Neom – The Line, an Efficient Urban Form?

I have to be careful what I say here as I might be working on this project soon.

The broad outlines of the high level masterplan for Neom – the largest planning project on earth has been announced.

Saudi Arabia has announced a huge new zero-carbon city to be built at NEOM in northwestern Saudi Arabia.

The project named “The Line” will be home to a million people and have no cars and no streets, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in a video released on Sunday.

The city will be a 170 kilometer belt of “hyper-connected future communities,” and will be built around the natural environment, he said.

“We need to transform the concept of a conventional city into that of a futuristic one,” Prince Mohammed said at an event to launch the city.

“By 2050, one billion people will have to relocate due to rising CO2 emissions and sea levels. 90 per cent of people breathe polluted air,” the crown prince said.

“Why should we sacrifice nature for the sake of development? Why should seven million people die every year because of pollution? Why should we lose one million people every year due to traffic accidents? And why should we accept wasting years of our lives commuting?” he asked.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announces “The Line” project at NEOM. (NEOM)

Later. Al Arabiya quoted the crown prince saying that the infrastructure of the project is set to cost between $100 to 200 billion, and that the project was announced after three years of planning.
The crown prince also said the backbone of investment would come from Saudi Arabia and the Kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund – the Public Investment Fund (PIF) – as well as local and international investors for the Neom project.

The project is a direct response to some of the most pressing challenges facing humanity, such as infrastructure, pollution, traffic and human congestion, NEOM said.

Construction of the revolutionary city will preserve 95 per cent of nature within NEOM and will commence in the first quarter of this year.

The project forms part of extensive development work already underway at NEOM.

The Line’s communities will be cognitive and powered by Artificial Intelligence and the city will comprise carbon-positive urban developments powered by completely clean energy.

The project will be an economic engine for the Kingdom and will drive diversification in line with the  Vision 2030 reform program.

The city will create 380,000 jobs and will contribute SR180 billion ($48 billon) to domestic GDP by 2030, the crown prince said. 

Walkability will define life in The Line and essential services such as schools, medical clinics, leisure facilities, as well as green spaces, will be within a five-minute walk. 

In addition to this, high-speed transit and autonomous mobility solutions will ensure that no journey will be longer than 20 minutes.

The concept of a high speed spine as the backbone of the city between Tiran (bridge to Eygyt) and Tabuk is a good one, as is walkable car free neighbourhoods, ive designed such. Don’t be alarmed by the idea of abolition of streets. That’s a transliteration problem. Streets and alleys (pedestrian) having different terms. It doesn’t mean the la Courbusiuan abolition of the street.

The problem is efficiency of movement.

Lets say there were two ‘neighbourhoods’ per km with a radius of 400m (5 minute walk) and lets say these were clustered so they covered 50% of the line with gaps between clusters. So that is 170 neighbourhoods.

1 million/170=6,000 per neighbourhood over 50 ha which is reasonable with a density of around 240 dph (net density) given typical assumptions on Arabic household sizes and no developable areas – around 4-6 storeys on average.

The fastest hgh speed train would take half an hour to get from one end to another. You would not want high speed stops less than 40km apart, so three. Then you would need to step down to a regional metro stopping every 4km or so and then to a local system stopping every 500m. If you didn’t then you would have to wait at every station all 170 of them as a local system took many hours. Autonomous vehicles ae no solution. They take too much road space and their weight makes particulate matter pollution worse. If your relied on them you would need a Sheikh Zaid Road type highway with 50 plus lanes. There is no substitute for metropolitan and local level transit.

So you can see the problem with an entirely linear system. It work well at the regional scale (i.e. japan) and along corridor within cities but it does not work well at a city scale. You can of course run four and six track systems but the problem is that it is like building a ladder to climb up rather than a system of ladders and balconies. You are adding lengths, and hence time, to journeys, and time has a generalized cost. Reducing generalized cost of travel is creating urban economies of agglomeration. You reduce that to the mathematical minimum in an entirely linear system. You also constrain headway and overall capacity as on train would have to wait behind another (and of course Hyperloops dont have capacity)

Roughly here’s how I would redesign it to be efficient. Three city hubs where employment would be concentrated. Each would have in parallel and perpendicular looped RER style regional metro system with around 80 stops, then feeding into perpendicular looped stops per neighbourhood, so around four neighbourhoods per district centre.

This overall would form a grid at around 45 degrees to the spine adapted to the areas of relatively level topography. A flexible grid being much more efficient as you don’t have to wait for the very last piece of the line to be finished before the areas can be occupied.