Waiting for the Bus: Rerouting Commutes in the Middle East
Commuters in every country face challenges in urban mobility. Why are short trips such a pain point for commuters in cities across the Middle East?
Sandbox is a product-centric view of how technology companies are built in emerging ecosystems. Thanks to everyone who provided valuable feedback on my last post, and welcome to new subscribers and readers! To kick off my product-centric content, I’m adopting a format that splits each topic into two blog posts:
one post will introduce a problem and provide a regional context
the second post will take a deep dive into a company that's solving for the problem
The idea is to intimately explore what should be the driving force behind any new product: the problem it solves for.
“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”
If you've ever spent time in the Middle East, you'd probably be skeptical of anyone claiming they could build a micro-mobility solution for the region. Summer highs reach above 45°C (113°F for the baseball lovers among you) and braise anyone unfortunate enough to be outdoors in humidity that makes them question whether they're standing in the Amazon. Moreover, outside of the Gulf Cooperation Council States (GCC), like the United Arab Emirates, road and transport infrastructure are weak at best (there's still the same pothole on my street in Jordan that I sprained my ankle in when I was 12). And those are just the barriers to adoption.
Urban mobility in the Middle East has improved by leaps and bounds in the past ten years. Municipalities broke ground and completed public transit programs, ride-hailing launched in the region, and governments have thrown their weight behind the private sector in building innovative new solutions. However, the underlying challenges are as ubiquitous in frontier markets as in developed markets, and in countries lacking robust public transport infrastructure, the problems grow with the population. Today, the low-hanging fruit lies with short, first, and last-mile trips: the distance a commuter needs to travel from a transit stop to their destination, or vice versa.
Over the past ten years, technology has been used in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region to address various problems. Every successful outcome in the sector had three commonalities: tech enablement of operations, close collaboration with regulators, and macro-level culture shifts. Yet, despite the progress made to date, mobility remains a persistent challenge for every demographic and socioeconomic group. These Regional challenges offer opportunities to leverage technology to complement public transit and solve for short-distance trips.
In the Middle East, we have two archetypes of urban mobility:
First, look at the developed Gulf cities with reliable intra-city public transport (bus, metro, or both) supplemented by private vehicles and limited informal transport (private buses). The primary challenges are the cost of travel time and availability (both in wait time and frequency).
For the rest of the region, including the Levant (Jordan, Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon), Iraq, Yemen, and Egypt, the public transportation infrastructure is much weaker, and informal transport fills the gaps. For example, Cairo's streets, notorious for their 24/7 traffic, are overlaid with intricate informal bus networks operating via hand signals from street-hailing passengers. Amman’s Bus Express is famous locally for taking 12 years and hundreds of millions of US dollars to complete what amounted to a mediocre method of transport.
For the sake of brevity, I'll narrow the geographic focus of this article to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. However, Commuters face problems in these markets which can be extrapolated to nearly every emerging and frontier market.
Without prescribing a specific solution, we will consider the five challenges of urban mobility through the lens of micromobility: traffic, pollution, cost, accessibility, and reliability. The United States Federal Highway Administration broadly defines micromobility as "any small, low-speed, human- or electric-powered transportation device, including bicycles, scooters, electric-assist bicycles, electric scooters (e-scooters), and other small, lightweight, wheeled conveyances. The potential impact of a solution in this space is significant, as short-distance trips targeted by micromobility drive the challenges highlighted above.
In MENA, micro-mobility solves all the critical challenges of urban mobility and extends to offering ancillary benefits. But, much to the dismay of economists and auto company shareholders, micromobility addresses some issues too well; we'll cycle back to this in Part II.
Let's jump onto the freeway of uphill battles for micromobility in the region, starting with the daily life struggle not a single commuting soul is immune from: traffic. Unfortunately, traffic in many cities in the Middle East is abysmal; TomTom's traffic index contains limited data for Middle Eastern cities, but the results for the top three worst offenders are as I would've expected based on years of painful experience. So I'll save you some time poking around the TomTom traffic index link above and give you the bottom line: Cairo's traffic is objectively worse than that of New York and Los Angeles.
As a frequent traveler to Cairo, I was surprised. I would have expected Cairo to stack up much worse. To optimize my travel time in recent years, I took up the habit of taking business calls and completing light work during my Uber trips in and around the city. If working on the go isn't your cup of tea, you can enjoy the sights from the car window. Like this one:
I dug deeper into the topic to clearly define the impact micromobility could have on traffic. A study from Carnegie Mellon University zeroes in on how micromobility — namely e-bikes — can affect congestion. The study showed that, in Seattle, even if 10% of short car trips during peak afternoon travel were replaced with micromobility, more than 4,800 car trips would not happen, decreasing vehicle miles traveled by more than 7,300 miles a day, a reduction of 2.76 metric tons of CO2. For comparison, Greater Seattle is roughly the same population as Dubai but three times the area.
The second challenge of urban mobility is pollution. Estimates peg transport emissions at 25-35% of total greenhouse gas emissions, a driving factor of global warming threat to our planet. Countries in the Middle East, unfortunately, are not known for their profound and far-reaching commitments to reducing global emissions.
