It's been abut a week and a half since the Dubai Metro opened for regular service. During its first week of operation, the new rail system was besieged by curious residents and suffered some technical malfunctions. This is to be expected. However, as the technical glitches are worked out and the novelty fades, the question remains: will people in a city as automobile-dependent as Dubai actually use the system?
Yes, they will. At least some of them. Eventually. Depending on various factors. In this regard, Dubai is no different than any city in the United States.
Obviously, there is a certain segment of the population that will be using the Dubai Metro on a pretty frequent basis, simply because they will have no choice. These are the laborers who do not own automobiles and who currently depend on the RTA's bus network to get around town, and these are the people who are going to be required to ride the Metro for at least part of their journey as the RTA restructures the bus network to feed into the rail lines.
And just as obviously, there is a certain segment of the population that will not use public transportation, even in the form of a sleek, fully-automated train system, under any circumstances.
For everyone else, the answer will depend on how convenient the Dubai Metro is for the trips they need to make. Right now, the system's utility is probably limited to a rather small percentage of Dubai's population of "choice" riders; that is, people who have their own automobiles. The Red Line is the only alignment that is currently in operation, and only 10 of the 29 total planned stations are open. Unless you both live and work near one of these stations, you're probably not going to choose to use the train.
However, once the remaining Red Line stations are opened, and once the Green Line is complete and operational sometime next year, then the system will be more useful to more people simply because its service footprint will be larger. Once again, however, this footprint will be limited to a relatively small area around the stations. "Choice" riders will generally not want to use feeder buses to get to the stations, nor will they want to walk to stations in Dubai's 110-degree summertime heat. The Dubai Metro does feature park and ride facilities that people can drive to, but these are located at the ends of the Emirate. Residents who live towards the center of Dubai are probably not going to drive to one end or the other simply in order to ride the train. Taxi queues will be provided at all Metro stations, however, and that along with Dubai's relatively cheap taxi fares might make that a viable manner of accessing the trains.
One weapon the RTA does have in its arsenal to encourage Metro ridership is the SALIK toll system. The RTA could put more toll checkpoints along major throughfares like Sheikh Zayed Road in order to discourage private automobile use. And, although the severe slump Dubai is experiencing because of the economic crisis has lessened traffic on the roads somewhat, if and when Dubai's economy recovers, the horrendous traffic congestion will inevitably return, thereby creating another natural disencentive to driving.
And finally, don't forget the business travelers and the tourists. Dubai has a lot of them and, for getting around it's either the taxi or the Dubai Metro. Dpending on how close their hotels are to stations and how comfortable they are with rail transit in their native countries, a significant number of them could choose to ride the train, which would generate a real boost to ridership.
The bottom line: it's going to be interesting to see just how well the Dubai Metro actually does. I'm cautiously optimistic.
On a completely personal note, it's great to see a project that I helped design, even if only in a very minor role, come to fruition.