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Policy Review

Public transport in Saudi Arabia: Embracing comprehensive mobility [free access]

May 1, 2011

Increasing concerns over economic, demographic, land-use, environmental and safety issues have drawn the attention of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the need for providing comprehensive mobility through efficient integration of the multi-modal transport systems in urban areas. Consequently, there are visible signs of a broad policy shift to revamp public transport facilities.


Spread over an area of 2,149,690 sq kms, Saudi Arabia is the largest country in the Gulf region, occupying 80 per cent of the land area of the Arabian Peninsula. It has a population of 27 million which is growing annually at the rate of 2.8 per cent. Saudi Arabia has an oil-based economy with strong government controls. It possesses about 20 per cent of the world's proven oil reserves and ranks as the largest exporter of oil. In 2010, the national gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate was 3.8 per cent. The country is regarded as an attractive destination for foreign investments and business activity.


Despite robust growth of the Saudi economy, developments in the transport sector have not been forthcoming. The poor state of public transport infrastructure is a fall-out of years of neglect. Easy accessibility to private automobiles and low fuel prices have steadily increased automobile traffic levels leading to rise in congestion and accidents in urban areas. As of 2010, the number of accident-related deaths has reached 6,460, resulting in losses of SAR13.6 billion each year. A strong move towards urban mobility solutions is only recent, but it aims to bring about a positive transformation of the country’s public transport system, which in its present capacity is grossly inadequate to meet the burgeoning transportation demands of the Saudi population.


The process of transformation

The impetus to upgrade public transport infrastructure came in 2005 with the government of Saudi Arabia launching a comprehensive transformation process to tackle the urban transport situation by initiating nine integrated mega public transport projects. These key public transport initiatives are described in Table 1.


Table 1: Key public transport initiatives

S. No.




The Holy Shrines Train

A railway line linking the shrines of Mecca in the south and Medina in the north


Al Haramain Rail project

A 444-km high-speed inter-city rail network linking the cities of Medina and Mecca via King Abdullah Economic City, Rabigh, Jeddah and King Abdulaziz International Airport


Riyadh Light-Rail Transit (LRT) and bus feeder route network

Integrated LRT and bus system


Mecca metro and bus feeder route network

An 18.1-km metro line connecting Mina, Muzdalifah and Arafat to Makah


Jeddah LRT and bus feeder route network

A tramway and bus service


Al Medina LRT and bus feeder route network

A 15-km tramway with six lines


North-South Railway line

A railway line linking the cities of Riyadh, Sudair, Qassim and Hail


East-West Railway line

A1,500-km railway link connecting Saudi Arabia's east and west coasts


The Gulf Cooperation Council rail project

A 2,220-km railway network connecting Saudi Arabia with Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE and Oman

Source: International Association of Public Transport


Currently, the high-profile public transport projects underway in the country include the USD3 billion Riyadh LRT system, USD5.6 billion worth of public transport projects under the Jeddah Strategic Development Plan and the 440-km Haramain High-Speed Rail being built in Mecca, Medina, Jeddah and King Abdullah Economic City.

SAPTCO and its initiatives


Spearheading the transformation of the public transport system is Saudi Public Transport Company (SAPTCO), the main and the largest public transport operator in the country. Established in 1979 as a joint-stock company and public transport concessionaire, SAPTCO has been providing urban and intercity services for 30 years under a 35-year concession agreement with the government.


To support the policy shift towards public transport, SAPTCO has redefined its goals and objectives. As part of its new strategy, the transport company is designing and constructing integrated multi-modal public transport infrastructure and coordinating service schedules to provide interconnectivity across these transport modes. It is also exploring new sources of long-term financing at significantly lower costs for ongoing and proposed urban transport projects. The company is actively designing and implementing short-, medium- and long-term plans to propagate a public transport culture in the community through formal and informal endeavours.



The deterioration in public transport facilities in Saudi cities can be attributed to various economic, social and regulatory challenges facing the sector.  Table 2 lists key challenges impeding the development of public transport facilities in urban areas.


Table 2: Challenges impeding the development of public transport in Saudi Arabia




Lack of appropriate policies and legislation to regulate services and facilitate shifting demand from private transport modes to public transport.

The low financial attractiveness of the public transport sector deters private investors.

Lack of awareness on the benefits of public transport

Differences in priorities of executive and legislative authorities responsible for setting up public transport infrastructure and administering transport services.

Removal of government subsidy to public transport concessionaire.

High preference for privacy (especially for women) in sharing rides makes public transport socially unacceptable.

Absence of special infrastructure provisions for public transport (such as dedicated bus/tram corridors or bus priority at traffic signals), especially in cities with a high density of private vehicles.

Low population densities in the Saudi cities due to horizontal expansion, results in a low load and lower revenue for public transport service.

The social status associated with car ownership.



Failure to incorporate the physical requirements of public transport in initial land-use plans.


Easy accessibility to car ownership in relation to personal income, leading to a high ownership rate  compared with other countries.

Low fuel prices (fuel is cheaper than bottled water) make operation of private automobiles very affordable.

Source: International Association of Public Transport


Enabling environment


For public transport to function properly and achieve its goals and objectives, it is essential to create an enabling environment which includes:


Creation of a complete and appropriate public transport infrastructure network, by undertaking projects to construct LRT lines, main stations, substations, dedicated bus lanes, depots, bus stops, shelters, and so on.


Initiation and enforcement of public transport policies and legislation to effectively regulate the sector and facilitate a demand shift from private to public modes of transport.


Provision of an initial subsidy to public transport operators to encourage them to undertake capital-intensive, high-risk mass-transit projects. The subsidy is expected to cover part of the costs and consequently help keep public transport fares low, thereby increasing affordability for price-sensitive commuters.


Application of information technology solutions to provide high service quality and safety. IT features may include electronic ticketing systems, data communication for real-time monitoring, audio-video links, destination signage, navigation assistance, next-stop display and announcements, video surveillance, and vehicle health monitoring.


Spreading the public transport culture through media and community awareness campaigns, whereby people informed of the benefits of using public transport.




Having recognised the need to upgrade its public transport infrastructure, Saudi Arabia has launched several transport projects to provide comprehensive mobility solutions in urban areas. Going forward, a favourable political, economic and social environment will help the government overcome challenges for a timely execution of these projects, which will bring about a much-desired transformation of public transport sector in the country.


(1 SAR [Saudi Riyal] = 0.27 USD)