As the costs of running a car continue to rise, many Omanis are opting to take cabs or buses, as transport operators take on the mantle of moving people around more efficiently while garnering ‘green’ credentials. Team Y investigates.
The fuel price reads: 220 baisas for a litre of ‘premium’ M95 fuel.
Sunny Jackson, an engineer commuting to his work site in Seeb from Ruwi, sighs in disbelief as he tops up his SUV’s tank for RO16 – a stark contrast to the RO13 he once paid only a few years ago.
“I must come up with an idea to pay less to travel more,” he jokes, as he hands over his credit card to the fuel station attendant to swipe.
But modern problems require modern solutions, they say.
It sheds light on the longstanding debate: why commute in a car when you can just as easily opt for public transportation.
A commute that would normally cost Sunny RO1.5 per side in his SUV (based on a fuel economy breakdown) will now cost him a mere 800baisas.
The future of Oman is slowly taking shape, and at the heart of its growth and development is the transportation industry – one that has received an overhaul to keep it in line with modern times and changing trends.
Only five years ago, the transportation sector was headlined by the Oman National Transport Company (ONTC) and complemented by a string of unmetered orange-white taxis –both of which had their shortcomings.
But, a rapid development strategy rebranded ONTC to Mwasalat, and furthermore, set its roots to become one among the most streamlined and youngest transportation companies in the entire GCC, while new and regulated taxi companies fulfill the other end of the sphere.
All of this is slowly creating a huge transport divide in the nation; one between self-commute and public transportation.
And, even though new private vehicle registrations stood at 1.16 million by the end of April 2019 as per details revealed by the National Centre for Statistics and Information (NCSI), Mwasalat marked ferrying 5.9 million passengers throughout 2018 – an impressive feat when compared with previous years.
The government isn’t stopping there either – a slew of new projects is aimed at changing the face of the transportation sector in Oman while building on the success of existing ones.
While Mwasalat continues growing its fleet, routes and services, and a plethora of taxi firms offer their services across Oman, it’s important to note that the government isn’t stopping with traditional forms of commute.
Instead, it aims to diversify into newer avenues. This includes a railway project that will link up the mineral deposit lines in Shuwaymiyah and Manji (in Dhofar) and the port of Duqm (as per the Oman Observer), and a potential helicopter service between cities.
While the former is reportedly on track, news of the latter seems to have gone silent but its future remains vague. Earlier, in 2016, the Public Authority for Civil Aviation (PACA) had announced it was opening up the aviation market to private companies.
As per the revelations, it had also issued a clearance for a Class B licence to Salalah and Al Sharqiyah aviation companies under which the companies would operate jets or helicopters with a capacity of 19 seats or less and a maximum take-off weight of less than ten tonnes.
In an interview with Y, Abdullah al Bakri, a professor of environmental sciences at a public university, says: “Public transportation is the backbone of the transportation sector of several countries, and it’s becoming the case here in Oman as well.
“This includes Mwasalat buses, taxis, and even ferry services across the country. While these collectively help to move people from A to B, it also reduces the carbon footprint. Each person opting for public transportation instead of using their vehicle is signing up to reduce emissions by a huge margin.”
Figures appear to back the professor up. A full bus in Oman can take as many as 45 cars off the road (!) and reduce as much as 65 per cent of the emissions during peak hours as per his revelations. And with 439 vehicles under its fleet, Mwasalat alone would take away around 20,000 passengers away from their cars.
As per Prof al Bakri, aside from improving air quality standards by reducing overall vehicle emissions on a per person basis, the public transportation system can also help to reduce congestion and travel times.
Combine this with the car capacities of orange-white taxis, OTaxi, Mwasalat, and Marhaba, and the environmental impacts could be noticeable.
“The future is public transport: buses, taxis, rail, and ferry,” says the professor. “The way things are going, we can see at least three out of those four turning into the nation’s official means of public transport that will one day replace private cars.”
To understand more about this, we speak to Daniel Jones, a specialist in automotive emission regulations with a leading Asian automotive brand in the UAE.
Mr Jones says: “Public transportation is currently pegged a ‘great’ way to commute, and even though people don’t think of it as the respectable means to get around, I think there’s no greener way to do it.
