Saudi's 'The Line' Megacity Has an Ozymandias-Sized Problem

Published January 18th, 2021 - 09:11 GMT
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The Line masterplan (Courtesy of Neom)
In the 1950s, the rapidly industrializing Soviet Union faced a problem. Its cities were utterly inadequate to house the millions of workers transplanted from its rural regions.

The government’s solution was to construct networks of microdistricts, or mikrorayon, which contained everything a community would need: schools, pharmacies, housing, green space, and the ability to quickly commute to work. 

These microdistricts evolved the concept of a city-block into a veritable self-sustaining organism. 

By the 1970s, microdistricts were all over Soviet cities, fundamentally changing how people related to each other and their environment while crafting an alternative, decentralized vision of a city that contrasted with the NATO-type that emphasized sprawling boroughs concentrically oriented around a city center.

Saudi Arabia’s newly unveiled megacity concept, meanwhile, draws a literal line in the sand and dots buildings around it. Aptly entitled ‘The Line,’ this urban design is not going to be the next microdistrict. It may even be unlivable if it is ever built.

But with all its sleek marketing and TED Talk-style hype, you would be forgiven if you thought otherwise. Saudi developers and officials have a knack for advertising new ‘smart city’ concepts, buying the land and displacing its inhabitants, and then letting it sit empty for years. But even if The Line does see the light of day, its myriad design faults will likely convince potential investors to stay well away.


The Basics

(Courtesy of Neom)

Let’s start with the basics of The Line.

A mutated outgrowth of the fledgling NEOM city currently being built in Saudi’s northwest Hijaz region, The Line will consist of a 105 mile-long straight line running from the Red Sea, over or through mountains, and on to the Saudi town of Tabuk. Saudi’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, of Khashoggi and Yemen war fame, debuted The Line in a presentation on Jan 10, 2021. 

“'Why should we sacrifice nature for the sake of development?' Bin Salman asks us. “We need to transform the concept of a conventional city into that of a futuristic one.”

 

It will not have roads, cars, or traditional infrastructure.

 

Linear cities are not a new concept: they’ve existed for millennia. But most have been designed to huddle around a precious resource, most often a river that provides drinking water and energy to the town. 

But as urban planners quickly discovered in the mid-20th century, cities designed in a purely linear fashion begin to break down in their coherence once they expand. 

The once-clean and simple concentration of buildings can quickly cascade into a chaotic mess of back-streets, alleys and winding, tentacle-like roads. The Line is currently envisioned to house one million people. It will not have roads, cars, or traditional infrastructure.

Instead, The Line will have a three-layer system. On the surface level, buildings will be erected around cluster-points that allow inhabitants to access everything they would supposedly need within a five minute walking radius. 

A second subterranean surface layer divides the surface from the ‘Spine Layer’ which will contain the city’s transportation options, including “AI-enabled transport,” high-speed transit, and ‘Next generation freight-options.” According to Bin Salman, “it is expected no journey will be longer than 20 minutes.”

 

The Logistical Challenges of Creating a Line City

(Courtesy of Neom)

Three immediate logistical concerns will reveal themselves. 

First, The Line is simply not designed to contain more than the allotted one million inhabitants. Trapped by the prohibition of cars and roads on the surface, the sprawling population may be forced to develop ad hoc civilian infrastructure to cope with their lack of roads or cars, and could rely on increasingly nonsensical pedestrian routes between and within the pre-planned clusters.

This will quickly devolve into a urban-planning nightmare, with services like garbage and recycling pickup needing to traverse endless alleyways without the use of a truck, due to to the vehicle prohibition. Or, Saudi’s investment fund will have to pump more and more money into building more subterranean service layers to complement the new street additions. 

This could, in theory, be solved by the government mandating expansions as part of a grid-system like many cities already have deployed. But again, the requirement for 3 layers of infrastructure to built alongside each other will be an enormous undertaking, complicating the original vision of an efficient Straight Line idea. 

