Going Underground

A metro system for Amman? With the proper planning, the idea might not be as outlandish as you think.

On a few occasions this year, Amman’s mayor Akel Biltaji has expressed enthusiasm for an ambitious plan to construct a metro for the capital. He said the system would include seven to 10 underground stations and would connect Customs Square in southern Amman to the King Hussein Youth City (“Sports City”). Construction by Chinese companies could begin as early as 2025.

The idea of building a metro in the capital isn’t actually that new. The mayor’s statements and the figures he cites are at least partly derived from a 2010 feasibility study funded by a World Bank loan. The study came two-and-a-half years after the transfer to GAM of public transport planning and regulation authorities that fall within its boundaries and aimed at evaluating various rail alternatives suitable for the city (the bus rapid transit, or BRT, had already been slated for construction at the time).

The study recommended building a metro—as opposed to lower-capacity options, such as a light rail or tram—primarily based on expected ridership figures. It estimated capital costs to reach an average of JD140 million per kilometer, according to information published by GAM. A 10-kilometer line would, therefore, cost JD1.4 billion in 2010 prices. That’s a lot of money.

Statements like the mayor’s are bound to create a buzz. Metro systems are attractive; trains are viewed more favorably than buses as they project a more modern image of a city or country and generally provide a better quality of service. I’ve personally spoken to many people who’ve expressed such a notion to me, suggesting various alternatives to the BRT now under construction. “Why didn’t they build a tram?” they would ask, or “What about an elevated train connecting Amman’s hills?” That’s leaving aside the inevitable comparisons made to Dubai’s successful metro.

Few can argue with the fact that Amman needs a modern public transport system that runs on its own, dedicated lines. It’s unacceptable that a city of over 4 million people relies solely on private cars—mostly running with single occupancy—and a conventional public transport system that shares the same road space with regular traffic.

The question of which technology (or technologies) should be adopted for such a system is complex. It’s not as simple as choosing trains because they are faster or look nicer. It involves looking at factors such as capital and operating costs, future demand levels, land uses and densities, construction methods, topography, economic feasibility, and the potential commercial viability (for a private sector operator, for example).

With each of these factors, the lines aren’t always clear. Take demand, for example. The Amman BRT is expected to carry somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 passengers per hour per direction (pphpd)—coming at the lower end of what BRT can achieve, given roadway capacity constraints in Amman. On the other hand, TransMilenio, the BRT system in Bogotá, Colombia which runs along four lanes with high capacity, very frequent buses, carries up to 40,000 pphpd. That’s a capacity higher than what’s achieved by many metro systems worldwide (the London Underground, for example, has a capacity of 30,000 pphpd). I’m not suggesting BRT be adopted across the board. Rather, I’m highlighting the complexity of the question at hand.

Generally, I believe Amman’s topography and urban form require a combination of solutions that form a hierarchy (a concept on which I had written a few months ago in this column): small, low-capacity vehicles such as serveeces and vans to serve the hilly neighborhoods with narrow roads and relatively low densities; conventional buses to serve corridors with medium-level demand; BRT to serve medium-to-high-demand corridors that can accommodate bus lanes (such as Queen Rania Street or the newly constructed Abdoun Corridor); and a limited light rail or metro network —with a combination of underground, at-grade, and elevated portions—serving areas with exceptionally high future demand and where it is required to traverse through hills or dense, congested areas with narrow roads such as downtown.

Another dimension that makes the choice of technology all the more complex is political will and the capacity of the political system to carry out different projects. If the fiasco that ensued the BRT—which is just high-capacity buses running on wheels—is any indication, then a huge undertaking such as a metro will be very hard to push through.