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The Middle East has a traffic problem. Is banning cars the solution?

Private cars are a burgeoning problem for overcrowded cities in the Middle East

The Middle East has a traffic problem. Is banning cars the solution?
[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

Look at your street. What do you see? Probably a long line of cars.

If you’ve spent a few years in any major cities in the GCC, such as Dubai, Doha and Riyadh, you’re familiar with road congestion and how a ten-minute delay can mean 30 extra minutes on the road. 

So, what would happen if we banned cars from cities? 

With the rising cost of fuel, our growing awareness of carbon emissions, and increased parking costs, you’d think now is the time to find a better way. 

With rapid urbanization, GCC countries face several urban development challenges, among which traffic congestion is a significant concern. The future of mobility is not flying cars or flying taxis. 

Instead, the future will be more cars and buses on the road if cities are not redesigned to accommodate the influx of privately owned vehicles.

An increasing number of cars on the road is becoming a growing concern for more than just the collective carbon footprint. While studies are limited, a report found that an average trip in Dubai takes 29% longer than it would under uncongested conditions. While this is better than journey times in most large Asian cities (Bangkok 61%, Jakarta 58%, and Beijing 46%), it still lags behind the best in class in the West (20% or less).

Coupled with increasing congestion are concerns about road safety, the rising death toll, the high cost of public transport, and the lack of alternative transport options. 

An analysis of the development and effectiveness of urban transportation systems worldwide showed that Africa and the Middle East rank as the least successful (37.1 and 34.1 out of a maximum possible score of 60), contrasting with cities in Asia and Western Europe that achieved well above the 50-point mark.

Roads are getting more crowded due to a spillover of privately-owned vehicles. “Cultural attachment to ownership is one of the biggest contributors to why people buy and own a car. Even though the average hourly use of a car daily is 1.5 hours, people fail to factor in that 22.5 hours are not utilized for the asset,” says Nicholas Watson, co-founder of UDrive.

However, Watson notes that mindsets are changing due to gaining traction with blended work lifestyles. Yet, there’s a perceived convenience to owning a car. “When you own a car, you know it’s always there for you,” he says. 

To maintain convenience, people will pay for depreciation and management of the asset (maintenance, parking, fuel, etc.). However, that convenience effectively becomes an element of having “disposable income,” he adds. 


In a previous story, Frans Hiemstra, General Manager for Uber in the Middle East and Africa, shared how coupling ridesharing apps with public transit systems could make travel more seamless and fill gaps in transit service if necessary. 

Watson says if there were an alternative way to drive an equivalent vehicle without the hassle of owning one, more people would consider using it. “Much like how Netflix made it okay not to buy DVDs anymore.”

Many mobility platforms, like UDrive, have gained popularity in the region. In 2018, the Egyptian capital became the first city in the world to introduce Uber Bus, also known as Uber Shuttle, due to increased user demand. 

“Alternative public transportation is playing a critical role in improving urban planning and preserving the environment by cutting down congestion and parking footprints,” Hiemstra said. According to Uber, sharing rides makes the price affordable for those traveling to and from work while maintaining the e-hailer’s safety standards.


Cars occupy a lot of space. With the increase in cars, there’s also a burgeoning parking problem. Overall, it seems inefficient and wasteful.

In Europe, one car-sharing car, on average, removes 17 cars from the road. In the UAE, the estimates are at least double that, says Watson. 

This is a reason, he says, why its highest rentals are on per-minute car rentals compared to other platforms across the world, averaging three to four rentals per day, which amounts to over 30 days, that’s up to 120 customers. Even in a scenario with 25% unique customers, that’s 30 cars not purchased or rented long-term for those customers. “It has a remarkable impact,” says Watson.

The fewer cars you have on the street “wasting away,” the less congestion you have, and the more parking spots available. “With a fast-growing population in the GCC, mainly UAE and KSA, you can imagine that the roads, parking, and volume of car capacity simply cannot keep up with the influx of mobile humans. This is why the shift to a sharing economy across many sectors is far more efficient than trying to build bigger roads and or more parking spaces,” he adds.  

Many countries in the Middle East lack efficient public transport. Smart mobility options could provide a solution to a decarbonized future, especially for countries like the UAE, where road congestion is on the rise. 

Switching travelers to public transportation will ease traffic and cut carbon emissions. This may sound overly simplistic, but it is a plausible solution. 

Providing on-demand public transportation services has its challenges. 

“At the heart of solving any challenge like this is building locally — keeping market-specific challenges, infrastructure, regulations, and demand in mind,” Hiemstra said. 

Unlike in Europe, where you have mature public infrastructure, GCC countries have a lot of investment to make to create viable transport solutions. Moreover, globally, road accidents claim over 1.25 million lives each year. In response, many European cities have started to rethink where automobiles can go and are rebuilding roadways while prioritizing alternatives, such as parks and public transportation, to reduce overdependency on cars. 

According to Watson, there is no single solution to mobility and the congestion problem. What propels the future of mobility is a balance of fixed assets (bus, rail/metro) and on-demand services (ride-hailing, vehicle-sharing, car-pooling) for the cities looking at handling congestion efficiency in the face of growth. 

The onus lies with tech providers, city planners, and automobile manufacturers to collaborate and innovate to address the pressing issue of road congestion. They must work together to develop smart, sustainable, and efficient transportation solutions that can meet the growing demands of urban populations while reducing the negative impacts on the environment and overall quality of life.

PwC, Uber Shuttle, and EKar did not respond to Fast Company Middle East’s request for comments on time.

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Rachel Clare McGrath Dawson is a Senior Correspondent at Fast Company Middle East. More