Experts say behind Amman’s transportation issues lies ‘lack of will’ from policymakers

The project is synonymous with construction delays, accusations of corruption, and lack of accountability in leadership. It is as much a symbol as a bus service at this point. (Photo: Unsplash)
The project is synonymous with construction delays, accusations of corruption, and lack of accountability in leadership. It is as much a symbol as a bus service at this point. (Photo: Unsplash)
AMMAN — It’s impossible to discuss transportation in Amman without the term “Fast Bus” floating to the surface. The $160 million Amman Bus Rapid Transit System, or Amman BRT, is a multi-route public transit system that has inspired many running jokes in the city. اضافة اعلان

The project is synonymous with construction delays, accusations of corruption, and lack of accountability in leadership. It is as much a symbol as a bus service at this point.

Hazem Zureiqat admits that the BRT’s reputation is somewhat deserved. “It exemplifies ... the lack of ability we have to make decisions about certain things. Forming committees, and trying to delay decisions, or have someone else make the decision on your behalf, as a public official.”

Zureiqat is a partner at engicon, an Amman-based civil engineering consulting firm. He now serves as director of transportation and partner at the firm.

Over a decade ago, he worked with the Greater Amman Municipality (GAM), the governing body responsible for the Amman BRT. During Zureiqat’s time at GAM, he assisted with the preliminary planning for the BRT, prior to construction in 2010. The following year, he observed the project’s turmoil while working at Engicon.

“There were several factors that contributed to suspending the project in 2011, including developments in the region actually, (like) the Arab Spring,” he explained. “In my view, the BRT, I think, was lumped in with a few other mega projects and put under the lens of corruption. At that time, the government wanted to appease members of parliament and decided to just suspend the project and open up an investigation.”

He lists a series of bureaucratic quagmires that delayed the project for five years. A ministerial committee formed following the halting of construction and a Spanish company was hired to independently audit the project’s worth to the city.

A loan provided by a French development agency that was helping fund construction expired and needed renegotiation. Meanwhile, Amman continued to expand rapidly, and the project’s prospects soured for many once construction finally resumed.

A ‘lack of ability to make decisions’
Describing these delays can cloud the root of what makes the Amman BRT an appropriate starting point regarding the city’s transportation distresses. The conversation regarding the Amman BRT’s problems is rarely actually about transportation; it’s about leadership.

Indecisiveness still plagues Amman’s public policies, according to Zureiqat. “The fear,” he emphasizes, “or the lack of ability to make decisions. We talk about accountability (regarding) completing the BRT, we never talk about accountability for delaying the BRT, for suspending it.”

The past decade has not been without progress. The Amman Bus Service, a fixed-schedule transit system, was developed a few years ago. GAM currently subsidizes the project so that bus operators are not dependent on filling seats for profits. There are concerns, however, about how financially sustainable the project can be long-term.

Still, focusing exclusively on projects — successful and otherwise — distracts from the needs of future requirements to prevent a genuine transportation crisis.

Reframing the issue of the Amman BRT around leadership is important to understand the frustration that it engenders.

Similarly, to properly understand its urgency, public transportation must be reimagined as an increasingly vital and sorely lacking human right in Jordan, according to sector experts.

“Access to transportation is instrumental in allowing marginalized groups, including children, the elderly, people with disabilities and women, since we are definitely considered a marginalized group and a disenfranchised group, … to achieve their full potential.” said Sahar Aloul.

An issue of human rights
Aloul is a co-founder of SADAQA, which focuses on economic empowerment for women in Jordan. In 2019, her organization released a study alongside the NGO Friedrich Ebert and Stiftung and the Ministry of Transport called “Gender in Public Transportation: A Perspective of Women Users of Public Transportation.”

“We were interested in further investigating a particular figure related to how public transport impacted women’s economic activity. Our focus was actually to verify a figure that was mentioned from a similar study (that) was done on use (of) public transit in Jordan, which was done in 2014 by the International Youth Foundation,” she explained.

“And one figure we thought was very interesting that came out of that study was that 40 percent of women who were offered a job in Jordan turned it down due to lack of public transport. So we wanted to see if that figure still stood in 2018. And it did, only it was higher, with 47 percent of women saying they turned down a job due to the lack of public transport.”

