As pilgrims from all over the Muslim world prepare to travel to Mecca, researchers have found a way to reduce the monumental traffic jams that beset the holy sites at this time of year.
The project is based on Aimsun, a traffic simulation programme pioneered by Jaime Barcel"'s team at the statistics and operational research department of the Polytechnic University of Catalonia in Barcelona. Developed with European Union funding over the past ten years, the software allows for traffic simulation in a highly visual form and was launched commercially last year.
A tailored version is being put into service as part of a broader Saudi government-sponsored project being undertaken by the University of Riyadh and Saudi civil engineers BEEAH.
The characteristics of the pilgrimage are unique. "No other event in the world is comparable", says Dr Barcel", "and what is more, it takes place in exactly the same way every year." According to the Koran, pilgrims must spend five days visiting the holy sites in a set order and en masse, thereby reproducing the prophet Mohammed's last visit to Mecca. On the third day, the people visit the shrines at Arafat and then travel 15 kilometres by road to spend the night at Muzdalifah.
This year between two and three million people will perform the rite and by the year 2010 the Saudi authorities expect there to be 3.5 million pilgrims. The logistical problems of 67,000 vehicles all trying to leave the same place for the same destination at once are staggering and are proving too much for the roads which link the two localities.
The solution proposed by the Saudis consists of banning private vehicles and channelling the fleet of buses by turning the road system between Arafat and Muzdalifah into a series of closed circuits. At the pick-up and destination points, slip-roads will hive the buses off to consecutive platforms, allowing for speedy passenger disembarkation. Aimsun has demonstrated that this scheme is viable and the changes should be in place in time for the next haj in 1998.
Dr Barcel" believes that religion and the use of high technology can be compatible and points to the Saudi team's attitude. "They believe that any means which can improve the conditions of the pilgrimage should be used. There are no doubts whatsoever about using technology."
His team originally believed that a programme adapted to the unique characteristics of the Mecca pilgrimage would be a one-off. They are now beginning to see other applications in other situations where vast numbers of people have to be moved in a short space of time. "Evaluation of emergency plans, in places where there are nuclear power stations for instance, is something we have got to have," said Dr Barcel".