Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
How to sell public transit in a city that loves its luxury cars.
Four years ago, the Dubai metro hosted its first morning commuters. It was not smooth sailing -- one train malfunctioned, leaving passengers stranded for two hours.
Things have gotten better since then. The 46.5 mile, self-driving system (it still employs humans to supervise the train in case of emergency) currently has two lines (Red and Green) and 44 stations. Three more lines (Blue, Purple, Gold) are under consideration.
The system carried 109.5 million passengers in 2012, a substantial increase of 40 million from the previous year, thanks in part to the Green line's late 2011 debut. It's currently the world's longest, self-driving metro system.
The city's love of private vehicles (the fancier the better) and history of discrimination (see: shopping malls banning migrants) created marketing issues for the system. How do you convince wealthy, skeptical citizens that a ride on the Dubai Metro could be exquisite? Here's their answer: A promotional video that equates using the new rail system to driving a Porsche with your sunglasses on through a lightly trafficked road, or being a soaring bird of prey:
It even has "Gold Class" cars, the system's equivalent to an airline's "Business Class" section, filled with leather seats and plush pile carpets. For the common man, there's a "Silver Class" section (economy) as well as cars for women and children only.
Dubai Metro has had its share of problems beyond public transit stigma and opening day hiccups. Contractors slowed down work over billions of dollars in disputed payments with Dubai's Roads and Transport authority before eventually reaching a settlement in 2010. A migrant worker committed suicide on the tracks last year. The two lines that are operating cover mostly affluent areas of the city, making it difficult for Dubai's poorest residents to access one of the world's most affordable systems. Future expansion is on hold for now with no financing or timetable in place.
From the corporate side of things, a nice story was reported last year about the first ever Emerati woman to become a train supervisor in Dubai: