In November/ December 2012, the UN Climate Conference (COP18) took place in Doha, Qatar. Expectations were low from the start, with most parties setting their sights on 2015 when world leaders are expected to construct an agreement strong enough to stay below 2° Celsius of warming. Doha served as a bridge: from the former agreement, towards a new one. It preserved the Kyoto Protocol 8 more years, ensuring a continued international legal framework, and rules for emissions accounting and trading. Attending such a conference is a bit of a mad house: world leaders, delegates, media, academics & activists bustle through the corridors. It is easy to get wrapped up in this bubble-like environment. Outside Doha, outside the environmental community: does anyone notice? While climate scientists anticipate ever-more severe scenarios and former naysayers shift their beliefs, progress remains sluggish. Yet, as global negotiations race forward at a snail’s pace, things are happening. Cities & citizens around the world invest in renewable energy, shift to bikes & public transport, shop at local farmers’ markets or encourage urban farming. Slowly by slowly, this big complicated issue gets a little less complicated. But is this enough? Is this too little too late? It’s hard to say; but still why not try?
I was eager to explore what efforts Doha has made to address climate change – especially since Qatar’s per capita greenhouse gas emissions are among the highest in the world. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear much is underway, yet. Certainly, a large portion of its emissions come from its refineries. Still, Doha has room for improvement. Many residents prefer to live in large freestanding houses in sprawling communities, rather than in city flats – thus dependent on their cars for any and all errands. Traffic is unpredictable & time-consuming. Because of the extreme climate, much of its food is imported – including a growing affiliation for fast food. Of course, these trends are not unique to Doha. And (like elsewhere) car-dependent Qataris suffer from escalating obesity rates. Over-consumption & urban sprawl have led to numerous health and environmental challenges.
A possibility for change remains… Central Doha sits on the Corniche Bay, bordered by the old town (including the Souq Waqif market) and the West Bay Business District. Most of the West Bay was constructed in the last 10 years. Even at this rapid pace, buildings are relatively well-constructed (although using too much glass) with large sidewalks outside. Along the Corniche, a walking path stretches 10 km, connecting East & West Doha, shaded by green spaces separating pedestrians from the cars. In the West Bay, bicycle lanes and pedestrian sidewalks are found (although crosswalks are less prevalent). Perhaps some of bike lanes were built to impress delegates of the climate meeting. I don’t know; I have never been to Doha before. Now that they are there, I hope they will be used and the city’s cycling infrastructure continue to improve.
While many argue the culture and climate do not align with a cycling lifestyle, I believe Doha has the potential to become a cycle-city. The city is flat and already now scattered bike lanes exist. While temperatures reach 45° Celsius (113° Fahrenheit) in the summer, from October to May the weather is quite pleasant. Moreover, as Qataris learn to battle their obesity problem, it is likely they will place a stronger emphasis on fitness. Pedestrians are prevalent in the Souq or enjoying an evening walk along the Corniche; proving that while Qataris (and foreigners living in Doha) love their cars, they are also keen to explore by foot. In the meantime, the car remains king; in part because city buses are unreliable and infrequent, and distances are sprawling. Still I have hope. In the central districts, I encountered many pedestrians and a few cyclists. Similarly, in preparation for the 2022 World Cup, Doha will open a subway. As the city grows and changes, policies and infrastructure to encourage walking, cycling and public transport could have many benefits for the city – helping them reach climate targets, tackle obesity & improve quality of life in their public spaces. Just like the climate negotiations, these things take time – one bike lane at a time.
BLOG UPDATE (11 February 2013):
After my original blog post, I spoke to several friends living in the Middle East (ME) region to verify my observations. They were slightly more realistic than my visions of Cycle-City Doha. Still they agree things are slowly changing. I attempted to summarize their perspectives & experiences below.
Highly dependent on expat and migrant workers throughout the ME; the region has become extremely international; and (as often the case with rapid internationalization) extremely divided: where one comes from & what one does, influences the transport mode they take. As a result, migrant workers board company buses traveling far outside the city to refinery locations; while Qataris & expats stick to private vehicles – leaving few persons waiting for the bus (especially in the summer heat & humidity). Looking to another city in region, Dubai has both a monorail & metro, used by locals & expats. This system is popular and expanding. Perhaps this is the future for Doha’s new metro? Dubai has also made attempts at a “Car Free Day” – great! However, according to my friend’s blog, there was limited promotion of this activity; many people not knowing of it until they read it in the newspaper – the day of the event. Still, some 5000 people participated, up from 3500 the year before. And perhaps next year, with a bit more advanced notice even more people would actually get people out of their cars.
Also in Dubai, cycling has gained some ground. The Sheikh has invested in better cycle paths and related facilities (showers, etc.) Cycle groups organize weekly trainings & excursions. While these are primarily longer distance rides & semi-pro trainings, these events have brought visibility to the sport. In efforts to curb obesity & diabetes, the city’s cycle paths are advertised for families & recreation. But, challenges remain. Half the year it is +40° Celsius and distances are expansive, making cycling a less preferred commuting option. Also, in the land of fossil fuel extraction & refining, petrol remains cheap: circa 10c/L. And in such international cities, different ‘road rules’ apply, resulting in dangerous driving & numerous accidents – for cars and even more for bikes. Encouraging ‘seasonal recreational biking for health’ in Doha, could perhaps work; or a system of rental bikes similar to Paris’s Velib system connecting Doha’s highlights (e.g. the Corniche, the Souq, the Islamic Art Museum) for tourists or expats. After all, Qatar is keen to increase its tourism & expand its local recreational activities. And it certainly has the resources to invest in such infrastructure… Here’s hoping.