The inability for women to travel easily and safely has grave repercussions economically for Jordan. The country ranked 131st out of 156 countries regarding political, educational, health, and economic equality between men and women — comfortably in the bottom fifth — in the 2021 Gender Gap report published by the World Economic Forum.

A glaring aspect of the recent report shows only 15 percent of women participate in the current workforce.

Transportation is only one aspect of numerous issues plaguing equal opportunity for women in Jordan. Conversely, female commuters are just one marginalized demographic, albeit a massive one, to consider when discussing practical needs of public transit.

Mohammad H., 22, speaking to Jordan News under the condition that we admit his last name, came to Jordan in 2013 after fleeing Homs with his family. Under refugee status in Jordan, there are various obstacles to acquiring a work permit and residency, which are required for a driving license.

Therefore, many refugees are not permitted to legally own or operate a private car. “It’s not fair for the people who are not allowed to own or to buy (a car). Because of this, we are thinking to leave the country because we don’t have the right to do anything. Even if you want to open a workshop, to buy a car, or something, this is not allowed to you.”

Legal restrictions on vehicle ownership coupled with a lack of reliable public transportation presents a dilemma for individuals in Mohammad’s situation in Jordan. The upward mobility of private vehicle owners compared to those reliant on outside services is clear to anyone who lives in Amman.

He said that he and his family have frequently broken the law to access work and educational opportunities.

His father has been arrested four times for driving a car that was not listed under his name. “The last (arrest) was very terrible,” he says. “We were shocked because of what they told him. He signed that he is not going to drive again, (and) if the police caught him again driving, he will pay JD10,000. So after that he said I will never drive here in Jordan.”Top of Form

A revolving door
“Of course things cannot be reversed 180 degrees overnight. So we have to take into account and believe that this is a journey that cannot happen over-night. It will take time,” said former minister of transport, Lina Shbeeb. “But if you know where you are going, things could be done.”

Shbeeb served as minister of transport from 2013 to 2015. She currently serves as a dean of social and basic sciences at Al-Hussein Technical University.

Her summary of the leadership issues at the ministry could be described as a lack of organization. She lists examples of various projects facing funding issues, while at the same time, funding arrived to projects that weren’t even remotely prepared to utilize the money properly.

This is a common view of Jordan’s leadership, not just in transportation. The layering and entangling of plans and agendas of varying merit, precede a revolving door of leaders entering and exiting. “Every year they keep changing the minister,” Shbeeb said, “... the change is a fact of life. But, you know, you have to give any (minister) in place the time to produce something.”

“All of the time whenever (ministers) can’t achieve what we’d like to have, we’d like to say it was because there was not enough funding, that’s true,” she began. “But funding is not the only issue. For instance when I had this portfolio as a minister, I assumed that there should be some kind of well-established plan.”

“Of course every minister could have their different views, but they shouldn’t overturn what previous ministers have been doing.” There were strategies that she inherited, but their goals simply weren’t always well-defined, she said.

Such long-term vision could benefit from a transportation lobbying sector that Shbeeb said is lacking. “We don’t have a pressure group that (is) lobbying for better service. The stakeholder, the operator, they have a loud voice. Whenever you would like to change (something), they will come and shout: ‘that will be against our benefit, our interest!’ And because they speak loudly, their voice can be heard.

“But the citizens who are facing the problems here, because they are not well organized, no one speaks for them. So their voice is not loud enough to make the decision maker hear them,” the former minister said.

Despite all of this, she remains tentatively optimistic about the coming decade, even regarding the BRT projects that are still under construction. Her broad solutions to Amman’s future in transportation are laced with themes of patience, qualified expertise, and a focus on long-term solutions.

Her larger message in discussing transportation also echoes Hazem Zureiqat’s call for accountability. “I think we need to address each problem properly. But I think the first is to have the will from the decision maker to make the change,” she stated slowly, pausing.

“If you don’t have the will and you aren’t ready to face the consequences of this decision that you might take, nothing will change.”

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