Promoting public transport system

Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

By : Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

We must admit that urban transportation in major Saudi cities is in a chaotic state, and the main culprits are greed and lack of adequate enforcement of existing regulations. Most cities lack good quality bus services, and Riyadh will be the first to have a metro system in a few years when construction of it is finished.

In the early 1980s I used to take SAPTCO buses from my grandmother’s home in Jeddah to King Abdul Aziz University where I was studying. They were clean, efficient and on time. They even had sections in the back for women to use. Fast forward to today and many younger Saudi women find it hard to believe that we had buses that they could use safely and easily. Of course, there were taxis back then too, as well as the small mini-buses driven wildly by drivers in a hurry to get to their next stop. For sure one risked one’s life a little more on those small buses and ran the chance of being pickpocketed too!

In the late 1980s and early 1990s Saudi businessmen decided to invest in the limousine business by buying fleets of cars to run as taxis, and imported drivers from Egypt, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan to drive them. All the taxis were nice and shiny in the beginning, equipped with air-conditioning and meters that were actually used. But soon meters were not being switched on, as they have to be by law, forcing passengers to bargain for their fare each time they got into a limousine. Not only is this stressful for passengers and drivers alike, it left the door open for abuse of unsuspecting passengers from out of town who did not know the standard fares for the various routes covered.

Then the owners of these limousine fleets became greedy and decided to stop paying their drivers a monthly salary. Instead they would demand that each driver pay them SR120-150 a day, and “allow” them to keep whatever the extra they made that day. The fleet owners also allowed the drivers to keep the proceeds of one day a week, typically Friday, which should have been their day off. The drivers were also saddled with having to buy their own gasoline and pay for the car’s basic maintenance.

On the surface, this does not seem to be too onerous. But with more and more fleets of limousines being bought, and more drivers imported, the competition for passengers became fierce and resulted in the streets of Jeddah being clogged with too many taxis and not enough customers. This caused many drivers to start working 12-14 hour days just so that they could make enough money to live on and send to their families back home.

In the past several years, Uber started operating in the Kingdom, offering convenient and sometimes cheaper transportation in cities with just a few clicks on one’s cellphone. But unlike in other countries, fleets of cars were being bought by Saudi businessmen who then hired foreign drivers to use them through the Uber app. This led to me being driven several times in Uber-registered SUVs in Riyadh in November, and every time the driver was a foreigner who told me he did not own the vehicle.

The main victims of all of this have been independent Saudi drivers, who find it very hard to compete with the fleets of limousines and Uber-SUVs price-wise. Saudi drivers have higher income expectations than the foreign drivers, and see the competition as unfair for having lower labor costs.

So whose side should the government come down on? Should lower limousine fares be the ultimate goal to favor customers, or should the jobs of Saudi limousine drivers be protected by restricting the entry of foreign drivers into the country? These are fairly complex issues to be tackled with. I believe that a middle ground can be reached where limousine and Uber fares remain competitive, but where Saudi drivers are not driven out of work.

And Saudi cities urgently need decent, clean and air-conditioned buses that anyone, local or foreign, can use to get around. As our cities continue growing at breakneck speed, we will have larger and larger traffic jams. Encouraging people to keep buying more and more cars is not the smart way forward. The public must have the option to choose between taking a bus, metro, taxi or their own cars to get around.

Our government needs to rethink the excessive number of visas given to limousine companies to bring in foreign drivers. This glut of taxis on our streets is not healthy for our security or environment. And the public deserves better than the dirty and broken limousines that Saudi-owned companies insist on keeping on our streets. The livelihood of Saudis, as well as the quality of our urban mobility, should be upmost in the minds of the authorities, and not the pockets of the owners of taxi fleets.

The writer is a Saudi journalist based in Brazil.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in the Column section are their own and do not reflect RiyadhVision’s point-of-view.


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