Public Transport in Amman: Bigger is Better

Amman’s population has reached 4 million, yet the city’s public transport network remains largely reliant on smaller vehicles. This is inefficient and requires an overhaul in the way people move about the capital.

By Hazem Zureiqat

Public Transportation

Early in the second half of the twentieth century, following the Kingdom’s independence, Amman was a very different city than it is today. Employment and commerce were generally centered in the downtown area, and people lived on the surrounding hills. Serveeces, or shared taxis, were sufficient back then in providing public transport service. The population was small and its distribution somewhat sporadic, so these smaller vehicles were ideal, especially for maneuvering the narrow, hilly roads.

In the following decades, Amman grew—sometimes abruptly. The city expanded, especially to the north and west, and with it the road network. Public transport, however, did not catch up at the same pace for a number of reasons. Today, the composition of the public transport fleet remains skewed towards smaller vehicles. We have approximately 3,000 serveeces and 200 low-capacity Coaster buses which can carry up to 23 passengers each. There are also some 11,000 yellow taxis, which aren’t technically public transportation, but are largely used in the same manner. All these heavily outweigh the number of large buses on the city’s roads, which stands at a mere 300.

This means that 60 percent of the public transport seating capacity in Amman—a city of 4 million people according to the most recent census—is on lower-capacity vehicles.

Clearly, this is inefficient. Amman has grown to become a large metropolitan area. Although not as dense as other cities in the region and around the world, the city still has nodes with high concentrations of homes and work places connected by high-capacity corridors. Such a setting often requires high-capacity public transport to provide adequate service. Having one large bus, rather than 10 serveeces, run from point A to point B is efficient, more environmentally friendly, and causes less congestion. It can also improve traffic safety conditions on the road.

But the solution doesn’t simply rest in replacing our entire public transport fleet with large buses. Amman remains a complex city, in terms of topography and land use distribution. What we need is a structured and organized hierarchy for public transport, with mass transit—such as rail and bus rapid transit (BRT)—at the top, followed by large buses and then lower-capacity vehicles like Coasters and serveeces (or some alternative to those). The top tiers can serve the main corridors, while the lower tiers can provide feeder services to residential neighborhoods and hilly areas that are difficult to serve with larger vehicles.

This concept was clearly highlighted in Amman’s 2008 Transport and Mobility Master Plan. Although much more needs to be done, the Greater Amman Municipality has started this process of restructuring by realigning serveece routes in certain neighborhoods. This is not an easy process, as it has legal and regulatory implications with long-established operators. It also has to go in tandem with increasing the capacity of public transport in the city.

Furthermore, developing this hierarchy is challenging because it should not come at the expense of service quality. Many public transport users in Amman today actually prefer smaller vehicles, because they are faster and run at a higher frequency. Increasing the number of large buses has to take that into account through subsidies that ensure a high frequency and through other means.

Another aspect of service quality is the number of interchanges—switching from one vehicle to another within a trip. A hierarchy doesn’t necessarily mean buses should only run on main roads and serveeces should only run within neighborhoods. This may require people to switch between modes multiple times to get to their destinations. A balance must be achieved between the efficient distribution of vehicles and service quality, both in terms of travel time and the number of interchanges.

A restructuring of public transport fleets shouldn’t just be confined to Amman; it should also encompass routes connecting different Jordanian cities and the public transport networks within them.