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Could Saudi Arabia's New Subway Unleash a Social Revolution?

The construction of Riyadh's Metro has ambitious goals to relieve gridlock and reduce obesity. Perhaps more importantly, it aims to grant women the freedom of mobility. “That's a lot to expect from a public transport system,” writes Susanne Koelbl.
August 14, 2013, 12pm PDT | Melody Wu
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The City of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia is implementing a strategic master plan to introduce an urgently needed subway system and undo its heavily congested, auto-centric built form. Currently under construction, the new Riyadh Metro will consist of “six metro lines -- both overground and underground – that fan out across the city like a spider's web, covering a total of 176 kilometers (109 miles).”

Walking appears to be non-existent for many Saudis, and the president of the Arriyadh Development Authority says that 50 years of urban planning failures is to blame. “The streets are empty and public squares are deserted. There are more six-lane highways than sidewalks,” says Ibrahim Sultan. “Saudis spend their entire lives moving between the air-conditioned interiors of their homes, their cars and the shopping mall.”

“That's why the new metro is designed not only to improve conditions in the inner city -- but to usher in social change,” reports Koelbl. “It could serve as a first step toward subtle progress in a country dominated by Wahhabism, an ultra-conservative branch of Sunni Islam, where women may not drive, seldom leave their homes alone and must always have full body cover and wear a veil when they do.”

In the new subway, women and children will be able to travel without escorts or controls, and will enter into separate compartments from men. “As anachronistic as that may seem, though, it marks progress nonetheless,” says Sultan.

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Published on Friday, August 9, 2013 in Spiegel Online
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