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Problem solving in Makkah. 12/5/2004
There can be few cities in the world where the population rises by several thousand per cent for a few days of the year and then subsides again. Where, for most of the year, the streets and hotels and shops are virtually empty but for two weeks are filled to bursting point and where special measures must be put in place just to handle the pedestrian, never mind the vehicular traffic. But this is the problem faced by the Saudi Arabian authorities within the Holy City of Makkah al Mukarramah during the festivals of the Hajj and Ramadan.

"The difficulty is," said Samir El-Hage, Engineering Director with the Beirut-based ATT Group who are acting as consultants to the Saudi Arabian government, "that increasing access to modern transport has placed the Holy City within reach of many more people than ever. It means that every year, more and more pilgrims make the journey, placing the existing transport and accommodation infrastructures under strain. For the rest of the year, the city is almost empty."

Arriving on the only available route, from the coastal city of Jeddah, traffic has to be channelled either to the central area (in the case of coaches) or to one of the many satellite car parking areas (in the case of private transport) along an inadequate network of streets. To make matters worse, the entire area of Makkah is set in mountainous terrain.

Responding to the problems of congestion and pilgrim safety, the Saudi Ministry of Public Works has, in the last few years, instigated a massive road-building programme that has involved the construction of numerous tunnels and bridges as well as the levelling of large areas for use as camp sites and car parks.

Now largely complete, the road building programme has produced a series of multi-lane freeways that both encircle Makkah and lead into and away from the central mosque and other prayer areas. The most recently completed was the King Abdulaziz Road, linking the outer limits of the city with the Holy Mosque. Along its 9.5 kilometre length, the six-lane highway passes through two tunnels and over five bridges as well as linking to other parts of the network through a series of ramps. Yet despite this, the problems of traffic congestion are set to become more acute.

Obligations imposed on pilgrims wishing to comply with the rites of the Hajj mean that they must find accommodation within the religiously defined area of Makkah - a requirement that has, of late, become increasingly difficult to fulfil. In an attempt to solve the problem, invitations to tender are on the point of being issued for contracts to construct two major development of hotels, private accommodation and retail outlets on the western edge of the city. The resulting 230,000 square metre project at Jabal (Mount) Omar is expected to generate a peak hour flow of 7,000 vehicles and 24,000 pedestrians while the second project at Jabal Khandama - which is still in the early planning stages - will add yet more.

"Our simulation models show that we will need to provide room for up to 60,356 people in the Jabal Omar development alone," said El-Hage. "The construction site is in the mountains outside the Haram but within the religious boundaries of the City of Makkah al Mukarramah. Planning the feeder routes has been quite complicated, as have the preliminary investigations into the traffic management systems that will be needed. Some routes will have to be reversible to handle the volumes involved."

What is clear to El-Hage is that the deployment of ITS technology to handle the additional traffic is fundamental to the success of the scheme and the second phase of the Jabal Omar project will address this.

"Intelligent transport systems will not be up and running in time for this year's Hajj," said El-Hage, "but should be in place for 2005. Among the proposed range of technologies will be ramp metering, inductive loop arrays, a telematics-based fleet management system, smart-CCTV coverage and VMS."

For this year, a pilot scheme of smart programmable CCTV cameras and multi-lingual VMS, both linked to a central control room by Ethernet, will be installed the Janarat area of Makkah, a place where all pilgrims gather for rituals during the last three days of the Hajj. Part of the function of the cameras will be to judge the density of the crowds so that action can be taken to open emergency gates if required and direct pilgrims away from the congested area.

"This should considerably ease the management of the pedestrian and vehicular traffic." said El-Hage. "Up to now, managing the problem has been the function of the police working under the directions of the Directorate of Hajj Security For Traffic Matters and while they have, over a number of years, developed a certain amount of expertise, problems have continued to exist. The proposed new central control room in the Jabal Omar development will house monitoring screens, enabling police to watch the traffic situation and enforce the traffic movement regulations applicable to the Hajj and Ramadan festivals. Drivers will receive directions on where they can and cannot go via a network of LED-technology variable message signs"

During the Hajj and again during Ramadan, private vehicles are forbidden from entering the central area of the city and vehicular traffic is confined to the 65,000 coaches that pour into the area from all over the Kingdom and beyond.

"One of the things that we want to do," said El-Hage, "is to introduce a fleet management system for the coaches. The difficulty is that not only do some of the vehicles came from abroad, but all of them need to be subject to the management system for only a very short space of time. We are currently thinking of some form of on-board telematics device that can be issued on arrival and returned on departure."

There is little doubt that the problems still facing the authorities in Makkah are huge. While traffic modelling and research studies indicate that the Holy Places in Makkah can absorb up to three million pilgrims at a time - half a million more than currently attend - the sheer volume of traffic is always likely to produce its own difficulties. Much is being expected of the advanced ITS technologies being planned for the area and there is real optimism that it will work. In the longer term the Saudi authorities are understood to be considering an extension to the number of visitor visas granted for travel to Makkah which would effectively result in some 12 million visitors to the City throughout the year for Umrah (Lesser Pilgrimage). If this were to come to pass, some of the pressure on the authorities in Makkah during the Hajj might be eased. But only time will tell.

For further information contact:
Samir El-Hage, Engineering Director, ATT Group, Beirut. Tel: #961 1 273675, Mob: #961 3 721393, E-mail: selhage@attgroup.net
 
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