Preaching or teaching?

In previous blogs I have discussed the importance of fairness and the fine line between preaching and teaching in the lead-up to Copenhagen. I was recently in Dubai and found myself grappling with these topics. On the one hand, I was experiencing feelings of complete dismay over the environmental toll of rapid development, and on the other hand the feeling that this development was ultimately a good thing, diversifying an economy hitherto based entirely on oil and lifting recent immigrants out of poverty—both environmentally beneficial in the long-term.

All of these feelings came to the floor in a discussion over dinner with a number of Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank economists who have helped engineer the roughly 10 % annual GDP growth over the past ten years.

I had been in Duabi and Abu Dhabi for 10 days and had spent much of it in cars on congested streets. I was forced, at one point to get a cab 2 blocks and one hotel I stayed in staffed only SUV taxis. There was no alternative.

As a guest at dinner I politely explained that it was a shame that automobile lifestyles were not engineered out of the highly engineered development that had taken place over the past few years. I argued that surely economists and urban planners could learn some lessons from developed countries like the US who are now paying dearly for ignoring public transportation for so many years (US congestion costs are currently $82 billion annually and new public transport infrastructure is much more costly than it would have been previously). Development in the Emirates is facilitated by the visions (or egos) of rich sheiks and I suggested that surely they would have wanted to design a city that was forward-looking.

They thought that I sounded like a preachy rich idealist. They explained that the government has for some time taken public transportation quite seriously. Indicatively, Dubai is on track to have perhaps the world’s most advanced $8b metro system. Despite the fact that it does not link to nearby Abu Dhabi or integrate with existing bus services, it was just one very big step in what are likely to be a series or enormous investments in the coming years.

To this I explained that I was indeed impressed at the efforts but that I would have still expected a far-sighted city, with the luxury of hindsight, to have built the trains and buses right alongside the skyscrapers and malls, not after them! Was it wrong of me to expect that newly emerging economies don’t lock themselves into high-carbon infrastructures? After all, Dubai now has the difficult task of persuading car-loving residents to use the system.

To this, they argue that roads must be built before buses and trains. They made this point from a practical perspective, explaining that with roads, tunnels, and bridges unfinished and with industry expanding at a rate that makes things like housing virtually impossible to find, priorities are rightly centered on the basics. They also took an economic perspective, arguing that there was, until now, no demand for public transportation. Petrol is cheap, Indian and Pakistani cab drivers are plenty, and with all this stacked up against trains, there would be little demand.

I was unsatisfied. The United Arab Emirates has an investment fund of over $600 billion that is used for many of the developments in the region, including Masdar, and I simply felt that it was a real lost opportunity that they didn’t try something new with public transport. As a person who grew up in the crowded streets of Southern California, I felt like I had a lesson to offer but, even if I was around at the beginning and able to talk to decision-makers, I didn’t feel like they would have learned from it.

Am I preaching or teaching?