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Muslim pilgrims gather in Mina, near Mecca, to participate in an annual ritual symbolizing the stoning of the devil - part of the hajj.


A site that is regarded as one of the holiest on the planet is gearing up for a 21st-century transit makeover.

Mecca, birthplace of Mohammed, is aiming to create a massive, multimodal public transit network to accommodate the millions of Muslim pilgrims who flock there. And Canadian transportation engineers are among those helping them.

Mecca is no stranger to Olympic-sized crowds: For centuries, it's been the home of the world's largest pilgrimage - the hajj, which brings about 2.5 million people each year. That number is expected to grow to four million, even as the city itself doubles in size. A fleet of buses just doesn't cut it any more.

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But setting up modern subways and rapid transit lines in a dense, ancient city isn't easy. The terrain is rough, the streets are narrow, and the engineering logistics dizzying: build subway stops too close to the holiest mosque in Islam and you create a security nightmare; build them too far away and you defeat the purpose.

And while you're digging tunnels for subway lines meant to carry 50,000 people an hour each way, watch you don't damage the holy aquifer.

"Frustrating?" laughs Amer Shalaby, a University of Toronto transportation engineer working to improve transit in Mecca. "It's very challenging and very unique. But it's worthwhile, and it's for a good cause."

Prof. Shalaby, who got involved with the Saudi government's transportation master plan in 2008, compares it to Boston's Big Dig (a massive project to reroute a major highway through a tunnel) - only bigger. And in this case, planners need to keep the entire city running, and try to maintain a spiritual atmosphere while laying track and digging tunnels.

Engineers from U of T and the University of Waterloo are among academics around the world working under the auspices of the Hajj Center of Research Excellence. They're charged with finding a way to turn Mecca into a transit powerhouse, and a global model of how to handle masses of people crowded into limited spaces.

It's going to be a bumpy rite

Take one metropolis, population 1.5 million.

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Add 2.5 million pilgrims during the annual hajj, plus another several million who come throughout the rest of the year.

Then double the size of the city by 2030 - and bring the total number of pilgrims to more than eight million annually.

That's the problem facing Mecca as it sets out to establish a complex transit network and become a world authority on crowd control and transportation.

When Prof. Shalaby participated in the hajj in 2008, he was confronted by the chaos of streets choked with pedestrians and a fleet of buses brought from all over Saudi Arabia. "There's a huge need for a high-performance transit system," he said.

Please mind the aquifer

It's one thing to orchestrate a multiphase, multibillion-dollar citywide transit project. It's quite another to do so in the midst of the biggest religious gathering on earth.

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One practical concern for many is the Zamzam aquifer, an underground wellspring that, according to tradition, dates from the days of Abraham's son Ishmael. The water it produces is not to be disrupted by anything as mundane as a subway tunnel.

On top of that, there is the issue of doing construction in and around a series of rites that don't lend themselves to rescheduling. "You cannot, for example, say, 'Hajj is cancelled this year. Sorry.' You have to deal with all of this at the same time you have those rituals going on," Prof. Shalaby said. "You have to maintain a sense of tranquility and spirituality."

Uplifting journeys

There are already plans under way for wide-ranging subway, light-rail and rapid-transit bus lines. But even at maximum capacity - each subway line carrying 50,000 people an hour in each direction, and each LRT and BRT line carrying about half that - these won't be enough to accommodate the growth in pilgrims and residents expected over the next two decades.

Enter Prof. Shalaby's newest research project: He aims to design Mecca's gondola. Based on prototypes in Portland, Ore., and Caracas, Venezuela, this airborne cable car could go from downtown Mecca to the city's mountainous outskirts, possibly reaching such holy sites as Mount Arafat, Muzdalifah and Mina.

"There are still some niche markets that are not going to be served by [traditional]transit, especially those that are geographically challenging, mountaintop communities," Prof. Shalaby said. "So we're looking at how we can use the technology to add capacity."

Demonstrating a better way

Ongoing research could do more than revolutionize the hajj, said Eric Miller, director of the University of Toronto's Cities Centre, who returned from a conference in Jeddah last week. It could change the way cities plan for massive events the world over.

"Part of what we talked about was not only trying to address the issues of hajj itself, but … how that generalizes to Olympics, World Cup soccer, Easter at the Vatican, other places where you get vast quantities of people," he said. "Certainly, in Vancouver at the Olympics, there was a lot of planning around crowd control and movement."

The Mecca project is "a bit of a departure" for the University of Waterloo's Public Transportation Institute, said professor Jeff Casello.

"But globally, the need to move large numbers of people conveniently, efficiently and reliably is growing," he said. "The Muslim pilgrimage is a unique example because of the number of persons moving, the distances travelled, and the strict time frames to complete travel. But the work has application in many other situations where large crowds need to be moved and managed effectively by public transport modes."

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