new economic instruments; introducing targeted public policies to support new solutions; and focusing on broad, coordinated deployment.

GCC: THE LONG ROAD AHEAD

While the move towards sustainable mobility is a challenging one across the world, it is even more difficult in regions like the GCC, where socio-cultural factors add an extra dimension to the issue. A combination of subsidised fuel prices, limited public transport options, high temperatures, and a societal obligation to possess luxurious gas- guzzlers are all compounding the problem of unsustainable mobility.

According to Frost & Sullivan, the total number of registered cars and pickups in the GCC is expected to rise at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 6.5 per cent between 2012 and 2017 to reach 16.40 million units.

Another report from the firm released last year states that vehicle sales in the region are likely to grow at a CAGR of five per cent between 2014 to 2020, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE dominating at a combined market share of 76.5 per cent.

While spotting an electric car on the roads of any regional city could be considered an achievement at the moment, steps towards better mobility are being taken by cities such as Dubai. which has introduced new modes of public transport, such as the Metro in 2009 and, more recently, the Tram in November. But the focus now should be on raising awareness and creating localised solutions, say experts.

“I don’t think at this point a city like Dubai is seeing sustainable mobility as a priority,” explains Kulveer Ranger, former director of Environment and Digital London at the Mayor of London’s Office and an expert on sustainable transport.

“When the priority is expansion and growth, sometimes you sacrifice sustainability on the altar of growth. But there comes a tipping point where you see the consequences – pollution, quality of life, impact on health, congestion – they are all by-products of rapid expansive growth.”

The local population is more geared towards the personal mobility of the motorcar and is not yet being challenged to see its problems, he says. While there is a direct challenge in terms of capacity, the addition of an extra lane or a road offers a short-term solution.

“The solution comes only when people really see the problem. It’s about an educational view that the local government has to go through.”

THINKING-OUTSIDE-THE-BOX

Michael Fahy, director of Sustainable Mobility at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, admits that there is one exclusive socio-economic group in the region that may never make the switch away from a high-end/luxury car.

But he believes tailor-made solutions are required to suit the demands of the rest of the population.

“For instance, one of the things you could introduce is an executive bus service aimed at office goers that provides a better service in terms of quality and offers nice and comfortable air conditioned seats – basically trying to compare with what the car offers.

“How many people drive from downtown Dubai to Jebel Ali everyday andhow many of those people can you take out of a car if you introduce such a service? There’s an opportunity,” he adds.

While some people may state that they feel threatened about ‘losing their freedom’, Fady brushes off the argument.

“If you tell me I can’t go in a car, then I’m frightened about losing my freedom. But is it an issue of losing freedom if it’s a journey you have to make everyday? What freedom am I losing?”

Florent Menegaux, COO of Michelin, also stresses that the idea of sustainable transport is not to deselect any option.

“When we look at the changing and shifting modes of transport, we have to be collaborative and all-inclusive,” he explains. “It’s true that when you have a level of comfort [while travelling], it’s difficult to change. But it can be done by explaining, showing and demonstrating through experiences. Moving from your personal car to a public transportation system shouldn’t be a pain. It should a choice that you make.

“In places like Dubai, public transportation has not developed to a level where I can make a choice,” he adds.

CHANGING MINDSETS

One key aspect of encouraging the use of sustainable transport options is the need to drive behavioral change, some experts believe.

“Cultural change takes time and investment and I know that’s happening in terms of the quality of services provided, but you have to keep the message coming, keep investing, make it easier and easier and also show leadership,” states Ranger.

In places like Dubai, the Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) is trying to persuade people to ditch their cars through initiatives such as the yearly ‘Public Transport Day’ on November 1.

The percentage of the population using public transport has also grown from six per cent in 2006 to 13 per cent in 2013, with the RTA hoping to increase that figure to 20 per cent by 2020.

But more effort is required, Ranger stresses. “I think it’s about the boldness of the approach. The government is trying, but how many of the leaders are taking public transport? Change comes about by showing people that you actually believe in what you are talking about.”

Changing mindsets takes a long time and education plays a big role in the process, agrees Harold Soon Hong, scholar at Future Urban Mobility IRG.

The concept of a premier shared taxi service, for instance, can convince people to try it out, with the novelty factor driving a switch in the initial stage, he explains.

“Perhaps people might be interested in what it feels like and as time goes by and as penetration grows, people will begin to see the core benefits of these technologies and that’s when you will see more people switching over, giving up what they perceive as prestigious and participating in the social sphere,” he added.

STRINGENT REGULATIONS

In terms of technology, there is already a move towards getting the latest and the best in the GCC, states Marc Henry, CFO of Michelin. “The region is receiving products from major companies where fuel efficiency is getting good.”

Along with technology, regulation in areas like fuel efficiency is required, he says. Some countries, like Saudi Arabia, are already taking the initiative.

The Kingdom recently signed a deal with 78 vehicle manufacturers to launch more fuel-efficient cars in the country.

New regulations, set to be implemented from 2015 to early 2016, will apply new fuel economy standards, which once completely deployed, are expected to save over 300, 000 barrels of oil per day, according to reports.

“Introducing regulations is an efficient way to make things move, because sometimes the market does not move that easily. People get cheap products and don’t look to the future, so you need both research and innovation as well as regulation,” states Henry.

But ultimately, Menegaux admits, that implementing sustainable mobility is a very complex problem, with no easy solution.

“There are different business models and different ways to develop and address the issue. And there are cultural factors that also exist. Through forums such as MCB, we hope to stir discussion – through exchanges comes progress.”