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Pep Montserrat for The National
Pep Montserrat for The National

Streetwise solutions to get our city riding in the right direction

World-class museums and international events are transforming Abu Dhabi. But while cycle paths and green spaces may not grab the headlines, they are just as important to the quality of city life.

You might think that the streets of Abu Dhabi are not the best place to look down at your bike and realise that the reason your left foot is stabbing at thin air is that the pedal has fallen off.

Fortunately this was the cycle path on Yas Island and the only pain was realising that after 15 years' faithful service, it was time for a new bike and the subsequent removal of several thousand dirhams from my bank account for a replacement.

But wait a minute, you might be saying, there's a cycle path on Yas Island? Indeed there is, although it's not exactly advertised in banner letters. I had heard rumours that it existed, but could find no mention on the official Yas Island website.

The rest of the internet yielded information only on the Yas Marina circuit, which allows cyclists (and joggers) every Tuesday night, which is very nice, but only for one day a week.

A company which rents out bikes outside one of the Yas hotels eventually pointed out where it was, and so right now, before we go any further, is a public service announcement.

The cycle path begins just past the Park Inn by Radisson, and runs all the way on the opposite side of the road past the F1 track and Ferrari World, and ends just before the motorway to Saadiyat. It's a nice gentle run, landscaped all the way, about 10 kilometres there and back and with a parallel path for walkers. Afterwards why not cycle over to one of the restaurants at the yacht club and replace those lost calories with an ice-cream sundae or whatever you fancy?

So that's all well and good and a very pleasant way to spend a Friday afternoon. But the point is, where do you go next? There is another cycle path along the Corniche, which gets a bit crowded at weekends and is a good 40-minute drive for the growing numbers of us who live off the island. In my neighbourhood of Khalifa City A, you can experiment with the backstreets but must also mix it up with some truly terrifying roundabouts and dual carriageways. Otherwise, options in the city are limited, if not to say suicidal.

Which is surely not as it should be. When it opened in late 2009, Yas Island was seen as a model for urban planning, with attractive street furniture, plenty of landscaping and the right balance between the needs of motorists and those on two legs or two wheels.

Three years later, it still is (except for a couple of stretches where the cycle path has been dug up and not yet put back). Even better, the design for the new waterfront community on Yas, with homes for 55,000 people and approved by Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council this week, will specifically incorporate walking and cycle paths, or what the developers call "walkability". But what about the rest of Abu Dhabi?

My copy of the plan/vision for Abu Dhabi in 2030 stresses the importance of creating what it calls a "public open space framework" and a "vibrant street life", meaning things such as community gardens, wider pavements and places where children can play and adults stroll without worrying about being flattened by a speeding Toyota pickup truck.

More specifically, the Department of Transport for Abu Dhabi last May announced a year-long study with the aim of creating a network of walking and cycle paths across the emirate.

According to a DoT statement, the Pedestrian and Bikeway Master Plan is being drawn up with the Urban Planning Council and the Department of Municipal Affairs and will recognise that "walking and cycling are critical components of a modern, liveable and sustainable world-class city and nation".

The intention was to have the master plan ready for early 2012, so presumably that means any day now. In the meantime, getting information about cycling in Abu Dhabi is a bit hit and miss, as you might say. Entering the word "cycle" in the search box on the Department of Transport website produces the automated response "Did you mean Chile?"

It's good, though, that the city and emirate are thinking seriously about these sort of quality-of-life issues. The most vibrant communities anywhere in the world are those that actively welcome their inhabitants on to the streets. Cycling and walking both cut down on traffic pollution, noise and congestion, and they generally make people healthier and happier.

On the other hand, I think that Abu Dhabi is in danger of making this overcomplicated. There are any number of steps that could be implemented quickly and at relatively little cost and the differences they would make to life here would be enormous.

Take Khalifa City A, where I live. In recent years, this sprawling suburb near the international airport has become an increasingly popular place to live. Families like it because you can get a bigger place to live with a nice garden, while the significant improvements to the capital's roads mean that commuting to the city's business districts, and even Dubai, is quick and easy.

Outside your villa's front door, though, this suburb needs a serious rethink. There is one row of shops, at the eastern edge, while the nearest supermarkets are at Al Raha Gardens and Etihad Plaza, both outside the development. There is no library, community centre, swimming pool, football field or any other sports facilities.

The nearest cinema is at Al Raha Mall on the wrong side of the Abu Dhabi-Dubai motorway; tantalisingly just three kilometres away from my front door but bizarrely a 32km round trip (although a soonish-to-be-opened flyover and slip road will hopefully improve this).

All of which conspires to turn this suburb in on itself. The motor vehicle is king here; this community was built without pavements, parks and only the most brutal street lighting. Walking - or cycling - is not encouraged, but then there is not much reason to do either.

The good news is that changing this need be neither difficult nor need it break the bank. A series of small community parks - some reserved for families - could be built on empty lots. Linking them could be paths very much like the model on Yas, one for walking, the other for cycling, attractively landscaped and lit. Space could be eventually created for cafes and smaller neighbourhood shops, drawing their business from the growing numbers of passing foot traffic. The public beach down on the Corniche shows that this works.

All of this could be achieved quickly and with relatively low expenditure. We all benefit from world-class museums, international sporting events and film and music festivals, but sometimes it's the little things that make a difference. Cycle paths and green spaces may not grab the headlines, but they are just as important as an art gallery to the quality of urban life.

On the island, many of the city's larger parks could easily accommodate cycle paths. For most people, the year 2030 still seems far distant. Improving life for Abu Dhabi's communities now would be a reminder that the city's transformation is well under way.

For my part, I have a shiny new Scott Sportster with hydraulic front forks (wonderful with all those speed bumps that are another part of Khalifa City living). That's my investment in urban life. Now let's see what the city can do.

James Langton is an occasional cyclist and a writer and editor at The National.

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