Thursday, May 05, 2011

Abu Dhabi: The Autopia Captial of the UAE

Ford Prefect: Didn't you think it was strange I was trying to shake hands with a car? 
Arthur Dent: I assumed you were drunk. 
Ford Prefect: I thought cars were the dominant lifeform. I was trying to introduce myself.
-From The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

A few weeks ago I wrote about Amsterdam and how transportation choices hundreds of years ago shaped the city that we know today. When it comes to transportation there is no technically "right" answer, but the transportation choices that we decide upon have distinct trade-offs. Abu Dhabi is an example of a city that is heavily invested in the automobile. Ford, an alien in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, mistook for our cars for local sentient species on earth. During the day in Abu Dhabi, it would be easy to make the same mistake. 

What you see here is shot from Google Maps and each of those white dots is a car. Two eight lane roads (four lanes in each direction) meet and define the super-block within which we more cars sitting in wait. Most of the inner city is like this, although there are parks and open space elsewhere, especially along the waterfront.

In the area that I was staying in, this was the scene. The traffic in Abu Dhabi, a city of about a million people, does flow smoothly, but this is the cost: Every major street is at least four lanes wide and here we have two seven lane one-way roads to move traffic. Driving is stressful, but at the end of the day traffic does move. Outside of downtown, traffic is less hectic than here, but in Abu Dhabi one thing is for sure: The car is the king.

More urban pictures and transit talk after the break...

These trucks carry drinking water and water for irrigation. They are a common sight throughout the UAE.

Most buildings have a standard foot print

Parking is anywhere you want, sometimes even in the middle of the street
As a pedestrian, Abu Dhabi is a mixed bag: On the one hand, you will be walking across highways, dodging traffic as you go and almost always walking between parked cars. On the other hand, there are no fences or walls to speak of in the central part of town resulting in a very permeable block structure. It's extremely easy to walk through a block and you don't have to worry about running in to a dead end, which makes navigation a snap. There's also a surprising amount of foot traffic once the sun starts to set, and that is really when the streets start to become a live. The evening call to prayer fills up the mosques and the restaurants are busy filling orders (usually for take away or delivery). Children play near the entrance to their buildings and more people are out walking.

Abu Dhabi is a fascinating place and, again, there's nothing wrong with how they've dealt with their transportation issues. Given the abundance of oil, the climate, and the historically modest population of the UAE basing their transportation system around the automobile made a lot of sense. The city, on the other hand, is growing and unless they find a way to add more lanes traffic in the central area will get much worse over the coming decade. By 2015, it's estimated that traffic volume will exceed capacity, leading to congestion and daily traffic jams. Fortunately, Abu Dhabi is planning ahead. While there are still new highways being built (most notably a new underground highway in the center of the city and a bypass route to E11 via Yas Island to the north), the first steps are being taken today to create a new vision for the city

The Transit Master Plan for Abu Dhabi

This is from the surface transportation master plan which is part of the Abu Dhabi 2030 vision. In the plan, they call for new road improvements, heavy rail, light rail, and streetcars, plus foot ferries as well. Not shown here are also improvements from bikers and pedestrians. They anticipate that there will be a three times as many people living in Abu Dhabi by 2030 and that trip demand will grow even faster than the population. To move people around, and to humanize the city, this is their plan.

The regional rail, especially between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, is very realistic as long as the speeds are high enough to compete with car trips and the stations are placed near where people want to go. The major infrastructure investment is being made as part of a larger GCC railway initiative for freight trains. Also not shown here is the bus service in the city, which is very new. Prior to 2008, it was virtually non-existent while today the network is fairly well laid out, if slow. Further improvements outlined in the master plan are bus only lanes, which could actually provide a more cost effective solution for some of the highlighted streetcar routes.

If we put our realist hat on, I would be willing to bet that some of this isn't going to happen. The most fanciful parts, such as personal rapid transit in part of the city (not shown, but considered for Masdar city near the airport) is very unlikely. The ferries would be nice, but I don't really see where the trip demand would come from to justify it. Finally, the rail transit package is aggressive to say the least. The metro and streetcar vision will most likely be scaled back, with a single metro line running from the airport to the downtown core as a viable first line. A lot of it depends on how successful the new districts that they're building are.

Then again, this is the UAE. They spent $500 million on a mosque. They have a fairly centralized decision making structure that has access to oil money. If they are committed to this vision, then they can pull it off. It'll be interesting to visit again in ten years to see what's changed and whether or not parts of the city look like the architectural renders in their plans.
The new financial district being built from the sand


  1. I thought cars were the dominant lifeforms. I was trying to introduce myself.
    great quotation from nowhere hahhahahh

  2. Thank you so much for share the great information..!!
    Arun Panchariya