They are some of the capital's quirkiest and most charming pieces of street furniture, but now Abu Dhabi's roundabouts are under threat from increasing volumes of traffic. Helena Frith Powell reports. Driving in Abu Dhabi is described by many as one of the most stressful things about living here. It is fast, frenetic, aggressive and predictable only in that you have no idea what is going to happen next. But there is one thing that has the ability to calm harassed motorists; the city's roundabouts. Drive west on Al Saada Street and take a right on 28th street. At 17th there is a sight to soothe the soul. A large, imposing roundabout with a three-tier fountain and cascading water. If you are in a stressful mood as you enter the roundabout you are sure to feel calmer as you exit. Keep going down towards the Corniche and you have another gem on 15th and 26th. A coffee pot that pours crystal clear water, surrounded by fountains and greenery. On Delma Street is one of the city's most innovative traffic control tools that is well worth a detour: golden lions with water pouring from their mouths seated on a deep green fountain.
How much more Zen does that make you feel than a traffic light that is bound to change to the wrong colour and make you late? Wouldn't you rather look at golden lions with water pouring from their mouths than the driver in the next lane eating a Subway? When Abu Dhabi was first designed there were many more roundabouts than there are now. The exact figures are not available but we do know that the capital's first paved road was laid in 1961.
According to Dr Zaher Khatib, an engineer with the Dubai-based engineering consultancy ET&T, the UAE followed the British tradition of building roundabouts. "I don't have evidence of this, but my belief is that we adopted the British system, which was ideal for a country with very light traffic, as we had at the time." We know that the first roundabout in the Emirates was the Clock Tower Roundabout built in Dubai in 1962. In addition, we know that roundabouts played a prominent part in the design of Abu Dhabi and not just for practical purposes.
"In 1968 on the road to the airport there were four roundabouts with no other roads off them," explains Ghassan Abu Lebdeh, associate civil engineering professor at the American University of Sharjah. "There was just a pavement to the desert." One theory is that when Sheikh Zayed, the founding President of the UAE, was designing Abu Dhabi in consultation with the American-Egyptian engineer Makhlouf, he put roundabouts in places where he would otherwise have had to cut a tree down to make way for the road.
Certainly if you look at, for instance, the roundabout at 15th and Karamah Street just before Airport Road, you can see how that would be the case and there are other examples around the city of roundabouts with not much more on them than trees. For example, there is one with several trees on it close to the Abu Dhabi Ladies Club. Sadly, the roundabout on 15th will soon be replaced by traffic lights. As traffic levels in the city have increased, so has the ratio of traffic lights to roundabouts. At the moment the roundabout at 15th and Karamah Street has traffic lights operating during peak hours, a system Khatib describes as "cumbersome, it is a sort of hybrid that just causes more delays".
And this despite the fact that the calming effect of roundabouts on drivers is well documented. "Roundabouts slow traffic down in a creative way," says Abu Lebdeh. "They force you to slow down, and thus have a calming effect which is very positive. A collision at a lower speed by its very nature is one that will not usually have fatalities." Does he have a favourite roundabout? "No, though I have one I hate where I had a crash," he replies. But at least he is alive to tell the tale.
The sad news for those who support slowing down traffic in Abu Dhabi is that roundabouts are less fashionable than dungarees. Those of you who have lived here for years will probably have noticed there are far fewer than there once was. "Traffic flows more freely with lights if there is a heavy flow from more than two directions," explains the engineer Eisa Mubarak al Mazrouie, director of infrastructure and services co-ordination at the Municipality of Abu Dhabi. "Sure, roundabouts can have a calming effect but it all depends on traffic volumes, and as volumes have increased we have had to increase the number of traffic signals."
Al Mazrouie says that roundabouts work best in quieter, residential streets, which is why they still predominate in the Al Bateen area. "For the moment, there are no plans at all to replace those roundabouts." That is good news for the many drivers who prefer roundabouts to the ubiquitous traffic lights, one of the most boring aspects of driving in Abu Dhabi. On a day when they are all working against you, your commute can be increased by 10 minutes or more. Even my 10-year-old daughter has worked out that to get us from 25th street to her school on 32nd, the fastest way is through Al Bateen, where there are no traffic lights. The problem is, according to the authorities, above a certain level of traffic, roundabouts start creating traffic jams.
"Certain roundabouts start developing a reputation for being congested," says Abu Lebdeh. "And then it is time to start looking at replacing them. But it should be done on a case-by-case basis." Many would argue that traffic lights create jams, too, with motorists queuing up in the wrong lane, for example, to turn left. Most of us have watched in frustration and anger as the light we are waiting for turns red three times before we even get close enough to clear the intersection.
It is a different world in Abu Dhabi to the seaside town of Rimini, Italy, where I once watched a policeman approach an elderly lady who seemed unwilling to move whichever colour the light turned. "Madam, we only have three colours," he told her. According to al Mazrouie, whatever the aesthetic or calming benefit of a roundabout there are no plans to replace any traffic lights with palm trees, oversized coffee pots or lion-decorated fountains.
"The only new roundabout is one on Salam Street, which we have put there for the duration of the works," he says. "But apart from that, the trend is very much in the opposite direction. As long as traffic flows increase, there will be fewer roundabouts." Abu Lebdeh agrees. "With signals we have more control, we can decide the timing and who goes where," he says. "Having said that, you have to look at the bigger picture as well. Often you may solve one problem by changing a roundabout into a signal but you have just exported the problem down the street."
Ask Abu Dhabi residents to name one roundabout in the capital and many will come up with the zany roundabout outside the Méridien Hotel in the Tourist Club area. The one that looks as if it could have been designed by Salvador Dali on a bad day but is in reality a cedar tree, the national symbol of Lebanon. It was a present from the former Lebanese president, Elias Hrawi, in recognition of the friendship of the Emirati people. Is it safe from the urban planning department?
Al Mazrouie smiles. "It will stay," he says. "It is safe for now." If it ever comes under threat, M will be at the forefront of a campaign to save it, and the other roundabouts that make Abu Dhabi one of the greenest and most pleasant cities in the UAE in which to drive.