Ayman Smadi, GAM’s veteran transit chief, says the newly reinvigorated Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project is just one of the many examples of how the city is finally facing up to its huge transport challenges.
By Laith Abou-Ragheb
After years of setbacks and delays, GAM’s ambitious BRT project is back on track. With its $166 million finance package reinstated, work has now started on the second phase of the 32-kilometer project which, once completed in 2017, should carry around 200,000 passengers per day.
Plans for another BRT linking Amman with Zarqa are also well underway, and GAM is looking to develop a host of other transport projects which range from the modest; LED street lighting, to the gargantuan; a metro.
At the center of all this activity is Ayman Smadi, GAM’s long-serving executive director of Transport and Traffic Management. Here he explains why he’s confident that Amman’s hard-to-ignore transit problems are finally being tackled head on.
How big a difference will the BRT make to daily lives of public transport users?
The commuting time between Amman and Zarqa will be cut by half, as will journey times around Amman. Everything that people rightfully complain about today—the quality of buses, the reliability of the system, the quality of the service and the overall experience, the driver, the bus stop and the bus itself—all of this we will fix. This is what the BRT is all about: improving service.
For such a supposedly important project, why has the BRT experienced so many delays?
It was a combination of factors. One big reason was the lack of trust between the citizen and the public sector. I think this is a problem that has haunted Jordan. People are just getting sick of all the accusations. And look where it’s left us. We’ve scared off investors and hindered projects that could have helped. I think there’s now a genuine desire on behalf of all stakeholders to finally get a handle on the transport challenges facing the city. His Majesty sets the pace. In his guiding speech, he mentioned public transport. The government, in its 2025 program, identified transport as a priority alongside water, energy, and education.
Are all the bus operators on board, too?
Everyone understands what needs to be done. But sometimes the problem with the public sector is figuring out how to do it, especially when you have an inheritance that consists of different operators and companies. There are about 200 coasters (Toyota mini buses) in Amman. There is clearly strong resistance to change, not only to the BRT, but to any attempt at trying to organize the sector. There have been a lot of experiences where individual owner operators worry that any attempt at organization will cut their bottom. But this is not the case. I tell them today we’re looking at a 5 percent mode share from the daily trips in Amman. If with the BRT I can double that, people are not going to fly away to the BRT stations. I’m not reaching into their neighborhoods. I want them to reposition themselves so that they feed passengers to this main pipeline. Most of them get it, but we need to do more in terms of showing them an organization model. For example, the BRT is an international tender. But does this mean I’m going to bring 1,000 people from France or Britain to run the system? No, I’m going to bring a few experts because I want their knowhow. But they will come here and they will teach and hire, as I’m creating job opportunities.
How bad is the traffic in Amman?
We are still better than some of the neighboring cities, but it’s getting very, very bad. First, traffic patterns are hard to identify. Second, we are running out of space. Cars are littering our streets, roads, yards, and parks. In order to organize parking I have to provide you with an alternative way of getting to your destination. Third, we have sensors at certain locations that collect data and we’ve noticed that travel times have gone up by 20 to 30 percent over the past five years. Just multiply this by a million cars, and fuel costs, and time. This is very significant if we want to be a more productive society.
Besides the BRT, what else are you doing to get a handle on this problem?
We are increasing the number of buses in the city. We’re now planning a shuttle service for the Abdali area that’s similar to one up and running downtown. We think it will encourage people to ditch their cars at parking lots and then move around the city. We also want people to get excited about electric vehicles. His Majesty is a big fan of this technology. We want to produce solar power to run electric vehicles. They’re clean and if the power is coming from the sun, then that’s fantastic. We’re setting up a pilot project with an American and a French firm which will include 10 solar charging stations. As GAM, we’re also looking to acquire some electric vehicles to evaluate them as part of our fleet. And we’ve also facilitated through an amendment to contract with Al Moumayaz Taxi that we can ask them to bring in up to 100 electric cars. This should help launch this technology at the national level. Also, we’re finally about to get a centralized taxi call center. It should be up and running in a few months. You call the center, the system will identify your approximate location, and patch you through to the nearest taxi.
How are you going to tackle the city’s parking problems?
Let’s say a particular street has 10 parking spaces. What’s best, if I can have 50 people use them during a two or three hour period, or just 10 people use them for the whole day? The tender took way longer than I planned, but we’re finally in the final negotiations to organize on-street parking. We’re going to be setting up pay and display machines with enforcement. We have 200 machines which will probably control around 4,000 spaces.
Are you planning to introduce more traffic lights on Amman’s main roundabouts?
With the Seventh Circle, the objectives were to reduce delay and improve traffic flow. We managed to do this by eliminating through-movements. For this most part it’s working, but the people coming from the direction of the Airport suffer a little, and we’re still working on resolving this. The Eighth Circle was an entirely different story. The aim there was to try to improve the level of service, but we also wanted to make the intersection behave. It was a jungle. There have been some initial problems with that project because of the effect of the work being carried out at the Bayader interchange close by. There were also some delays in getting the signals linked to our traffic management center. But I metered the distance to clear the Seventh Circle. It used to be 12 minutes. Now most of the runs that I’ve timed, it’s about six. On the Third Circle we did something without traffic lights by regulating how cars enter the roundabout. We had a few complaints at the beginning but motorists soon realized the roundabout is now almost clear at most times because the metering happens outside the roundabout. We’re now looking at the Fifth and Sixth Circles, as well as the intersection of Al Madinah Street and Mecca Street.
The traffic cameras that were recently installed around Amman have proven to be particularly controversial. Are you confident they’re making our streets safer?
We now have about 20 around Amman. It’s going fantastic. The spots where we have the cameras, the speeds are so regulated. We’ve reduced red light running on two major signals on Queen Zein Street. This is the future.
Amman is growing fast. How will the city’s transport infrastructure need to develop beyond the BRT?
Today, the population of Amman is about 3.5 million. That rises to 5.5 to 6 million if you widen that out to the Amman region. Shame on us if we don’t plan on a metro or some rail-based transport. If, for example, we punched a 10 kilometer line from the customs center in Al Qwueismeh to Sports City, it could carry 28,000 passengers per hour, per direction. It would make a huge difference. The idea is that we have to do it via value capture. This allows cities to do bigger projects like this through direct funding. As a city I can facilitate development at major nodes. Look at the Al Mahatta terminal; it handles 400,000 passengers daily at the very least. Imagine if you’re only selling falafel there. So the idea of creating value through real estate development at these nodes will help finance the infrastructure.