Estimates peg transport emissions at 25-35% of total greenhouse gas emissions, a driving factor of global warming threat to our planet.
At a more micro-level, pollution negatively impacts the health of city residents. Cairo, Dubai, and Riyadh are ranked in that order for air quality. According to IQAir, The air quality in Cairo varies between 10 and 100 times more polluted than the acceptable worldwide standards.
I want to remind you that even the most innovative solutions with incredible potential can be implemented poorly and have adverse effects. In the case of micromobility, there's still a lack of consensus on whether solutions today have a net-positive influence on greenhouse gas reduction. In theory, net emissions generated by bike and scooter sharing could be zero. However, in practice, the charging and redistribution of bikes between stations necessitate the use of fossil fuels.
Another major challenge for urban commuters in MENA is cost efficiency. I say efficiency because no matter where you are, there are mobility options: public, private, or informal. However, there is always the tradeoff of time versus cost. For example, a car might be the most efficient mode of transport, but unsustainable for regular commuting patterns.
With annual per capita incomes in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt of $66K, $48K, and $13K, respectively, buying and maintaining a private vehicle isn't always possible or practical.
To illustrate the cost of transport for individuals without cars, let's use the example below. The images below show an area called "Jumeirah Lake Towers," or 'JLT.' Aside from being home to around 60,000 residents, there are restaurants, offices, and retail stores in the area.
Traveling from JLT Cluster M to the DMCC metro station would take three minutes by car (assuming no wait time) and be priced at the minimum Dubai taxi fare of 12 AED (around $3). A walk would take 18 minutes (recall the temperature and humidity in the summer hampering this as a viable option). A bike or scooter would take no more than five minutes and would have no incremental cost to the user if they subscribe to a local scooter or bike sharing program.
If we assume that there is only a gap in first-mile coverage and 260 work days in a year, that's a gross savings of around $1,500 compared to taking a taxi. Add 30% to this cost for ride-hailing.
Pricing here requires careful consideration and localization. Per-trip pricing can discourage usage, while subscription pricing plus overage fees can encourage the replacement of walking trips with a bike or scooter. Again, solution design and customer discovery play a significant role in easing the challenges of urban mobility.
Accessibility is a challenge to mobility the further one moves from the center of a city. I would define accessibility according to three criteria: availability, timing, and safety.
Availability is a user's physical proximity to a mobility solution, the number of transits required to utilize mobility services, and the physical accessibility for handicapped commuters. Availability is represented by a user's proximity to public transport stations, availability of in-app ride-hailing services in a given location, or the supply of bikes/scooters/car-sharing vehicles at their respective stations. Much of availability is driven by solution density. We also must not forget that accessibility can differ based on neighborhood and socioeconomic class.
And what good is a mobility option if it operates on restricted timing? For example, if a morning bus operates on a once-an-hour schedule during morning commuting hours, it limits the flexibility and accessibility to prospective riders.
Last but certainly not least, safety is a significant issue, especially for women. As someone who has worked in ride-hailing in these markets, I can confidently share that we are prone to safety incidents across all modes of transport. A unique selling proposition offered by mobility players across the spectrum over the past ten years was safety for women who consistently faced sexual harassment in public and informal transport. In a (post?) COVID-world, we must also be mindful of public health and restrictions to public transit methods. One of the salient benefits of bike and scooter sharing in London, for example, was the ability of commuters to avoid close, indoor contact with other individuals during the pandemic's peak.
Finally, we arrive at an urban mobility challenge we can all relate to: reliability. There's nothing more anxiety-inducing than waiting for your transport when you're running late, especially when you've planned ahead of time. Unsurprisingly, studies in the United States have found that unpredictable travel times can adversely impact a commuter's productivity through lateness for work, absenteeism from work, decreased concentration after an unreliable trip, exhaustion, and poor sleep quality. Unquestionably, at scale, this can have societal health and macroeconomic impacts.
Another study found that car commuters showed significantly higher levels of stress and negative mood than train commuters. The analysis indicated that the increased stress and negative mood associated with car commuters were attributed to unpredictable travel times.
Before we discuss solutions in part II, I want to underline three critical points from the above. First, mobility requires a deep partnership between the public and private sectors if it isn't apparent. More is needed than to build a technology platform and remove barriers to access; mobility requires sizable financial investments and ongoing engagement from municipalities.
The second is that mobility is, in its nature, a complex operations-led topic supported by technology. Any solution requires extensive coordination between manufacturers, municipalities, and property developers. The complexity is compounded by the lack of transparency and backdoor deals characteristic of business in the Middle East.
The third is that while the Middle East is not a monolith, the problems that plague the region are indifferent to borders. In the case of urban mobility, the challenges are surprisingly homogeneous across markets with entirely different levels of infrastructure investment, income per capita, and demographic makeups. If the problems are consistent, there's merit in instituting a common platform in each market to address them and localize along the way.
Solutions, however, are for part II.
Thanks for reading Part I; subscribe here to read Part II next week!