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Paul Comfort writes about his amazing experiences in Dubai as part of the UITP MENA Congress and why it's on the cutting edge of public transport.

Travel Journal: My trip to the top of the world in Dubai

Paul Comfort writes about his amazing experiences in Dubai as part of the UITP MENA Congress and why it's on the cutting edge of public transport.

This article first appeared in Mass Transit on March 22, 2022.

I recently traveled to the city-state of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates at the invitation of UITP (Union Internationale des Transports Publics or International Association of Public Transport), a worldwide network that brings together all public transport stakeholders and sustainable transport modes – think APTA, but global. I was invited to speak and moderate a panel for its first in-person international event since the pandemic hit in 2020 – the UITP MENA (Middle East/North Africa) Transport Congress and Exhibition held in the Dubai World Trade Center.

I also wanted to host a live CEO roundtable at our Trapeze stand and film an episode of our new Transit Unplugged TV show featuring the UITP Conference, the Dubai Roads and Transport Authority and the Dubai World Expo – plus record a couple of podcasts with exciting guests. I got to do it all and so much more. This is my story.

After a 12.5-hour flight from Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., I thought I would settle into a nice nap at my hotel, but unfortunately, the room was not ready! After some wrangling, they put me up in a suite for the night (BONUS!). Later, I traveled to the World Trade Center to view the tradeshow floor layout and check out our booth with my colleague Scott Winks, managing director of Trapeze Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa. There, we met our team, including Julia Tapp, who was managing the event and my schedule on the ground. The local Trapeze team had added a whole section of the exhibition stand just for our Transit Unplugged events. 

On Sunday, the congress kicked off with a welcome reception where I saw many friends from around the world like Bernard Tabary, CEO of Keolis International; Joe Ma, former deputy general manager of the Shenzhen Bus Group, now an advisor to the CEO of the Saudi Public Transport Company and Leon Daniel, formerly of Transport for London, now a consultant with his own firm. Plus, I met many new friends.

Later that evening, I helped host a dinner with friends, colleagues and transit leaders from the Middle East and Africa at a great restaurant near the Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the world), right on the dancing fountains next to the Dubai Mall. Eating outside on a patio watching the light and music show of the fountains and on the Burj, with the warm breezes welcoming us, I truly began to enjoy the Middle Eastern/Lebanese foods that I would eat for the rest of the week, with many plates being shared family style.

Up and at ‘em for the next day full of events at the UITP Congress, I shared breakfast with transit leaders from Africa discussing their latest projects, then onto the exhibition hall where I greeted booth guests from around the world. I also taped a Transit Unplugged podcast episode with Mohammed Salim Al Ghafri, the COO of the transport system in the nation of Oman.

Then, I moderated a general session panel on smart mobility management. It was great hearing from leaders like Khalid Al Awadhi, director, transportation systems for the Roads and Transport Authority in Dubai, Cristiana Guell of the Barcelona Transit Agency (Spain), and Anan Alamri, head of sustainable mobility from the Integrated Transport Centre (ITC), Abu Dhabi (UAE). They all shared how they are sustainably providing new mobility options for their cities.

It was also great to hear from Mohamed Charafeddine, vice president product management of Careem (Middle East Uber) and Shahzeb Mamnoon, vice president and Global Head of TaaS at SWVL, discuss how micro-mobility and new models of transport are improving access to all of life’s opportunities for passengers in the Middle East and globally. 
After attending some more sessions, later that evening, we broke bread with friends at the UITP Networking Dinner and I learned more about how transit is growing post-pandemic in Middle Eastern countries. 

The next day, I conducted a live CEO roundtable at the Trapeze/Transit Unplugged stand with Djan Fanny, director of operations at the Greater Abidjan Urban Mobility Authority (AMUGA) and Joel Lehman Sandougout, director general of Trans Urb from the African nation of Gabon. They spoke about how the World Bank and others are funding an improved transit network in their regions.

Afterwards, I spoke on a panel called Technology Enablers – Empowering Innovation. I shared the power of creating integrated transport networks that bring together all modes of mobility in a city using the latest technology as the key to having it all work seamlessly.

The next day, I went sightseeing and did some filming for our YouTube TV Channel. I took an open-top bus tour of old Dubai, ate in the Dubai Mall and traveled to the top of the Burj Khalifa, with a total height of 829.8 meters or 2,722 feet - just over half a mile high. What a fantastic view from the world’s tallest building that has been built in the desert – a magical city and commercial center for the Middle East and beyond.

My last day in Dubai was one to remember. I was able to visit the office of my friend, Ahmed Bahrozyan, CEO of the Dubai public transport agency, the Dubai Roads and Transport Authority, and interview him for our Transit Unplugged TV show (this episode will air on April 8 on our YouTube channel). He shared how Dubai’s 11,800 taxi cabs are integral to their transport network. Partially owned by the agency and regulated, all taxi operators have the latest technology to track vehicles, an app that allows passengers to book taxis quickly and easily and an Operations Control Center which integrates them as first-mile and last-mile solutions - connecting to bus and rail hubs throughout the city. He also shared their plans to have Level 5 autonomous vehicles providing mobility by the end of 2023 in Dubai. 

After that, we went to the World Expo hosted by Dubai with my colleagues and travel guides Matthew Brownlie, managing director for Trapeze Middle East, his wife Katie, and Julia Tapp. It was terrific visiting some of the 190+ national pavilions and their exhibitions. We also went through the Mobility District and Pavilion, checking out hyperloop and autonomous vehicles and the latest cutting edge mobility technologies and enjoying some of the local delicacies.

What a wonderful afternoon and evening - experiencing so many different cultures with good friends at this once-in-a-lifetime event, the World Expo. Matthew and I rode the amazing Dubai Metro service home that evening from an Expo rail station that looked like a high-tech airport.

As I winged my way home to the States on Emirates for the 14.5 hour flight, which departed at 2:20 am, I contemplated what I had learned and shared during this week in the Middle East. My biggest lesson was how taxi cabs are effectively used as an integral part of the public transport network in Dubai, transporting more passengers than the public bus system.

In most American cities, taxis are operated by private companies that do not have integration into the overall fixed-route public network – or maybe used as a contractor for the local paratransit system. I saw with my own eyes (and rode them many times) how that with the right technology, taxis can be a part of the Mobility-as-a-Service solution in any city and provide outstanding, safe and efficient public transport services.

I also was amazed by Dubai and its commitment to excellence and being Number One in any category. Dubai is truly on the cutting edge and invites and encourages new technology for public mobility. Finally, I was blessed to spend time in person with so many of my friends around the world at this first UITP in-person event in two years. Hopefully, we are past the pandemic and can meet in person again with those we care for on our quest to improve the world through sustainable and equitable mobility.

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