AL AIN // The city's first public bus system is proving such a success that its benefits are being felt thousands of miles away. The Dh1 blanket fare means that expatriate workers are saving as much as 75 per cent of their transport budgets to send back to their families. But taxi drivers say the service, which is now 40 days old, is threatening their livelihoods as their one-time passengers desert them for the cheaper option.
With the buses attracting as many as 14,000 passengers a day, some cabbies are already giving up. Riders on the 930, from Al Foa'a Mall to Bateen West, said their transport spending had been reduced drastically since they decided to take the bus. "I am now sending more money home to my family in Bangladesh," said Imdiamin Ul-Islam, 30, who works at Health Authority-Abu Dhabi's Al Ain office. "Before I was spending Dh200 (US$54) per month on taxis, but now all I spend is Dh50 per month on buses. The Dh150 that I am now saving is helping my family."
Omar Awad Jameel, 53, a retired Sudanese police brigadier-general, who now teaches at the Abu Dhabi Police Academy, said he was saving Dh250 per month. "The drivers are very helpful as passengers are still learning the routes," he said. "They advise people where to get off and where to transfer to reach their destination, and they obey the rules of traffic." However, taxi drivers, who were already dreading the impact of a decision by TransAD, the taxi regulatory commission, to triple the number of cars on the road, say the bus service has left a big hole in their earnings.
Sebastian Paul, 28, a driver of a silver cab from India, said his previous earnings of Dh400 per day had halved, and he was using up much of his petrol driving around in the search for passengers. "These buses are very bad for taxi drivers," he said. "There are far fewer passengers now than there were before. "Sometimes I can get passengers at bus stops to ride with me, but only if they have stood in the sun for a long time and are tired of waiting."
Rafiq ul-Islam, 33, from India, said he had asked for a transfer to Abu Dhabi. "Before, I was bringing in Dh300 to Dh350 on most days and was meeting my target," he said. "I was making a good commission, sometimes Dh1,800 to Dh2,000 per month. But, since Ramadan began, I am making only Dh200 per day, so the commission I get is only Dh1,000. I cannot support my family in India on that." Another driver, who did not want to be named, said he had filed a complaint with the labour board against his employer, and wanted to have his contract terminated, after seeing his daily earnings drop from Dh400 to Dh250 per day.
The company, he said, did not take into consideration the number of taxis and buses on the road. "The company has not reduced our daily target amount, nor have they increased our commissions," he said. "The company simply acts like things are as they were a year ago, but things have changed drastically. I just want to go back to Egypt." The bus service comprises 50 new Mercedes Benz vehicles, each equipped with screens that display route information, and security cameras.
There are four routes running between the outskirts and the town centre, linking landmarks such as Tawam Hospital, Al Ain Airport, Hili Park and Bawadi Mall. Another four routes will be added within six weeks. By the end of the year, buses will run every 15 minutes. They had only 700 passengers on the first day but are now averaging 8,000 per weekday and 12,000 on weekends. During Eid, the department recorded 14,000 passengers per day.
"The buses are becoming a more and more popular mode of transportation for residents of Al Ain," said Jaber al Ahbabi, Al Ain bus operations manager for the Department of Transport. The new routes would have air-conditioned bus shelters offering coffee and vending machines, he said. Their construction would begin late next year. "We cannot begin immediately because construction will impede traffic flow throughout the city," said Mr al Ahbabi.