Vol. V, No. 3 (August 2008)
T2M member Jill Murdoch recently moved to Oman – here she offers some thoughts on transport and mobility in and around the capital, Muscat.
In 1970, just a few years after the first commercial development of oil in the country, the present Sultan of Oman took over from his father in a bloodless coup. Despite the early oil revenues, the father remained implacably opposed to all signs of modernization or westernization. At the time of the coup there was a single 10 kilometre stretch of tarmac road in the entire country, which is about the size of the UK, and perhaps 1000 vehicles, mostly for military, oil exploration and government use. In the 30-odd years since the coup the population has grown from about half a million people to around 2.7 million, of whom about 800,000 are non-nationals. It is served by an ever-growing total of 20,000 kilometres of tarmac roads, and countless graded roads that cut into the mountain and desert wildernesses towards what had been remote and almost totally isolated communities.
The capital city, Muscat, has, in the same period, grown from a population of approximately 20,000 to around 630,000. Travelling around Muscat one is constantly confronted by an aggressive display of modernity. Change is constant, with cityscapes and road patterns altering almost daily. The heavy summer air is full of the dust created by building and the reshaping (or removal) of the mountains that hem in the narrow coastal plain in order to accommodate new suburbs or new highways. The pride in the ‘progress’ being made is tangible.
It is easy to regret the loss of traditional structures and patterns of life and abhor the rampant westernization of an ancient civilization – until one recalls that Islamic architecture, technology and culture has historically been dynamic and cutting edge (for instance, the Taj Mahal, the Blue Mosque, complex irrigation systems – afalaj – in very hostile terrain that date back thousands of years). Then, while western life styles are increasingly adopted through many parts of Arabia, things like Palm Island off Oman’s neighbour, Dubai, can be seen in a very different and very unwestern context.
There were two original parts of the capital – old Muscat, where the Sultan had a residence surrounded by small clay-brick single story homes, and Muttrah, the main trading port where the souk is located. They lie either side of a stark promontory and, until the first dirt road was constructed around the promontory in 1929, the only communication routes between the two parts of the capital was via sea or a 2-mile 2-hour walk, on foot or donkey, over a jagged mountain ridge.
When the road was opened there were 4 cars in the country ready to use it, although pedestrians probably used it with enthusiasm and more success than today, given the current prevalence of cars. The road remained as a dirt track until it was sealed in 1961, at which time the gates into Muscat itself ceased to be locked and guarded at night.
Now, greater Muscat stretches along the coast between the jagged mountains and the sea for about 40km, accommodating over half a million people, up from an estimated 20,000 in 1970. The city is linked together by a network of fast dual carriageways. There is no public transport in the city – other than ‘shared taxis’ and taxi minibuses that ply regular routes – although there is a network of ‘intercity’ buses. As in Europe and America 100 years ago, the motor car is seen as being in the forefront of modernity and the possibility of mobility. An estimated 630,000 now ply the roads of the Sultanate. Driving standards, while deemed to be good for the region, normally appal newly arrived westerners and some big employers offer ‘defensive driving’ courses for their employees. Nearly 800 people died on the roads nationally in 2007 – a quarter of the road deaths recorded in Britain where the population is 24 times bigger.
What is hard to ascertain is the percentage of those that are pedestrian deaths. In the 40+ kms of very busy, very fast – 120kmph legal limit, rarely adhered to – highways between the airport and the sea port, a total of 6 pedestrian crossings have been provided. The highway divides residential areas from shopping centres, and workplaces from mosques. To a large extent, road networks structure the city, determine where you live, who you can easily communicate with and ultimately who your friends might be. As a result, the inevitable happens and people regularly brave the constant flow of traffic in an attempt to get to where they need to be. Motorists bewail these ‘cretins’ (and worse names) who risk, and often achieve (judging by anecdotal sources), death in their rush across the lanes of speeding traffic. But they have no choice! It is remarkable how provision for the motor car has ignored any provision for the pedestrian, until so recently the dominant force in the country.
A prime example is a recent huge upgrade of the road that gives access to the international airport. For the car driver it is a vast improvement. For arriving passengers who can afford individual taxis into town, it is fine as the taxis wait right outside the arrival hall. But a huge number of arriving passengers, often those from India and Pakistan, depend on shared taxis and minibuses and these have been banned from entering the airport precincts. In order to get one it is necessary to cross the 8 lane highway, with suitcases and boxes in hand, to flag down a city-bound taxi on the other side of the road. No provision of any sort was made for pedestrians to cross. In the few months since the upgrade, a number of people have already been killed there.
In this rapid modernization, Muscat traffic planners and road users alike epitomise, in concentrated form, all the symptoms of motorisation that have characterized so many urban spaces over the 20th century, as shown by Bendikat, Schmucki, Luckin and others: the complacent isolation of the motorist in their splendid status symbol (compounded by the universality of air conditioning in regular summer temperatures of 46 degrees); the use of highways to structure, connect, and divide urban space with only the motorist in mind; the radical displacement of foot (whether 2-feet or 4-feet) traffic by the motor car; and the determined indiscipline of the pedestrian. Road development has not even allowed for what slow transformations and learning opportunities may have been present in Europe. The advent of technology, the push for modernity and progress, the instant replacement of the status symbol of the camel with that of the car (desert nomads replaced their camel herds almost overnight with Toyota 4 x 4 pick-up trucks), the attempted elimination of the pedestrian from urban space have all come at once. There has been neither time nor democratic opportunity for negotiation over space even had there been the will or the awareness.
Even where space has been ‘reserved’ for pedestrians, unchecked hazards abound, be it raised kerbs, double kerbs, steep approaches to ‘pedestrian crossings’ (where the black and white markings were long ago smudged away), holes in the pavement, etc.
The pedestrian is a species more threatened than the camels which retain a purpose and associated status through racing, or than the donkeys which, having been superseded as the primary means of transport in the mountains, have been turned loose and are thriving in wild groups.
The enthusiasm for progress and the familiar symbols of modernity has removed any consideration for older mobility solutions and has indeed changed residents’ relationship to the urban spaces of their city. Dubai, a place Muscat, with some success, consciously avoids emulating, has realized belatedly that Light Rapid Transit schemes and metros are essential to a busy city, although I suspect access will be from car parks rather than from pedestrian walkways. Meanwhile, in Muscat, the oft-expressed frustrations of drivers are as nothing compared to the plight of the poor pedestrian.