Encouraging Sustainability through Transportation in Morocco

Published 04/03/2024 in Scholar Travel Stipend
Written by Ramsay Goyal | 04/03/2024

Morocco is characterized by multimodal movement: Whether exemplified in the hustle and bustle of pedestrians pouring through narrow streets in the medinas of Marrakech and Fes, or in the rail patrons enjoying the high-speed Al Boraq train that connects Casablanca and Rabat.

Tourists and Moroccan natives alike move through the city and the country in a myriad of ways. These many transportation methods decrease societal reliance on the automobile and airplane — which produce up to 40 times more emissions per passenger mile than rail (BBC, 2019). Some of the country’s transportation patterns originated organically, while others have been purposefully planned. Overall, Morocco uses transportation to encourage environmental sustainability in its convenient and appealing train service countrywide, its dense, walkable cores of urban medinas, and its fully electrified rail networks.

Morocco endeavors to make rail travel appealing to the masses. It starts with spacious, bright, aesthetic rail stations with convenient locations throughout the city. I photographed myself at train stations in Marrakech, Casablanca, and Fes, three of the nation’s largest cities. These modern stations had many amenities that encouraged high usage of the rail network. 

Ramsay standing outside three rail hubs2

Similarities and differences emerge when comparing station infrastructure to the rail in America: 

U.S. Stations are often well-located in downtown areas of the city; however, outside the northeast corridor, rail stations are often little more than a platform and some signage along rails. Morocco has clearly focused investment into not only building out a robust network of rails, but also investing in accompanying stations and infrastructure. Recognizing the true value of these stations, Morocco has turned rail hubs into a destination that encourages passengers to opt for rail over alternative transportation, and even arrive early for their trips. The Casablanca train station, in fact, resembled a high-end mall with cafes and shops lining an expansive walking area. The United States could learn from this lesson to encourage greater adoption of rail travel. Station authorities can forge public-private partnerships to encourage outside businesses to make investments in the rail stations in return for leasing prime real estate inside. In turn, such partnerships could increase consumer demand for rail network usage and low-carbon transportation. With rail more sustainable than comparable airplane trips, offering incentives to use the network (in the form of high-quality stations) can attract and sustain higher ridership. In fact, long-distance trains throughout Morocco run up to every 15 minutes. Even both the three-hour trip between Marrakech and Casablanca and the four-hour trip between Fes and Casablanca have rail service at least every hour. Ridership volumes seem to support these high frequencies: anecdotally, all the trains I took were full for nearly all of the journey. Moreover, to maximize the utility of its long-distance rail network, many urban areas had several stations where long-distance trains stopped. For example, the city of Casablanca, the nation’s largest metropolis, had more than 5 long-distance rail stations within the city limits. Intermodal connections outside stations to other forms of transportation extended the convenience of long-distance rail: one of Casablanca’s local tram lines stopped right outside the city’s largest rail station, Casa Voyageurs. Locals on vespas

Many of Morocco’s cities developed with an old urban core, dubbed the “medina.” Aside from getting visitors lost, these labyrinths of streets provide access to “souks” or shops selling everything from leather wares to light fixtures. Each stall provides a different, highly specialized, offering. Cars cannot access these streets and taxis will only take visitors as far as the nearest entrance to the medina. Once inside, visitors travel on foot, navigating to their hotel, a restaurant, a market, or storefronts, along pathways often no bigger than a car’s width. Sometimes a vespa or motorcycle would attempt to push through the hordes of pedestrian traffic. At first, one may think these motorized vehicles careening through these medinas should be banned; however, they are the primary cargo transport for the many shop owners who sell their goods in stores lining the medina. While pedestrians may seek to reduce motorcycle presence in the medinas, their existence spoke to the multimodal potential of streets to serve simultaneous methods of transportation. These medinas have been preserved and Moroccans continue to utilize them. As primarily pedestrian-oriented, they encourage walking as a transport method. With pedestrians emitting no carbon emissions, Morocco’s cities orienting their main sights and attractions around a pedestrian-only urban core successfully promotes sustainability through their transportation. Throughout much of the United States, accessing shops, restaurants, hair salons, spas, and hotels may take multiple car trips. To encourage greater sustainability, American cities can begin to place more emphasis on developing areas of their urban expanse where mixed-use development can thrive in a condensed setting. Then, the network of surrounding streets will not just support pedestrian traffic but encourage and necessitate it. Morocco’s walkable medinas certainly provided a unique example of the success of multimodal transportation in reducing reliance on unsustainable vehicular trips. 

