Driving Demographics

We need to start considering what role demographic trends have to play in Jordan’s growing congestion problem.

By Hazem Zureiqat

When we talk about traffic congestion in Jordan, we tend to view it as a snapshot in time and refer to its current state and how it must be addressed. So the thinking goes: Traffic congestion is bad today, so we should fix it.

If there’s any talk about temporal trends, it typically only scratches the surface and sticks to citing statistics on the rise in the number of licensed vehicles, the increasing number of cars entering the Kingdom, or overall population growth.

To truly understand the scale of the problem and its evolution over time, we must go back to the fundamentals. Congestion in cities primarily results from the movement of people. This movement—or the demand for transport—is not an end in itself (people don’t move around for the sake of it). Rather, it is derived from people’s need to access jobs, educational opportunities, shopping, recreation, and so on.

So who are the groups of people moving around? What is their demographic composition, and how will it change over time? These are the questions we should be asking when we talk about traffic congestion and the demand for transport. And when we do consider these questions in forecasting future patterns in Jordan, the outlook becomes much bleaker.There are three issues at play here:

  1. Having a young population means that there will be an explosion in transport demand in the future. According to the 2015 census, close to half of Jordan’s population is under the age of 18. This age group currently demands little from the transport network—both in terms of the number of trips they make (beyond the trip to school) and the infrastructure they need (since they cannot drive). In a few years, however, this will change, and we will be seeing this fairly large segment hitting the road more often and—if things continue the way they are—wanting to buy a car as soon as financially possible. One promising indicator in this respect is the declining birth rate and the fact that in 2015, the “0-4” segment in the population pyramid was actually smaller than the “5-9” segment.
  1. The exceptionally low participation rate of women in the workforce implies that there is dormant demand that may someday be unleashed. Recent statistics show this rate—one of the lowest worldwide—falls just below 13 percent. Hopefully this will eventually increase. But if and when it does, it will surely put greater strain on the transportation network.
  1. Rising levels of income and changing lifestyles will result in more travel. Although somewhat outdated, the most recent travel survey carried out in Amman in 2008 provides some useful insights in this regard. The survey showed that 21 percent of Amman’s residents back then did not make any trip on a typical day (this partly relates to the point above about women). Among the remaining group, 92 percent made only two trips on a typical day—presumably a trip to work or school/university and another trip back home. As incomes rise and lifestyles change, the average number of trips per person will increase. People will have more disposable income to spend on different activities and will leave the house more often. To put this in perspective, an average urban resident in higher income countries makes upwards of three or four trips per day.

Taking these demographic trends into account is critical for the transportation discourse in Jordan. The trends I just highlighted represent a significant challenge, but they can also be viewed as an opportunity. With the right policies and investments, this dormant or “hidden” demand that may come about in the future can be channeled to more sustainable forms of transportation. Improving our public transport system, making our streets more walkable, and embracing innovations in smart mobility and ride-sharing will help pre-empt the problem and avoid suffocating traffic jams.