Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab covering education, youth, and aging. Her writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Smithsonian.
In a car-centric culture, the Omani capital makes moves to encourage more people to try transit.
When Sultan Qaboos bin Said took over the Persian Gulf nation of Oman in 1970, the country only had about six miles of paved roads. The former ruler, Sultan Said bin Taimur, Qaboos’ father, had been such an isolationist that he banned anything Western, including radios, sunglasses, and cars. Qaboos, however, pledged to develop Oman’s infrastructure using proceeds from oil sales.
Almost 50 years later, it’s clear that the sultan, now 75, accomplished his goal. Oman has around 18,000 miles of paved roads—all of them chock full of cars. In fact, Oman, and its capital city, Muscat, is known for its car culture. According to the 2012 Oman World Health Survey, more than eight in 10 Omani households own a car.
Muscat sits on the Gulf of Oman, where the rocky Hajar Mountains rise up behind the city, leaving only a narrow strip for building. This geography—combined with the fact that the favored architectural style is one of whitewashed, low-rise buildings—has created a city design with incredible lengthwise sprawl. The capital is physically the size of Los Angeles, but houses less than a quarter of that city’s population of 3.9 million. It’s a very low-density city.
Such a unique city layout and such a small population—plus (until recently) heavily subsidized gasoline provided to citizens by the government—have made cars an easy, attractive means of transport, no doubt contributing to the country’s love of all things automobile. “It’s the ultimate car-based city,” says Aurel von Richthofen, an architect with Future Cities Laboratory Singapore who conducted research on urbanization patterns in Oman from 2010 to 2014. “Muscat’s sprawl affects mobility and transport even more than in sprawling American cities like Los Angeles,” he tells CityLab.
Until recently, Muscat had little in the way of public transportation, save for taxis, an informal system of minibuses, and two very short bus lines. But the country’s population is booming: It increased by 50 percent from 2010 to 2015, with about a quarter of the population making Muscat home. Muscat has well-known parking problems, and Oman ranks as one of the top 10 countries for traffic fatalities in the world. In light of all this, the government decided it was well past time to explore different ways of getting around.
Khalid Al Dirai, chair of the Omani Road Transport Association, told the Emirati newspaper The National in 2014 that “the road projects [currently] being executed in Muscat are not able to absorb the increase in population without development of a mass transit system.”
Al Dirai and other officials hired Spanish consulting and engineering firm INECO to come up with a public transport master plan. A new bus system, which came online in late 2015 and will continue to be rolled out over this year, already runs most of the length of the city. More long-term plans include a light rail system and sea-transport system.
In the (state-friendly) media, residents of Muscat have reacted positively to the buses, calling the riding experience “pleasant” and even a source of “dignity.”
While such accounts might sound almost too rosy, von Richthofen says the buses are indeed popular. The problem with them, he says, is a different one. “The planning has been done top-down, without involvement of stakeholders such as taxi and minibus drivers or citizen participation.”
Yet he notes that one significant sector of the population has benefited. While gender segregation is not as visible in Oman as in, say, Saudi Arabia, some Omani and other Muslim women living in the country prefer not to mix with men who are not relatives. As such, they have felt—and feel—uncomfortable using Muscat’s small and crowded minibuses or dealing with taxi drivers, who are by and large male. The new buses have seats designated for women only, and are seen as an improvement.
“I did not have to haggle with a taxi driver and felt so safe and secure,” a woman named Maryam told the Times of Oman after taking her first journey.