2019 is expected to see the soft launch of the 176km Riyadh Metro and a parallel bus network in Saudi Arabia, bringing new travel options to commuters and reducing urban transit problems in the rapidly growing city. Riyadh’s population is expected to grow from 7 million in 2018 to 8.6 million by 2030 according to Oxford Economics.
Transit-Oriented Developments (TDOs) increase the amount of residential, business and leisure space within walking distance of public transport systems, reducing the number of vehicles on the roads and ultimately promoting sustainable growth—something of growing importance to bustling Middle Eastern cities.
Saudi Arabia especially has witnessed rapid urbanisation since the mid-70s. According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the proportion of the population living in urban areas in Saudi Arabia was and 91% in 2016—up from 58.4% in 1975 and 86.6% in 2001.
Planning for TDOs is now high on the government’s agenda, requiring effort and investment by both the public and private sectors.
The metropolitan cities of Riyadh, Dammam, Jeddah and Makkah have emerged as heavily urbanised cities, characterized by large, low-density, single-use developments. This has led to the dispersion of houses and commercial outlets, thus limiting the integration and “walkability” of the cities and resulting in negative long-term impacts on the environment, natural resources and overall quality of life.
The past decade, however, has seen a shift in urban planning with focus set on expanding TDOs across the Kingdom. Whilst the benefits are paramount, there are several challenges to overcome, namely managing road congestions to improve connectivity and the flow of traffic, and optimizing land use by building more affordable and high-density residences with diverse unit mixes.
As a city grows through urban sprawl, there is naturally an increased number of individuals commuting through private vehicles, exerting pressure on the road network and challenging the connectivity and flow of the city. While the government is taking initiatives to address this, supporting and regulating public transport services, providing a good level of service at an affordable cost, and encouraging private investment in the sector in line with the economic objectives of Vision 2030, will aid in reducing pressures on the road networks.
To meet this need, the Saudi government has approved and launched a number of successful public transport projects. 2018 saw the operation of Al Haramain High-Speed Railway connecting Medina, Makkah and Jeddah, and supporting the growing number of pilgrims to the Makkah region. The Railway also connects to Jeddah Airport and King Abduallah Economic City, the city’s commercial hub, thus easing and promoting business travel.
The structure of housing developments remains largely skewed towards either detached villas or spacious apartments that cater to the traditionally large structure of families in Saudi Arabia. However, with social demographics changing rapidly and the question of affordability increasingly in the limelight, efforts need to be geared towards optimizing the use of land by developing high-density affordable housing solutions with a mixture of unit types and sizes to cater to the younger demography. Already efforts are underway with the Ministry of Housing launching ‘Sakani’, a residential housing project allocating fully constructed housing units, residential land plots and funds to Saudi citizens.
While this initiative is expected to radically transform the housing industry, more private sector participation is needed through providing land at marginal cost, allowing higher floor-area ratio to increase density, and encouraging the use of building technologies to reduce costs.
Dana Salbak is an Associate at JLL MENA