On a typical morning in Amman, Jordan, the 4.5-mile commute from my apartment in the western part of the city to my school can take anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes, often involving several cancelled Ubers, some haggling over taxi prices and the occasional lie to a police officer — “No, sir, this is not an Uber!”
I can pay close to $5 a day for the route that Google Maps estimates should take 17 minutes in “normal” traffic conditions. However, traffic conditions here are anything but normal. Amman’s streets are plagued by myriad problems: The murky legal status of ride-sharing apps, cumbersome taxi encounters and a dearth of efficient, inexpensive public transportation options contribute to the mounting frustration plaguing Amman — impenetrable traffic.
This flawed system requires comprehensive and collective action on the part of the Jordanian government, daily commuters, and private companies and investors who have vowed to make a difference. Here, the streets are the great equalizer. Regardless of where you come from, everyone suffers, and all must work to address Amman’s urban mobility crisis.
With few large-scale public transportation options, most Jordanians own their own cars; nearly 1.5 million cars are registered in Amman. Some resort to taxis and ride-sharing apps like Uber when necessary, while others use the 350 large buses designated for the city of more than 4 million people. These rides account for fewer than 5 percent of journeys in Amman each day, according to a transportation consultant.
Uber, which is unlicensed in Jordan, creates plenty of problems, causing frenzied drivers to concoct a plausible story to deny that they’re paid to drive me. If caught working for Uber, drivers are fined heavily. My first Uber ride in the country from the airport ended with my driver receiving a 100JD — US$140 — ticket and me getting a curt “Ahlan wa sahlan” from the police officer: Welcome to Jordan.
Taxis, while legal, come with risk of a “broken meter,” a tactic often used by drivers who prefer to negotiate prices with their passenger. Cabs are cash only and require precise directions to the destination. All in all, they can be cumbersome and unreliable.
Smaller “coaster buses,” which operate along a fixed route throughout the city, may be a cheaper option but cost more time. Holding space for 20 to 25 passengers, these buses don’t depart until they are completely full, which can take over an hour during certain parts of the day.
Regardless of the transportation method, the inevitable soul-crushing, maddening traffic remains. In what is designed as a two-lane street, I’ve counted up to 13 distinct lanes of cars attempting to merge into seven new lanes of their own creation.
The sheer volume of people and the speed at which they migrated to Amman is a significant factor in the city’s traffic nightmare. The population of Jordan has grown by over 87 percent within the past decade, while Amman’s population has more than doubled.
Infrastructure simply hasn’t been able to keep up, and some believe the country may have already lost its opportunity to implement another viable option like a subway or above-ground tram: New construction undertakings would only exacerbate the existing traffic problem.
Still, a Rapid Bus Expansion project, which would involve operating modern buses that could carry approximately 120 passengers on their own designated lanes along Amman’s busiest streets, is expected to launch later in 2018. This project, if it moves forward, would be a great step in the right direction.
These issues are felt profoundly by members of society at each level. A 2014 government study on youth unemployment, currently at about 39 percent in Jordan, found that about 55 percent of respondents cited transportation barriers as a primary reason for failing to keep or find a job.
Not only are ride-sharing apps convenient and affordable when they work without police interference, but they also have the potential to address the high unemployment rate in Jordan. Careem, a ride-sharing app for the Arab world, planned to create 10,000 jobs in the country by 2018.
Even Syrian and Iraqi refugees cite the traffic and cost of transportation as a major deterrent to accessing many of the resources the Jordanian government has made available to them, including NGOs, community centers and support groups.
In the end, everyone loses. Valuable time, money and energy are being wasted in 13 lanes of cars crowded around a single roundabout.
Ride-sharing apps should be allowed to operate unambiguously in Amman, road conditions must be improved and legitimate, and accessible public transportation projects need to be undertaken if the capital is to continue to grow as a hub of prosperity and stability in the Middle East.
Hannah Urtz is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. Amman It appears online every other Thursday.