Ask any Abu Dhabi taxi driver to pick you up at Airport Road and Electra Street, and chances are he'll know just where to go. Ask a new arrival in the capital to do the same and you'll probably be left waiting on the kerb. "Airport Road" appears on most street maps, but not on street signs. Only Abu Dhabians will know that Zayed the First (aka Electra, aka 7th) runs parallel to Al Nasr (aka Hamdan, aka 5th) and is lined with light-bulb stores and electronics shops.
The scheme in Dubai is little better. "Bank Street" is a landmark lined with banks, but it's actually called Khalid bin Waleed Street.
In short, addresses in the UAE are confusing to say the least. Directions are given in terms of proximity to landmarks. So confusing is this system that one company sees a business opportunity in the muddle. As The National reported yesterday, localsearch.ae has compiled a virtual address system to make it easier to find where you're going.
There is nothing wrong with a bit of entrepreneurial spirit applied to a problem. But when the addressing system is so obviously in need of a remedy, municipalities and other levels of government must do more for a systemic solution.
We have seen some encouraging signs of progress. As of January, some residents in Abu Dhabi and Dubai have the option of paying for home delivery of their mail. Yet that still requires self-registration at the post office, and it doesn't solve the confusing address system.
The problem is not unique to the UAE. Cities like Amman and Cairo are notorious for their urban mazes. But unlike many regional population centres, cities in the UAE are well-positioned to solve the problem.
Property in most of the Emirates is already divided into plots and sectors for urban-planning purposes, and service providers such as ADDC and Dewa have little trouble finding flats for hookups and billing. It's worth exploring whether their locating systems could be adapted to develop a map of street addresses.
There are many practical reasons why a clearer addressing system is needed. Mail is one. More important is public safety, especially as the populations grows. Directing first responders - police or firefighters - to a burning flat that is "three left turns from the post office" leaves too much room for confusion, and lives at risk.