Transport for the Future

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The Department of Transport has announced that it is considering a range of options to help tackle Abu Dhabi's traffic issues, including huge investments in public transport, introducing new tolls for motorists and a possible congestion charge. Four plans to tackle traffic and improve surface transport have been outlined, and elements of each could make their way into the final strategy.

The suggestions were published after a June 19 meeting of a taskforce set up by the Department to develop a surface transport master plan (STMP), following the guidelines and vision set out in Plan Abu Dhabi 2030. The STMP is being drawn up by consultants and transport experts, as well as a process of consultation over the next year.

The plans have been titled "highways-based", "public transport and car alternatives","demand management" and "low carbon". The first would see the road network in the emirate significantly extended and overhauled, with new roads built, existing ones widened in some places and one-way streets introduced in the centre of the capital. Given its emphasis on road developments, the bus system would be radically extended and many more taxis introduced, while driver training and the enforcement of road rules would be enhanced. Given the preference many in the emirate have for driving, and the cost of building a metro system from scratch, this could be the most popular and obvious option to form the core of the STMP, and it would require the least change in lifestyles for the population.

The second model would focus on the development of an integrated public transport system including trams, regional trains, a metro system, buses and ferries, as well as rail links to neighbouring countries and emirates. Given citizens' preference for convenience and the uncomfortable climate in high summer, there would be an emphasis on "door-to-door" transport and air-conditioned walkways would be provided.

The second model would be the basis of the "demand management" and "low carbon" plans. The first would introduce measures to make driving less appealing, possibly including a congestion charge similar to that imposed in central London, and higher fuel prices. The second would put an emphasis on clean and renewable fuels, which would be in line with Abu Dhabi's drive for sustainability and its ambitions to be a renewable fuel centre.

While the final shape of the STMP is still to emerge, there is no doubting the authorities' determination to tackle Abu Dhabi's transport problems, nor the seriousness of the issue.

Earlier this month, a report from the Department of Planning and Economy (DPE) announced that Abu Dhabi's roads have insufficient capacity for the volumes of traffic in the emirate, and called for large investments in the transport infrastructure. It suggested the development of a metro and rails systems, an increase in the number of taxis, and floated the possibility of rearranging public sector working times to ease rush hour traffic.

The average length of commute in Abu Dhabi has risen to 45 minutes, as the number of vehicles has more than doubled from 242,00 in 2000 to 559,000 in April this year. The report estimates that this will rise to 1m by 2015. Abu Dhabi's population is increasing quickly too, due to an influx of expatriate workers drawn by the dynamic economy, and a fast-growing national population.

The emirate is expected to be home to 2.5m people in 2015 and 4m in 2025, from only 1.7m now. With Abu Dhabi also focusing on building up its tourism sector, and the economy continuing to flourish, further pressure on the transport infrastructure will be created.

Notably, the growth in traffic has considerably outstripped that of the population, suggesting that increased affluence has also had a large part to play in the rising number of vehicles. Another factor is that the number of taxis has not kept pace with population growth, making finding a free one an ordeal at times.

The seriousness of the transport issue is indicated by the warning that failure to develop infrastructure fast could put a break on economic growth and allow other countries with greater transport capacity to steal a march on Abu Dhabi.

"It is imperative to invest more heavily on infrastructure projects such as roads, bridges, internal transport system, air and seaports, in addition to water and electricity services," the report stated.

"Internal roads are no longer able to absorb large fleets of new vehicles that are being added year after year. This constitutes a direct threat to economic growth and indeed to the very competitive investment edge of Abu Dhabi," it also stated.

Given Abu Dhabi's enviable financial resources, it is in the fortunate position that it can build a transport master plan incorporating elements of two or more of the models suggested this month. It is unlikely that one alone would produce a viable solution, given the likely population increase and resident's preference for driving.

The emirate is also fortunate that its capital is not yet bedeviled by the traffic problems seen in some other cities in the region - Dubai and Manama are two examples - and that its geographical expansion is just taking shape, leaving time to plan space for transportation arteries and terminals. For example, the road infrastructure for Saadiyat Island, a $27m development to the east of the capital's main island expected to become one of Abu Dhabi's tourist centres, will be in place years before most new residents and visitors arrive. Abu Dhabi has some traffic issues, but time, expertise and resources are on its side.

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