Which brings us to the second problem: transport. The ‘AI-enabled transport’ option is a curious addition to the plan. Leading giants of AI-driving tech have been quietly abandoning the idea entirely or indefinitely delaying their own respective progress timelines for the tech. 

Uber, whose own profitability appears to hinge on the eventual use of autonomous vehicles, shut down its ‘AI Labs,’ Research and Development section in 2020. Of Tesla’s AI-driven cars plan, CEO Elon Musk tweeted that fully self-driving cars will be available as a subscription service by 2021, though no concrete proof that this is indeed true has been released. 

 

(Courtesy of Neom)

Absent its own breakthroughs in AI, The Line’s plan for its ‘AI-transport’ is to boldly announce it as a core feature of its city plan and quietly hope someone else figures it out quickly enough. 

More broadly, the promise to go from one end of the 105-mile Line to the other in 20 minutes is ambitious, to label it generously. If it is safe to assume there will be stops along The Line for each cluster, then much of the 20 minutes will already be eaten up by waiting for passengers from each section to board and depart the trains. Even if the trains are designed to go at blistering speeds, the constant stopping and starting will prevent them from ever reaching a fast enough velocity to reach one end in under half an hour. 

In Tokyo, a city whose transport infrastructure runs so efficiently that they calculate the individual seconds on train routes, it takes over an hour to get from its northernmost end to its southernmost point. 

And that’s over far less than 105 miles. Because of its linear design, there will be no real alternative routes available if a train breaks down mid-route, which could cause the entire city to be more or less shut down. 

 

Working in these subterranean levels, and commuting deep inside mountains is a recipe for disaster.

 

Third, The Line will have to deal with the topography of the land. 

Creating a small city near a level beach is easy enough, but The Line is scheduled to run through a mountain range that includes summits of around 2,000 meters, or 6561 feet. One of the highest mountain near where The Line is set to cut through is Jabel al-Lowz, which has an elevation of 2,580 meters, or 8,460 feet. 

For its transport-layer to remain level and efficient, builders will have to blast through over 12 miles of mountains to reach the town of Tabuk. Given Saudi’s abhorrent human rights record and abysmal working conditions, it is safe to say this endeavor will cause untold misery upon thousands of expendable workers. 

Saudi will then have to find a way to effectively ventilate miles and miles of train routes buried 2 kilometers deep within hard-rock mountains. London, meanwhile, still cannot find a way to effectively ventilate its own metro, and its lowest depth is only a meager 58.1 meters. That’s a full 1941.9 meters above where The Line’s trains will be. 

The Line will then have to feature a mine-shaft style elevator up to the surface where whatever spare buildings are able to be constructed will be placed precariously along the jagged, barren landscape of Saudi’s mountainsides. Working in these subterranean levels, and commuting deep inside mountains is a recipe for disaster.

NEOM has not responded to multiple requests for comment on these design concerns.


The Meaning Behind The Line

But there’s an underlying folly to looking at The Line closely and critiquing its individual faults. In general, The Line is not a city made for humans, or a humane life. 

It is a multi-billion dollar ‘PR-chitecture’ scheme to help the global image of the Saudi regime, one marred by world-historic brutality and disregard for human rights. Few know this better than tens of thousands of Saudi locals belonging to the Huwaytat Tribe, who have been subjected to forms of state terror in order to be displaced and make room for Neom and The Line.

They've even pleaded with the U.N. to force Saudi to stop development of NEOM on their lands.

 

The Line personifies the morbid lesson from Percy Shelley’s Ozymandias poem on hubris:

 

The Line is also a signal to investors that Saudi is willing to do everything in its power to attract them to tap into its population as a labor pool. 

The government has been trying to do this, in vain, for about a decade.

The Line will not change any of this. As so many other hairbrained ‘megacity in the Saudi desert’ concepts illustrate, The Line personifies the morbid lesson from Percy Shelley’s Ozymandias poem on hubris:

“'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
 


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