x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

How researchers solved Saudi Arabia’s Haj gridlock

As millions of pilgrims begin the Haj, few will know that their every movement is bring studied by scientists researching mass transport and crowd management. Elizabeth Dickinson reports

A Muslim pilgrim prays atop Mount Thor in the holy city of Mecca ahead of the annual Haj pilgrimage . Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters
A Muslim pilgrim prays atop Mount Thor in the holy city of Mecca ahead of the annual Haj pilgrimage . Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters

The Haj is not only the world’s largest mass movement of people. Until recently, it was also the world’s largest traffic jam.

Journeys of just a few kilometres could take hours as pilgrims moved en masse, all in the same direction. As the number of visitors rose each year, the problem got worse.

But over the past decade, and particularly the past five years, Saudi authorities have turned that problem into an opportunity.

As pilgrims begin to take part in this year’s Haj today, they are probably unaware they are at the centre of an emerging research community looking at how to manage crowds, whether they’re on their feet, in cars or using mass transit.

That work has transformed the experience of the Haj in small ways that have made a huge difference. Researchers say the journey from the Jeddah airport into Mecca, for example, now averages three hours, down from seven a few years ago. The 30,000 buses carrying passengers from Arafat to Muzdalifah on one leg of the pilgrimage now travel at roughly 64 kph, compared to gridlock before.

The research has “changed a lot of things that we took for granted: that in the Haj, waiting takes a long time, and travel would take a long time”, said Emad Felemban, director of the Centre for Research Excellence in Transportation and Crowd Management at Saudi’s Umm Al Qura University. “We’re actually trying to enhance the journey for everybody.”

Improvements to crowd management have also helped avert stampedes and rushes that had left hundreds dead throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Whole locations of Haj rites – such as the jamaraat, where pilgrims stone the devil – have been reorganised so that crowds always have enough space.

The Haj research revolution began slowly and decades ago, as Saudi academics and government ministries sought ways to improve the journeys of a growing numbers of pilgrims. Before 1950, it was rare that more than 100,000 people made the annual journey to Mecca. By 1975, that number grew to 1 million. And in 2012, an estimated 3 million pilgrims performed the Haj.

As pressure on Mecca’s infrastructure grew, so did the need for innovation. In the 1980s, Hani Mahmassani, a young professor at the University of Texas in the US, began work on what would drive much of his career: could crowd behaviour be studied?

Mr Mahmassani, and a Saudi doctoral student, developed a model, one of the first of its kind, to study how masses of people behaved in certain situations.

Saudi authorities began to realise how useful such research could be. By the turn of the century, they were recruiting international scholars to conduct surveys and studies. And uniquely, they were taking those studies and turning them directly into policy on the ground.

“What gave the field a big shot in the arm was the Haj itself and the fact that the Saudis were investing in studying the Haj,” said Dr Mahmassani, who is now a collaborating researcher at MECCA’S Centre of Research Excellence in Haj and Omrah. “The research has been really motivated by the need for results.”

But it was computer technology that turned the boom into a research explosion. Computers and wireless internet made it possible to answer many of the questions that engineers had only dreamed of asking before: where were pilgrims at what time and why were they getting backed up?

The year, Dr Felemban is involved in two studies, which could someday be used to help authorities monitor and correct logjams – on roads, walkways and entrances – in real time.

Researchers have fitted buses with wireless monitors that can report their location and track how long it takes them to get from point-to-point and where the traffic is being jammed.

A similar innovation could someday be used to help pilgrims. Dr Felemban’s centre is developing a small wrist bracelet that could track a visitor’s location and provide directions if he is lost; contain his medical records and sense if he is ill; and help authorities to shrink waiting times at various Haj sites.

Researchers are also looking at ways to build new transport systems such as aerial lifts most commonly seen in ski resorts. The cablelike cars could transport elderly or disabled pilgrims across Mecca’s mountainous geography, said Amer Shalaby, a researcher involved in pitching the idea.

“The Haj is a very unique and large-scale and transport problem that you can’t see anywhere else, and the solutions really need to be quite unconventional,” said Dr Shalaby, who also collaborates with the Centre of Research Excellence in Haj and Omrah.

This year, there are fewer pilgrims in Mecca as the kingdom expands the Grand Mosque. Those renovations, expected to be completed by October 2015, will allow the Haj to accommodate bigger crowds in years to come.

Mr Felemban expects the research to continue expanding as well.

“The Haj has it all: it has the number of people coming from all over the world, with different education levels, different cultures, different Islamic rituals, different languages, different ages,” he said. “All these people should move from this place to this place at the same time.”

For researchers, he said, it is “the most extreme test”.

edickinson@thenational.ae