Doha hope: UN climate meetings, suburban sprawl – and a potential for city cycling?

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Signs for COP18 were everywhere, here in the Souq Waqif.

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?

Before the discovery of oil and natural gas, Doha relied on fishing and pearl diving, reminents of its former life are still found today...
Before the discovery of oil & natural gas, Doha relied on fishing & pearl diving. Remnants of its former life are still found today…

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.

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Pedestrians wander through the Souq Waqif

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.

When it comes to the climate negotiations, frustrations remain. Still, I beleive in hope.Rather appropriately, Doha had a large outdoor photo exhibition about hope during the weeks of the conference...
When it comes to the climate negotiations, frustrations remain. Still, I believe in hope.
Rather appropriately, Doha had a large outdoor photo exhibition about hope during the weeks of the conference…
Cyclist spotted, along the Corniche (photo credit: Kate Harris, IISD Earth Negotiations Bulletin)
Cyclist spotted: along the Corniche (photo credit: Kate Harris, IISD Earth Negotiations Bulletin)
Because the conference venue was far from the city centre, buses shuttled delegates from selected locations. (I attended COP18 as a writer for IISD Earth Negotiations Bulletin, covering selected side events. While the formal plenary is lengthy and complicated, side events discuss research and policy to address climate change on the ground.)
I attended COP18 as a writer for IISD Earth Negotiations Bulletin, covering selected side events. Because the conference venue was far from the city centre, buses shuttled delegates from selected locations, taking circa an hour each way in the traffic.

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.

Public transport

Excited to find a bus stop, I asked when the next bus was arriving, to which I received the following response,
Excited to find a bus stop, I asked when the next bus was arriving, to which I received the following response, “I don’t know, I am waiting for my friend to pick me up…”

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.

Cycling

A new addition to the City of Dubai (February 2013).  (c) Marie Hélène Westholm-Knebel
A new addition to the City of Dubai!!! Late February 2013
(c) Marie Hélène Westholm-Knebel

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.

Most of the buildings on Doha's West Bay were built in the last 10 years...
Most of the buildings on Doha’s West Bay were constructed in the last 10 years…
Where are the people? In the West Bay, large sidewalks have been planned, but until now too few people use them.  More pedestrians however can are found near the...
Where are the people? In the West Bay, large sidewalks have been planned, but until now too few people use them. It appears many ‘pedestrians’ drive to the Corniche or the Souq for a walk. At least it’s a start…
Familes stroll along the Corniche Bay on a long & wide pedestrian cooridor
Familes stroll along the Corniche Bay on a long & wide pedestrian corridor.
Along the Corniche Bay exists public outdoor excersise equipment
Outdoor exercise equipment along the Corniche Bay
Doha's street furniture in use
Doha’s street furniture in use
Doha reunions: My best friend from Bolivia/ Belgium, now working in Oxford & my father, working in Doha with the upgrading of the wastewater treatment facility. We took our free day to test out Doha's walking infrastructure, from the West Bay, along the Corniche, to the new Islamic Art Museum & onto the Souq Wadif - all very feasible by foot.  And finishing with a lovely Syrian dinner.
Doha reunions: My best friend from Bolivia/ Belgium, now working in Oxford & my father, working in Doha with the upgrading of the wastewater treatment facility. We took our free day to test out Doha’s walking infrastructure, from the West Bay, along the Corniche, to the new Islamic Art Museum & onto the Souq Wadif – all feasible by foot.
The Souq Waqif is popular on weekends and evening nights for city meandering
The Souq Waqif is popular on weekends and evening nights for city meandering
Doha's West Bay Business District, bike lanes included. But where are the cyclists?
Doha’s West Bay Business District, bike lanes included. But where are the cyclists?
I searched and searched for bicycles, but once I spotted them, they were in abundance (in the Old Town)
I searched and searched for bicycles, but once I spotted them, they were in abundance (in the Old Town)
Cyclists spotted, near the Souq Waqif
Cyclists spotted, near the Souq Waqif
Before the car, camels were a more traditional form of transport & can still be found near the Souq Waqif
Before the car, camels were a more traditional form of transport & can still be found near the Souq Waqif. In Dubai, bike lanes are advertised, using the camel metaphor: “Camel track to offer different kind of ride
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13 thoughts on “Doha hope: UN climate meetings, suburban sprawl – and a potential for city cycling?

  1. Thanks for enlightening about Doha, even if only a bit. Yes, ironic that a climate change conference is there. My brain is trying to figure out how one can have cycling and not allow more women and girls to participate fully in sports, cycling for transportation,etc. I understand that problems of obesity are starting to creeping into various populations there because of cultural norms (that restrict widespread outdoor sports), weather (very hot), urban sprawl in newer areas, etc.

    1. Hi Jean: thanks for the comment & interesting insights regarding participation in sports, cycling, etc. Having been in Doha for only a week, I am no expert. Still, I didn’t find it the most restrictive place for women… I saw many families enjoying the parks and walking – mothers, fathers, boys & girls – all together. While local women and men often go out separately, they have relative independence (well, at least compared to some other places). It is a safe city, and I never felt threatened walking outside with friends or alone (day or night). They also have very strict laws on the harassment of women I have been told. Interestingly, in Doha the majority of residents are expatriates, with Qatari nationals forming only a minority. Of course, their culture remains dominant (it is their country) but I would assume the parks, cycle lanes, etc. would be used by foreigners as much as locals (men & women). Of course, one should be respectful. Cycling here in the Netherlands, anything goes, but maybe I would attempt to be a bit more ‘carefully dressed’ to respect the host culture in such a situation. 🙂 Food for thought!

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