Medinas in Fes left and Marrakesh right. A variety of souks line the sides of the medinas

Lastly, the area in which Morocco shines most successfully in promoting sustainability through transportation is its fully electrified rail system. Morocco serves more than 100 cities throughout the country with its national train operator ONCF. Impressively, Morocco electrifies the entire country’s network, even its trains through the desert. Additionally, over half of this electricity comes from renewable sources, such as the solar panels and wind turbines located throughout the country’s north (Rahhou, 2023). While electrified long-distance rail systems provide significant environmental benefits (even more for those powered by renewable energy) over comparable diesel locomotives, many countries still have not implemented nationwide networks. Electric rail lines require higher upfront costs and higher continual investment: not only does an operator need to lay tracks along an alignment but they also must install and upkeep overhead wires. ONCF Map

These added costs can discourage implementation when governments attempt to keep costs low on rail projects. However, with transportation often being the most carbon-emitting sector in a country, electrified rail systems make significant progress toward global sustainability goals (EPA, 2015). However, the United States has only electrified its long-distance rail on the Northeast corridor between Washington, D.C., and Boston, Massachusetts. While a significant amount of passenger traffic passes through this stretch of track, diesel locomotives power trains throughout the rest of the country. In fact, if an Amtrak train is traveling along the northeast corridor but then ventures south of D.C. or north of Boston, the crew must do a locomotive swap from electric to diesel, which can take up to 45 minutes. Even in California, where renewable sources such as solar, wind, and hydroelectricity generate over 75% of electricity, Pacific Surfliner long-distance trains between San Luis Obispo, Los Angeles, and San Diego run with diesel-powered locomotives and tracks have no overhead wires. Morocco’s rail network is advanced, impressive, and notable for its electrification efforts. Removing comparable, polluting automobile trips, the country’s rail system prioritizes the environmental health of the present-day Moroccan citizenry as well as future populations.

Indeed, Morocco encourages sustainable transportation through walking and low-carbon rail journeys. While the U.S. could reduce its carbon emissions by applying many of Morocco's initiatives and planning structures to its cities, Morocco can also adopt lessons from the U.S. to improve the passenger experience. For example, beyond posted timetables, a passenger has no way of tracking when a train is arriving in the case of delays. On my final rail journey in the country, the train arrived 15 minutes late, but during those 15 minutes, I felt completely oblivious to any information about the train. Had the train been any later, I may have even given up and taken a taxi, a much less sustainable form of transportation. If Morocco adopted a public real-time train tracking system map, similar to Amtrak’s “Track your Train” map in the U.S., the technology would instill more confidence in riders of their train’s whereabouts. However, on the whole, my journey to Morocco revealed the many successful planned and unplanned transportation efforts of the country. Overall, Morocco’s encouragement of a variety of transportation methods endeavors to create a more sustainable world. Its notable improvements to environmental health on an underdeveloped continent certainly accelerate measure progress on the path to a meaningful life.

 Electric wires overhead run along every track at Casablancas largest train station Casa Voyageurs.


Works Cited

BBC. (2019, August 23). Climate change: Should you fly, drive or take the train? British

Broadcasting Corporation. bbc.com/news/science-environment-49349566.

US EPA. (2015, December 29). Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Environmental

Protection Agency. hepa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions

Rahhou, J. (2023, December 6). Morocco Needs $9 Billion to Reach Green Energy Production

Goals. Morocco World News. moroccoworldnews.com/2023/12/359368/morocco-needs-9-billion-to-reach-green-energy-production-goals.