Untangling Traffic

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As both Abu Dhabi’s size and density grow at record pace, so do its traffic problems. Jams are now becoming so acute too that the emirate has begun to attack the problem on several fronts – from involving the private sector to installing satellite tracking devices in individual vehicles.

As traffic density may mean Abu Dhabi could lose some of its attractiveness to business, developers too are now being asked to participate in road planning, as new commercial and residential complexes continue to add to the number of vehicles on the road.

“It is critical that these developments do not lead to a situation where the transportation infrastructure is critically overloaded,” Ibrahim Sanhouri of Deleuw Cather International told a conference on the issue recently. “The population increase throws up significant traffic challenges, including congestion management, parking, and road safety among other issues.”

Sanhouri went on to point out that in the emirate there is little to no use of car pools, as those wealthy enough to own cars prefer to drive themselves. Add to this cheap taxi fares, limited public buses and the quality of public transport, with what private buses there are often hired to serve schools and workers travelling to building sites, and the congestion is severe.

All of this is compounded by tens of thousands of traffic violations each week. The UAE has an average rate of 21.6 road accident deaths per 100,000 population. Just in the period between March 18 and March 24, three people died and 59 people were injured on Abu Dhabi’s roads. In the same week, there were 19,859 traffic violations. Speeding detected by radar was top on the list, accounting for 10,522 violations.

Many of these highway code breaks could be due to the highly international mixture of drivers in Abu Dhabi, as those from the US and Western Europe and those from some Middle Eastern countries exhibit very different driving styles.

Last month, the 10th annual International Road Safety Organisation Congress was held in Abu Dhabi to highlight some of these problems. The congress was organised by a Brussels-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) Prevention Routiere International. At the congress, the UAE’s interior minister, Sheikh Saif bin Zayed Al Nahyan, said the country should implement global traffic safety rules due to the national diversity of its residents.

These problems could also threaten Abu Dhabi’s position as shipping hub. The UAE’s extensive and well-maintained road network has made shipping and transport of goods an important business in Abu Dhabi. To counter the problems, a ring road around the city that would allow freight and passengers to bypass Abu Dhabi completely is in the works.

Speaking on behalf of developers at the same conference as Sanhouri, Adnan Sahili, executive director-projects for Sorouh Real Estate, said “Significant analysis and investments have gone into planning an efficient transportation network at the Shams Abu Dhabi project on Reem Island… By providing all elements of infrastructure such as places of worship, schools, healthcare facilities, police and emergency services at the island development itself, we are minimising the need for residents to travel back to Abu Dhabi’s current central business district.”

According to Sahili, within the development there will also be mass-transit systems, even including water-based public transport.

The Reem Island development is expected to house 300,000 new residents upon completion.

The emirate authorities also announced on April 4 that there would be a grace period of six months before harsher penalties under its new traffic law begin to be enforced.

The new regulations cover some 150 traffic violations. These include speeding, not wearing a seat belt, placing children under 10 years of age in the front seat and failure to give right of way to police or emergency vehicles.

Penalties range from fines between Dh600 ($163) and Dh2000 ($545) to permanent cancellation of a valid driver’s licence. For each small violation, a black point will be added to the offending driver’s record. If the total reaches 24, the licence is cancelled.

Abu Dhabi and Dubai are investing in British technology, ostensibly developed for a pay-as-you go scheme on toll roads in the UK, to track individual vehicles via satellite, which can detect traffic violations such as speeding. According to web site News.telegraph, it will be the world’s largest “spy in the sky” network for tracking motor vehicles. In the coming weeks, work will begin on installing some 10,000 black boxes in vehicles resident in the two emirates.

The main purpose of the new system, according to the government, is to reduce speeding. Traffic cameras have proved ineffectual as some speeders travel at upwards of 100 miles per hour. The satellite can easily track both speed and location. Violators will first be given a warning, which if ignored will result in an automatic speeding ticket.

Emirati cars will be fitted with the devices when a driver renews his or her annual licence.

The system could have other applications as well, with Saudi Arabia considering adapting the technology to prevent car bombs.

While the emirate continues to develop at record pace, it will have to be quick to come up with solutions to the inevitable problems rapid growth can cause.

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