The road ahead: Key improvements to public transport looks set to boost growth

The car is king in Abu Dhabi, where petrol is inexpensive and the development of outlying suburban areas has meant that long commutes to the office are not uncommon. But with population growth and continued economic expansion in recent years, the emirate’s roadways have come under some pressure, particularly in Abu Dhabi City’s central business district during peak travel times. While proposed roadways may alleviate some of the traffic congestion, the emirate’s urban planners are also working to develop the nascent public transit system.

MASTER PLAN: Transport officials in Abu Dhabi have a clear vision when it comes to public transit, thanks to the Surface Transport Master Plan (STMP). Commissioned in 2008 and unveiled by the emirate’s Department of Transport (DoT) in 2009, the STMP realises the conceptual transport strategy outlined in Plan Abu Dhabi 2030: Urban Structure Framework Plan. Developed by the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council in 2007, Plan Abu Dhabi articulates a clear direction for the future growth of the UAE capital.

The STMP focuses on building a public transport network that will be able to accommodate an expected rise in population and facilitate economic growth. It foresees significant public investment in road, rail, air and sea links and includes the construction of a metro and light rail transit/tram system, expansion of the bus network, the development of a system of ferries and water taxis, and improvements to roads. The STMP lays out some ambitious targets, including a goal to increase the number of trips on public transport to 33% during peak times by 2030.

While the STMP is still very much the overarching framework for transport development, some parts of the document are being revised to reflect the fact that, in the wake of the global financial crisis, residential, retail and commercial developments in Abu Dhabi have been scaled back. This revision process was on-going as of November 2012, with completion expected within a few months. However, the section of the STMP that details the development of the integrated public transport network (IPTN) has already been updated to conform to the most recent demand forecasts. This revised document, released in March 2012, identifies the current plans for bus, metro, light rail, ferry and regional rail elements of the proposed public transit system.

FIRST PHASE: According to information provided by the DoT, the new IPTN plan includes expansion of existing elements of public transport – such as the bus network – while also proposing significant new additions to the Abu Dhabi transit landscape, including metro and light rail lines.

With respect to the bus system, which has been in operation since 2008, new bus lanes along Hamdan and Zayed Streets will reduce travel times along two of the busiest transport corridors in Abu Dhabi City. In addition, future lanes along Airport and Muroor Roads will facilitate improvement of the rapidly expanding suburban bus network.

The revised IPTN also calls for one metro line and two tram lines, all three of which are expected to be completed by 2020 at the latest. The 17-km metro line will run from Zayed Sports City to the new Central Station located between Al Maryah Island and Mina Zayed, linking key areas of Abu Dhabi City, including Al Falah, Mohammad Bin Khalifa, Al Jazeera, Mushrif, Rehhan and the Abu Dhabi National Exhibitions Company. Light rail will operate along two routes, a 15-km line from Marina Mall to Reem Island and a 12-km line from Eid Prayer Ground to Saadiyat Island, with each light rail station expected to handle around 1000 commuters. In addition, a 14-km bus rapid transit (BRT) loop route will serve central Abu Dhabi City and Al Maryah Island, as well as Al Khalidiyah, Al Markaziyah and Madinat Zayed.

DOWN THE LINE: Looking further ahead, the DoT plans to extend the metro to the Abu Dhabi International Airport and to Mohammed bin Zayed City by 2030. Additional light rail and BRT lines will be constructed on Abu Dhabi Island and along high-demand travel corridors in Mussafah, Mohammed bin Zayed City, the Capital District, Khalifa City, Al Raha Beach, Al Shamkha, North Wathba and Shahama. In addition, express coaches will aim to offer point-to-point non- and limited-stop service with connections to the metro, light rail and BRT. Together with the bus, rail and BRT aspects of the IPTN, by 2030 a ferry network will provide transport between the Tourist Club Area, Al Maryah Island, Al Raha Beach and Yas Island and along the Corniche. The preliminary stage, which is expected to be operational by 2014, will include the connection between Maryah Island, Yas Island and Tourist Club Area.

Finally, a high-speed regional rail network is planned, which would serve to link up metropolitan areas of Abu Dhabi with outlying areas of the emirate, as well as further afield to Dubai and Sharjah. According to the STMP, train stations located in the central business district, the Capital District and at Abu Dhabi International Airport would provide facilities for passengers to connect to metro, light rail and bus services. With trains that can travel up to speeds of 400 km per hour, the regional rail network is expected to be competitive with air travel and significantly faster and more convenient than car travel for journeys between cities.

ECONOMIC & SOCIAL IMPACT: Nearly anyone who has sat in a traffic jam can understand the potential cost of traffic congestion, whether measured by opportunity cost, delays or wasted fuel due to increased idling, acceleration and braking. Other economic costs of congestion include an inability to forecast travel duration with much accuracy, which can mean that drivers allocate too much time to travel, reducing the opportunity for other more productive activities. The current situation in Abu Dhabi City is similar and conditions are highly likely to worsen over time without a clear strategy and additional investment in the public transportation network.

Indeed, according to the DoT, if no changes are made to the existing public transit system, the annual cost of time spent in traffic in Abu Dhabi City will rise to Dh2.5bn ($680.5m) by 2015, reaching Dh5.9bn ($1.61bn) by 2030. But with the development of the proposed network – which is expected to serve 823,000 daily commuters, eliminate 400,000 daily road trips and render 105,000 automobiles redundant by 2030 – some Dh3.8bn ($1.03bn) in travel time costs and 102m hours of travel time per year would be saved, the DoT has calculated. It has also estimated that the new system would eliminate 23,000 accidents each year, saving Dh414m ($112.7m) annually, in addition to countless lives.

Reducing traffic congestion would not only improve the lives of residents, it would also likely make the emirate more attractive to potential investors and tourists. In addition, mass transit is environmentally friendlier than transport by personal car, with the proposed system in Abu Dhabi expected to reduce emissions of carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide by 22,050 tonnes and 4450 tonnes, respectively. This is an important factor for the government of Abu Dhabi, which is generally quite keen to take into consideration environmental sustainability as part of its urban planning schemes.

INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITIES: The development and expansion of the emirate’s public transit network could create significant opportunities for contractors specialised in the development of metropolitan transport systems. While construction bids have yet to be tendered for any of these projects, foreign firms have already been active in terms of providing consultancy services during the planning stages.

For example, in 2010 two Spanish firms, engineering giant Sener and consultancy Typsa Group, were commissioned by the government to conduct a feasibility study for the light rail network. They were specifically asked by the DoT to help assess the financial viability of the project and prepare designs for the stations and other technical specifications. A consortium comprising engineering and construction management firm Parsons Brinckerhoff, German national railway Deutsche Bahn International and management support services provider AECOM was chosen to prepare a feasibility study for the metro, which was thereafter completed in September 2011.

Both the metro and light rail projects have now moved beyond the feasibility stage and into the preliminary engineering stage, the DoT has told OBG, which will be followed by final design and construction phases. Moreover, government funding has been secured, with the emirate’s Executive Committee announcing in January 2012 that provisions have been determined for the metro and light rail systems as part of a larger package of major civil infrastructure projects. The money is clearly available, and the government has demonstrated the willingness to promote the development of a mass transit network; now it just needs to convince the people of Abu Dhabi to reduce their overall everyday vehicle usage.


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The Report: Abu Dhabi 2013

Transport chapter from The Report: Abu Dhabi 2013

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