On a recent Sunday evening, not long after Abu Dhabi passed its anti-jaywalking ordinance, which levies fines of Dh50 on pedestrians scurrying across roads, I set out to investigate these fugitive walkers.
I started my journey at the roundabout in front of Le Meridien shortly after 6pm. Dusk was beginning to settle and traffic was relatively light. With little effort, I walked around the traffic circle and hooked northwest towards Hamdan Street.
I approached the Public Garden as a mosque across the street started the call to prayer. Soon, dozens were streaming both ways across the street from the apartment blocks behind the International Rotana Inn. Most of the cars turning off Al Ferdous Street appeared uninterested in slowing down, even as the call to prayer continued to wail.
Despite the presence of a well-marked underground pedestrian crossing directly in front of the mosque, most of the worshippers appeared intent on dashing across the street. In one five-minute period, I counted 36 pedestrians leaving and entering the underground crossing. In the following five minutes, 69 people could be seen jaywalking.
When I asked Abraham al Mansouri, an Emirati national, whether abiding by God’s law meant that he had to disobey Abu Dhabi’s, he flashed a guilty smile.
“You are right! It is easier to go to the mosque. Easiest to the people than going this way,” he said, pointing at the underground crossing. But Mr Mansouri wondered aloud whether the traffic and the city could do more to accommodate pedestrians.
“In my mind, in the highway, OK. This place is right to stop the [jaywalkers] and take penalty from them,” he said. “But in places that is not highway, between home and mosque, they should do the stripe – what is it? The zebra stripe. This is better.”
The distance between Al Salam and Baniyas Street is about 650 metres, but the only legal crossing point is an underground passage and a nearby pedestrian crossing.
But here the city’s pedestrians appear to have taken charge with at least tacit approval from municipal authorities. Several sections of the wrought iron fence that divides the road on the central reservation have been cut away with a metal saw.
On the next block: a set of zebra stripes, but no hole in the fence. Nevertheless, dozens of pedestrians appeared to be determined to cross the street legally. At around 7:30pm, dozens of law-abiding Abu Dhabians were running across the zebra stripes, then doing a fragile tightrope walk on the curb along the central reservation, to reach the next gap in the fence.
Even if the intersection of Muroor and Hamdan runs like clockwork, the drivers seem to think it’s a time bomb and the pedestrians are deaf to the ticking. To stand at the pedestrian crossing against the “Don’t Walk” signal is to face a frontal assault of jaywalkers running toward the pavement.
With a quick glance to the left, I stepped into the small pedestrian crossing in the turning lane and nearly swallowed the hood ornament of a Mercedes. The driver was speaking on his mobile and wasn’t looking as he swung around the corner.
On the next block, in front of the Novotel, I saw another characteristically ambiguous crossing point. Dozens of people were running across the street through a hole in the fence – one that has all the attendant features of a legal crossing point, including a paved spot-on the central reservation and a hand rail. The only thing missing: zebra stripes to warn the drivers. I spoke to Sara, who was jaywalking there.
“There should be a sign, yellow light or lane to slow the traffic”, said Sara. “It’s very difficult to be a person who walks in Abu Dhabi.”
Walking home, I decided to take a short cut. Instead of walking hundreds of metres out of my way, I darted like a fugitive across Airport Road. As I climbed onto the pavement on the other side, one of Abu Dhabi’s finest sauntered out from behind a large SUV, his ticket book in hand.