Urban integration: A rapidly growing population demands a transport system to match


Abu Dhabi City is today undergoing a dramatic change and expansion, yet this is just the most recent stage of a process that has been under way for many years. Over the last few decades the UAE’s capital has been transformed from a small collection of government buildings, harbour facilities, houses, markets and mosques into a major city. The population in 2014 was 12 times larger than in 1975. Between 1970 and 2010 the emirate’s GDP increased by 196 times, with per capita GDP rising from Dh49,000 ($13,300) to Dh325,200 ($88,500), the second-highest in the world. The urban population has been the epicentre of Abu Dhabi’s expansion, rising from 165,871 in 1975 to 1.29m in 2010. The number of businesses has also shot up, with registered commercial licences in the capital region going from 2503 to 65,667 over the same period.

Keeping Up

The built environment has therefore mushroomed, yet it is still expanding and is likely to continue to grow. This poses major challenges for the city’s transport planners, who have been charged with ensuring that Abu Dhabi’s streets remain unclogged and that the capital’s economic, social and cultural life continues smoothly.

Recognising the particular challenges for transport that this growth poses, the emirate’s leadership has been producing and implementing a series of urban transport master plans, with the latest of these – an updated Surface Transport Master Plan (STMP) – reaching draft stage in late 2016. It will likely be unveiled publicly sometime in 2017, after a period of consultation and feedback from some 30 stakeholders, ranging from government departments to transport sector and consumer groups. The STMP promises to be revolutionary in its approach, aiming to radically reduce the level of private transport use in the city over the next 25 years, taking into account changes in future land use plans following the UPC’s Plan Capital 2030 update.

Plans & Programmes

The master plan builds on a series of previous strategies delivered by the emirate’s Department of Municipal Affairs and Transport (DMAT) and the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council (UPC). The UPC was behind the Plan Abu Dhabi 2030 Urban Structure Framework Plan, which was published in September 2007 after being approved by the Abu Dhabi Executive Council, and determined that as the city expanded it would be increasingly unable to rely on private vehicles for transport connectivity. In consequence, a “multi-layered transport network” would be required.

In February 2008 the former Department of Transport entity drafted the Surface Transport Master Plan (STMP), a hugely ambitious, multi-billion-dirham scheme that seeks to create an “integrated system of transport services: regional rail, metro rail, trams, buses, taxis, park & ride, highways and more” by 2030. As the planners state in their introduction, “no city, no state in history has ever attempted to implement such a large-scale, comprehensive transport system in such a short period of time.” The STMP therefore has bold ambitions, aiming to end over-dependence on private vehicles over the course of the next 25 years. To be implemented in phases, it should see the earlier plans move towards an integrated system, with the use of the latest technologies central to this. Infrastructure work is set to begin in Abu Dhabi City first, before being extended to the rest of the emirate.

Challenges & Solutions

The 2008 STMP forecasts that by 2030 metropolitan Abu Dhabi will have a population in excess of 3m people – triple its level when the plan was unveiled. Over the period, the number of daily trips made within the city will go up five-fold as office space in the capital expands from 1.4m sq metres to 7.5m. The number of tourists visiting the city is expected to jump from 1.8m to 7.9m, adding to the pressure on the internal transport system. The current challenge for Abu Dhabi’s planners has been to accommodate these major changes within a series of set parameters. These include environmental (development of transport must protect ecological areas and combat carbon dioxide emissions); social and cultural ( neighbourhoods should be connected, and the system should take account of the city’s cultural diversity and sensitivities); and economic (congestion should be kept to a minimum, allowing the fast and efficient transport of goods and services, both around the emirate and to destinations beyond).

The plan came up with a blueprint for a highly integrated system that takes all of these requirements into account. An example of how this works is the central business district (CBD), which has the highest concentration of workplaces in the city, yet, as it is situated on a series of islands, limited space. Roads quickly become congested, while parking is a potential problem. The plan’s response is to make the CBD a major destination for public transport systems, with metro, tram, ferry and bus routes all converging on the district. Low-density residential projects ring the CBD, cutting journey times, while a series of small bridges – extensions of existing streets – eliminates the problem of large bridges and their feeder roads cutting off neighbourhoods.

Another example is Madinat Zayed. Some 2.2m sq metres of land have been designated for this project, which was given a new lease of life in 2016 when the Executive Council decided to go ahead with a series of major infrastructure construction packages. These will include new roads and a multi-modal public transport system. Madinat Zayed will set its business district at the heart of low-rise residential areas, with tram, metro, light rail and bus links bringing people in and out to these and other residential areas of the city. The surrounding Khalifa A and B urban developments were reported by engineering consultancy AECOM to be around 90% complete at the end of 2016, with these likely to become natural neighbours to Madinat Zayed, sharing transport infrastructure.

Budgets & Gadgets

Fiscal consolidation and budgetary constraints have had an impact on transport infrastructure since the decline of oil prices in 2014, including plans for the metro and tram, key elements of the integrated public transport system. The updated STMP, however, suggests that these projects may be revisited soon. Federal and emirate transport officials are keen to make the shift from private to public transport, and see this as part of a shift to new mobility concepts, including rail systems, both metro and light rail transit (LRT), bus services, taxi services, water transport, and more active lifestyle activities like walking and cycling. “The network of public transport modes will encourage a shift from the private car, with seamless interchanges between modes offering users of public transport a wide variety of destinations using carefully planned interchange locations across the city,” Awaidha Murshed Al Marar, chairman of DMAT, told OBG. These may also involve electric and autonomous vehicles, with the emirate’s transport planners following the progress of new systems such as Mobility As A Service, which was recently piloted in Finland and the UK. The latter feeds into existing plans to develop Abu Dhabi City as a smart city. On autonomous vehicles, Abu Dhabi’s UAE University is pioneering the testing of an inter-vehicular communications system that will enable driverless cars to swap information and find the quickest routes, as well as avoid accidents. Future integrated transport plans will likely involve provision for such concepts, with residents using apps that bundle together multiple transport modes – including shared vehicles – to go about their daily tasks.

Smart Systems

The DMAT has been a leading component in smart city development, with its Integrated Intelligent Transportation Systems Division working on a strategy to design and deploy such systems across the emirate. DMAT has 14 projects under way dedicated to reducing traffic incidents and congestion by 15% to 25%. These include smart traffic light networks, and vehicle counting and classification sensors. In September 2016 this smart traffic system was rolled out to control the number of vehicles joining Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Street, with more roads to be brought into the system in the future. The system has already been used to boost response times for emergency services, alerting them to accidents and providing real time information on the fastest routes. DMAT is also working to automate its bus fleet, introduce automatic fare systems and develop a parking management system. Importantly, a Unified Addressing System, called Onwani, is also in the works across the entire emirate. “The Department continues to plan for a future smart city by making technology implementation in transport a key component,” Al Marar told OBG.