Once again the UAE, or Dubai to be precise, is leading the way in the proposed introduction of road tolls in the GCC. “Salik”, as the new toll systems will be called, will begin in July with initial toll points on Sheikh Zayed Road. Will the other GCC countries, facing ever increasing congestion on their roads follow suit, or will this remain a Dubai alone initiative? For those getting frustratingly ensnarled in the ever congested roads of Riyadh or Jeddah at all times of the day or night, it seems that the introduction of toll roads could be one answer to improve the quality of life. Governments around the world have toyed with tolls on major highways. The US highway system is a tribute to that, with other countries following on some but not all sections of their highways.
It was London that took the bold, but potentially politically unpopular decision, to introduce congestion charges in certain zones of the city, with motorists soon wary of crossing into the dreaded “C” or Congestion zones, displayed so prominently on the roads. The mayor of London has now deemed that the introduction of the congestion charge has been so successful to ease “unwanted” traffic into central London, that the congestion zones are being expanded into other outlying zones. Whether this will be accepted more quietly than the initial central London zoning, is another matter. This has not stopped the UK government from introducing “pay-as-you- drive” legislation in Parliament, whereby a road transport bill will give UK local authorities the power to introduce road pricing in towns and cities. The local schemes, it seems, are seen as a precursor to a wider national scheme that would track the hapless motorists by satellite and charge them about SR10 a mile on busy roads. Is this the end of motorway or city driving as we know it? What are the benefits and costs to society? Can these schemes be realistically implemented in the Kingdom and the Gulf, as Dubai seems to be now doing on some major highways?
In the UK, it has been estimated that around 24 billion sterling would be collected a year by 2025 or SR187 billion at current exchange rates. The UK motorists are not keeping quiet — some two million online petitions were received on the Downing Street website against the scheme by irate drivers, despite the fact that widespread road pricing is 10 years away.
The arguments that rage on road toll are whether these are “stealth taxes”, imposed by government as an easy way to raise revenues, with no intention of easing on congestion, ostensibly the ultimate goal. Arguments against toll road charges state that any successful measure of congestion control needs to ensure that those driven off the road by toll charges have alternative means of public transport available to them. Small businesses and others located in the centers where congestion charges are applied have also added their voice that, without an alternative and efficient public transport system in place, businesses and city centers would die. For those of us working and living in the Gulf, city center life is where most of shopping and the hustle and bustle of life seem to congregate, although super shopping malls are now moving outside city centers. Gulf city center congestion charges would certainly have detrimental economic effects on the small- and medium-sized enterprises — the very same SMEs that governments are trying to encourage to create job opportunities.
This is a valid point and goes to the heart of the matter in the scale of toll charges and easing of congestion on the one hand, and ensuring that people and businesses continue to move and transact, without too much of a hindrance on the other. In London, the imposition of congestion charges took place along with renewed investment in public transport — both buses and underground train systems. Statistics show that in 2005 and 2006, bus and train journeys rose by around 2 percent per annum, but fell in the rest of England. The introduction of congestion charges in London was preceded by an effective public awareness campaign to ensure that motorists knew what was permissible or not, and how much and where to pay for the tolls.
This was not lost on Dubai, which launched a public awareness campaign for “Salik”, aimed at explaining to motorists how to register for the service and make use of it. The Dubai campaign also provides information about the selling points on where the toll cards will be made available, and how to recharge their cards. This is in line with e-government implementation in the UAE. Without this means of government — public relationship and interaction, the message could have been more difficult to put across or implement. Dubai believes that the proposed toll, albeit for a few key roads, will result in forcing off the roads those who do not need to be on the road, and ease on road infrastructure maintenance.
In general, motorists might not be opposed to being charged if the money raised was used to improve public transport. What they do mind is being “ripped off” if they have no alternative means of transport. Should such a situation arise, a perceptible shift in urban living and community clusters might take place, whereby many more people will opt to work out of home and not commute — something now achievable in the era of IT communication. Video conferencing would also ensure that executives are kept in touch with each other. City face-to-face meetings are kept to a minimum.
Is this practicable for Saudi Arabia, where face-to-face meetings are an important part of business dealings? More to the point, is it imaginable that citizens will give up their cars and hop on bus No. 14 or whatever, to central Riyadh, Jeddah or Alkhobar? Is it too late to consider a tramway system for the major Saudi cities that covers most areas and runs on time? One can only imagine, but if nothing is done to ease the ever increasing congestion of Saudi and some other Gulf cities, then the day will surely come when total gridlock will be our daily burden. Toll charges and easing off the roads of those who need not be on the roads, is only one means. Another strategy now adopted in the Kingdom, is to create new “Economic Zones” or Economic Cities across all of Saudi Arabia, so as to ease on inward migration to the larger cities.
A comprehensive public transport structure, in conjunction with a toll system is the solution however for cities such as Riyadh or Jeddah until the Economic Cities take off. The windfall surpluses now being generated from high oil prices should allow the GCC governments to seriously upgrade their public transport systems, so that using such a system becomes a joy, rather than wishing being dead instead of being seen using them. Just think of the New York subway and how it has changed. Even white-collar Wall Street bankers now use it. Debating this matter from now is essential. Dubai has broken a taboo and shown the way...
(Dr. Mohamed A. Ramady is a visiting associate professor, finance and economics at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, Dhahran.)