“One of the greatest challenges this theory has faced is the use of diesel-powered buses, but even those whittle down to great person-kilometers per litre of fuel. In short, because public transit carries many people in a single vehicle, it can reduce the overall tailpipe emissions over an assumed overhead of saved cars, the level of noise pollution, and traffic.”
In a study conducted in the US, it was learnt that a bus ‘with as few as seven passengers is more fuel-efficient than the average single-occupant auto used for commuting’, and that buses generate only about 20 per cent of the carbon monoxide and 10 per cent of hydrocarbons per passenger-mile when compared with a single-occupancy vehicle.
These are surprising statistics that will enable a greener tomorrow in Oman.
This isn’t a far from reality either. Salim al Jabri, a 65-year-old entrepreneur, is one Omani who has ditched his car for public transportation. His family has since followed suit, thereby cutting down on the use of four cars on any given day.
He says: “My interest for public transport came four years ago when Mwasalat first began rolling out its beautiful red buses. These were attractive on the road and I thought I’d give them a go.
“Having taken the bus a couple of times, I was hooked. I realised it was cheaper to head to my factory – a 32km-long journey from Azaiba to Seeb – than drive there in my SUV. This resulted in huge savings monthly, but also gave me more time to work on my commute to work.
“Soon, they also rolled out Internet (Wi-Fi) in buses. So, I could now do research or send emails using my laptop. I now ask employees of my company to try these buses out.
“It will give them time to work and get productive. And, I will account hours worked from the bus in commute to their daily working hours.”
And with the frequency of buses standing at a mere 15 minutes (or less based on the writer’s experience), there’s no dearth of buses for the public. Moreover, taxi and ferry services are increasing their stronghold, and a freight railway network is on track too.
In an earlier exclusive interview with Y, Khaled Nuseibeh, the General Manager of Careem GCC (a ride-hailing app that works in tandem with Marhaba Taxi in Oman), talked about the future of public transport in Oman.
He says: “We’re living in a time when the world is seeing a shift from personalised vehicles to public transport.
“People are slowly learning of the benefits of public transport, and you can see that it far outweighs the negatives. Therefore, you’ll see that ride-hailing and the implementation of technology to streamline it will make it one of the most important businesses in the coming years.
He is right, as Careem was bought by International conglomerate, Uber, for US$3.1 billion (RO1.2bn)
He then adds: “Oman is growing and has a transportation system that developed at a pace that has impressed us all. Things were very different just a few years back – and it’s amazing how much has changed over the course of four or five years.
“And if the country has managed to garner such levels of trust in public transportation from the residents, then it’s definitely going in the right track.”
With more than 500 vehicles in its core fleet, Mwasalat has singlehandedly given the transportation network in Oman a facelift. Their network currently boasts 34 intra- and intercity travel routes and buses to countries such as the UAE. As per the company, they’re also on a diversification strategy to implement an online ticketing service, card-based travel system, and an all-inclusive logistics network. The excellence in their service has resulted in a 77 per cent growth rate this year when compared with 2018. The company is also a strategic partner of Oman’s 2040 Vision Conference.
A taxi service that puts customer service at the helm of the wheel; OTaxi blends the best of modern technology with Omani hospitality. The company broke waves when they introduced their very own app with live tracking of cars. This means you can open the app on your phone and request a car in mere seconds. Moreover, cars are always at your call – so you don’t need to pre-plan your travel. Launched back in 2014, the company has undergone several changes, most of which are in line with consumer demands that have changed the way we take cabs in the country. The service also provides an e-bill – a feature that throws shade on traditional cabs operating without meters or even bills.
National Ferries Company
It’s unlikely you’ll have seen them floating in Muscat waters, but the National Ferries Company has a stronghold in challenging coastal areas of the Sultanate without direct road access. With seven ferries – for both passenger and commercial uses – in their docks, the company offers its services to Khasab, Lima, Shinas, Masirah, and Dibba. Upon special request, you can also hire one of their boats for corporate clients, leisure cruises, parties, and seminars.
A government-licensed taxi company with over 250 on-call cars, Marhaba Taxi offers users options to travel at reasonable rates (after a nationwide price slash in 2017). However, they also offer premium ‘VIP’ services at different rates for those looking to arrive in style. Like OTaxi, you can book your cab via an app or by making a booking on their website: marhaba.taxi. The company famously makes use of international ride-hailing app Careem (now owned by Uber)’s services.