The driver of bus 8033 was already behind schedule and in a foul mood. And it was only 7:28am. "Mushrif, Mushrif," he barked at a group of Pakistani labourers trying to climb aboard the turquoise Abu Dhabi city bus at the Police College stop in Al Muroor.
"Where are you going?" he demanded, as I waved my bus pass. I had paid a good Dh40 for the right to 30 days of unlimited travel on city bus routes, and since I took this bus several times a week, I resolutely plonked my behind on a seat in the ladies' section. But I understood what the driver was getting at. Many passengers who board the Number 44 bus at that particular stop assume it will take them straight down Muroor Road, but instead it makes a sharp left turn at the college to head towards the neighbouring community of Al Mushrif. The southern part of the Number 44 bus route is among the most problematic for bus drivers in this city. They resent picking up passengers who promptly discover, as their conveyance bulldozes across four lanes of heavy traffic, that they should have waited for the Number 34 or 54.
About a year ago, when the route was one of several new ones added to Abu Dhabi's fledgling public transport network, the Number 44 bus would sail past the Police College in the centre lane, ignoring waiting passengers. It took several weeks of repeated telephone calls and e-mails to the Transportation Department to get the situation rectified, and it is to the department's credit that it responded. But drivers on this route are still a surly bunch.
Except for the occasional tourist, few Westerners will ever experience the capital's bus system. Passengers here are mostly Asians and Africans, running the social gamut from briefcase carrying office staff to hospital workers and labourers. Which is a shame, because riding the bus is more than an occasional test of patience - it's also much cheaper. Commuting isn't all doom and gloom. I hasten to add that Abu Dhabi bus drivers conduct themselves professionally and courteously at least 99 per cent of the time, which is one of the reasons I take the buses here. They are serviceably bilingual in Arabic and English, and often speak Hindi.
They know their routes, drive safely and generally keep order on the often crowded buses without unduly upsetting people. The bus also offers a view of cosmopolitan life in the capital that many Western expatriates seldom see, all while saving the rider a bundle. I estimate I would spend at least Dh100 per week on taxis to and from work, and probably at least the same again to get to shops, fitness classes, medical appointments, theatres and other venues I can easily reach by bus. That works out conservatively to Dh800 per month, compared to which, the cost of my Dh40 bus pass is peanuts.
I shudder to think what I would spend if I took the leap to car ownership. Colleagues tell me the monthly cost of renting and fuelling a budget car here runs to about Dh2,000. So my annual savings from commuting and running as many errands as possible by bus works out to between Dh9,000 and Dh23,500 in round figures, or even more if I chose to drive an SUV. At that rate, I could kiss goodbye to my savings plan. Little wonder that many residents opt to hire instead. A budget car such as a 1.3L Toyota Yaris will cost about Dh1,900 a month to rent, plus, assuming low usage, approximately Dh100 a month on petrol. Even so, that's the equivalent of more than four years of bus passes for every month spent using a hired car.
Buying a bus pass isn't so easy. Reportedly they are available from Red Crescent kiosks at shopping malls, but apparently not at weekends or during weekday hours when most working folk might conveniently visit a mall. You can also try your luck at an Orja Kiosk at bus stops at Marina Mall, Al Bateen Mall, Abu Dhabi Co-op Al Mina, Abu Dhabi Mall, Al Wahda Mall and other selected outlets. For me, obtaining a pass entails a trip to the Central Bus Station on Muroor Road, but even there they sometimes sell out.
To get there, take the Number 34 or 54 bus, but make sure it is southbound, as there is no easy pedestrian access to the terminal from across the road. The inconvenience of buying a pass is worth it. The individual fare will cost you a mere Dh1, and a pass will spare you the bother of stuffing your pockets with dirham coins the next time you take a ride. When you get to the Central Bus Station, you'll have three options: an Ojra Monthly Pass, an Ojra Senior Citizen Pass and an Ojra Pass for Special Needs.
While the standard monthly pass costs Dh40, senior citizen- for passengers over the age of 60 - and disabled passes are free. To apply for either of these passes, visit www.ojra.ae, fill out the registration forms and bring a copy of your passport and a passport photo to the station. Now that you have your pass, it's time to ride. The bus has its own etiquette revolving around the informal system for segregating passengers by gender. This is not mandated, but has spontaneously evolved. The front of the bus provides priority seating for ladies, but men may occupy available seats or standing space if their section is full. As a result, the ladies constantly shuffle forward to fill vacated seats, allowing a few more tired men can sit down.
The bus service is improving as it grows. But much work remains. The frequency of buses is insufficient for peak demand, which causes them to bunch up. More crosstown routes are needed to connect the main north-south arteries. Some key municipal facilities, such as the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre, are still not served. New, air-conditioned bus shelters are sprouting across the city, but reaching them on foot can be hazardous, as no one seems to be repairing Abu Dhabi's crumbling pavements or installing enough pedestrian crossings near bus stop locations.
Better lighting at shelters is also on my wish-list following an unpleasant encounter with a grope-and-run assailant. Notwithstanding that incident, I would still generally rate Abu Dhabi's bus service, as I find it safer than taxis. The biggest difficulty is still getting buses to stop. It often seems that drivers look for any excuse not to. Do not expect a bus to pull over just because you are within 10 metres of the shelter, running pell mell and waving frantically.
Then again, a bus inspector once told me that a driver simply assumed, on the basis of my pale complexion, that my antics were an effort to hail a taxi. For all its teething problems, I fully support Abu Dhabi's 17-month-old bus system as an essential public service that reduces traffic congestion and air pollution. Another bonus is that I get at least a modicum of daily aerobic exercise walking, or running, to and from bus stops.
But one big reason I enjoy using the bus, of course, has to do with economics: while riding, my mid is often on all the things I can do with the large amount of cash I am saving each day. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org