It was a tale of two cities in Dubai yesterday as motorists who did their best to avoid the new road tolls spent hours stranded in traffic jams, while those who chose to pay enjoyed a trouble-free drive to work on uncharacteristically clear roads. The two new Salik toll gates, at Al Safa on Sheikh Zayed Road and on Al Maktoum Bridge, created bottlenecks in several parts of the city as motorists took their chances on unfamiliar backstreets to avoid paying tolls.
Yesterday's chaotic scenes were in stark contrast to the objectives outlined by the Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) in February 2007, when it announced that the new toll system was to be named Salik, the Arabic word for "clear". The point of Salik, it said, was to "reduce traffic congestion in Dubai's main roads and thus strengthen the city's economic activities". Faced with yesterday's rush-hour jams, an RTA official said it was too early to make a judgement.
"Motorists are often used to their old routes and it is difficult to change habits overnight," said Peyman Younes Parham, the director of marketing and corporate communications at the RTA. "We have to give it a few weeks and eventually we will see that motorists are using all the alternative routes provided if they do not want to use Salik." Having introduced five alternative routes - the 13-lane Business Bay crossing, the Floating Bridge, Emirates Road, Dubai Bypass and Shindagha Tunnel - the RTA had promised a smooth drive for motorists. It is predicting that the additional public buses introduced this year and the Dubai Metro, which will start running next year, will also ease the burden on commuters.
However, price may yet prove a disincentive for drivers to give up their cars and take to the metro. RTA officials chose yesterday - a day when drivers condemned themselves to hours of frustration rather than pay Salik charges of Dh4 or Dh8 - to break the news that a one-way ticket on the metro could cost up to Dh10, although a final decision had yet to be made. Mr Parham said the RTA was sensitive to the implications of pricing for the success of the metro.
"If we look at public transport across the world, affordability is a crucial element in it," he said. "The Dubai Metro will soon be the backbone of public transport in Dubai and we want it to be appealing to everyone in terms of affordability and accessibility." Yesterday, however, an easy journey to work at any price seemed a far-off dream to those motorists who tried to bypass the toll gates, only to find themselves in gridlock. To make matters worse, drivers trying to negotiate unfamiliar territory found themselves involved in a series of accidents which only added to the chaos.
Commuters travelling from Sharjah to Dubai were among the worst-hit: all lanes leading to Emirates Road were blocked as most motorists tried to take the highway to avoid the toll gates. "It took me three hours to reach my office in Jebel Ali this morning," said Zayed Khan, from Bur Dubai, whose trip to work via Emirates Road usually takes about half an hour. "The traffic was the worst I have witnessed in a long time."
The Floating Bridge, Shindagha Tunnel and other roads leading to exit routes from the main highway were the scenes of huge tailbacks. The Al Wasl exit before the new toll gate near Al Safa was especially congested. With cars stranded on Al Wasl road in both directions, some frustrated motorists simply gave up. "I was stuck there for an hour in the morning. I just cancelled all my appointments and went back home," one motorist said.
The Ramadan timings, construction work in various areas and back-to-school traffic added to the confusion. Traffic at The Greens, Al Barsha and other parts of New Dubai were backed up for several kilometres as many tried to take the Al Khail exit to head to the Business Bay Bridge. "The traffic here is already bad with all the construction work causing heavy vehicles to pile up," said an exasperated resident of The Greens. "Today it got worse as people were avoiding the new Salik toll gates. It takes us an hour just to get out of this area."
Motorists said the situation yesterday was similar to last July, when the first phase of the Salik toll system was introduced. "It is a repeat of the chaos we saw when the first two toll gates were introduced last year," said Essam Ali, an accountant who works in Jebel Ali. "People are not prepared to pay so much toll to get to work, which is why many of them were driving around to avoid the gates."
Taxi drivers in Dubai complained they were being forced to use the congested toll-free roads as passengers refused to pay the charges. "We were asked repeatedly to use the Floating Bridge or the Business Bay Bridge to cross the creek," one said. "These routes had traffic jams but passengers preferred it to paying Dh8 on tolls just to travel from Deira to New Dubai." By contrast, drivers on the Salik routes benefited from unusually light traffic. Al Maktoum Bridge and Al Garhoud Bridge in particular had very few cars crossing them. "It usually takes me an hour to get to Bur Dubai using Al Maktoum Bridge," said one motorist. "However, it just took me 20 minutes this time as the bridge was empty."
Richard Wagner, an architect at DXB-Lab Architecture in Dubai, was critical of the timing of the launch of the new tolls. "They have not taken into account that schools have just gone back and it is Ramadan," he said. "Let people get back into their regular working hours before introducing a new system." Furthermore, there were problems with the way the Salik had been applied: "It's a flat rate," Mr Wagner said. "There are no incentives to travel earlier or later. They should have a system where it is cheaper if people travel before 6am. They should also have incentives for different classes of vehicles."
Another problem was the lack of commuting options: "It is not that they are not creating new roads but there are a lack of alternative routes," he said. "In order to avoid the Salik, people take the secondary and tertiary roads which should be used just for people to get to their homes, yet they are ending up serving as main roads. "The RTA thinks that by adding more lanes that will create a better traffic flow, but it doesn't because in the end they might ease traffic in one area but that leads to a bottleneck in another, for example at Sharjah. It only relays the problem from one spot to another.
"Al Wasl Road could have been made into a larger road and Jumeirah Beach could have been left as a beach promenade, but instead it has become a road to commute on." email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org