Fast Track to Abu Dhabi's future
Produced by Wm Srite / The National. Research by Lizette Hecke / The National
It is a bright, clear morning in 2015.
You leave your flat in Al Raha Beach and take a short stroll to catch the tram. After hopping off a few blocks from work, you might catch an eco-friendly bus to your office. In some areas, you could even hop on a personal podcar to finish the last leg of your trip.
This may seem a distant dream, particularly when slogging through the gridlock of today, but for city planners the Abu Dhabi of the future is right around the corner.
The Government and the emirate's developers are planning one of the world's largest integrated mass transit systems, a complex network of trams, underground metro lines, high-speed rail as well as city and long-distance buses. "What we're trying to do is get as close to people's front door as possible to encourage them to use the system, and think twice about buying a second car," said Mark Turner, the head of transportation at Aldar, the largest developer in Abu Dhabi.
The Government has released a preliminary map that for the first time shows possible routes to serve the needs of Abu Dhabi Plan 2030, which projects the population will triple as the emirate diversifies its economy.
Costs for the entire project, which is to span two decades, could figure in the tens of billions of dirhams.
Although Gulf infrastructure projects often suffer from lengthy delays, the fast pace of new residential development adds urgency to the Government's public transit planning.
Abu Dhabi needs to have a functional public transit system in place within seven years. And unlike other cities, which built their transit systems for existing populations,
Abu Dhabi is growing so fast transportation infrastructure must go in alongside new residential communities springing up across the emirate.
As the emirate increasingly becomes a construction zone, planners at the Department of Transport (DoT) are preserving corridors for future mass transit systems that will connect the island of Abu Dhabi with the new communities being built on the islands and the mainland surrounding it.
The Government is still considering its options, which could include new highways, and the final blueprint is not expected until early next year when the DoT releases its Surface Transport Master Plan.
But for Falah al Ahbabi, the general manager of the Urban Planning Council, which is responsible for implementing the 2030 plan, it is becoming increasingly clear mass transit will play a vital role.
"With the population density located in one area, downtown, the urban form of Abu Dhabi is great for public transportation," he said.
Soon, though, the transport equation will change as hundreds of thousands of new residents move in, lured by relaxed property ownership rules for foreigners and an oil-fuelled economic boom.
The city is outgrowing the traditional boundaries of the island of Abu Dhabi, as residents spread along the coast, on to new islands slated for development, and deep into the desert.
Nowhere are the transport plans as developed as at Raha Beach, a 10km stretch of luxury apartments and villas that will one day house 120,000 people.
Aldar, master developer for Al Raha, had planned its own tram system for Raha as early as 2004, before the DoT was formed. Since then, it has decided to incorporate its plans into the wider network. A total of 16 stations are planned, each spaced about 600 metres apart.
Foundation work on seven of the stations has already started.
The first apartments at Raha Beach will be ready next year. By 2013 or 2014 up to 60,000 people could be living there, making the tram a necessity.
At Yas Island, which will be home to the Formula One circuit next year, a tram loop and the metro will service transport corridors the DoT and Aldar have mapped out across the 2,700-hectare island.
They will cut through the island from the airport linking to Saadiyat Island and then to the Central Business District, encompassing Suwwah Island, the northeastern edge of Abu Dhabi Island and parts of Reem Island.
All tram lines are tentatively planned to open in 2015. The DoT's initial drawings show the tram, which will be at street level, doing the bulk of the mass transit work.
It will focus heavily on the downtown area, with stops at every block in the busiest areas. It will also bisect Suwwah Island, form a loop around Reem Island, and visit more than a dozen stations along the north western edge of Saadiyat Island.
The tram will also pass through Masdar City, a $15 billion zero-carbon development, and new projects out in the desert.
They include Al Reef, which will house 17,000 residents in villas and apartments near the airport, and up the line the communities of Hydra City and Al Falah, the latter of which is designated for Emiratis.
The industrial areas west of Abu Dhabi Island, Musaffah and the Industrial City of Abu Dhabi, as well as Hudayriyat Island, which is empty but is being considered for development, will also be served according to the preliminary route plans.
At Capital City, a massive, circular development that will be the future seat of Government and house 240,000 residents, two concentric rings of tram lines will serve commuters in what is being officially designated a "no wait transit system".
By 2020 the metro, which will be mainly underground, will provide faster service between Abu Dhabi's main commercial areas.
One line will run down the spine of Abu Dhabi Island, delivering commuters between Capital City and downtown Abu Dhabi.
Another line may run northeast from the Corniche area to Saadiyat Island, and on to Yas Island and eventually the airport. Metro lines will conclude inland at the planned Emirati communities of Al Falah, New Wathba and Shamkah.
A third layer of rail-based systems will be a regional train service, which the DOT said may be completed between 2020 and 2030. The network is likely to start downtown and run through Raha Beach and Capital City before the lines split off to Al Ain, Dubai, and on to Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
"You need to understand how people travel," said Paul Anderson, a managing director of Serco, which will operate the Dubai metro when it opens next autumn.
Mr Anderson, who has helped create metro systems in Bangkok, Singapore and Hong Kong, said Abu Dhabi, or any mass transit project, must put the community's needs first.
"There are lots of systems with very poor integration around the world."
In Bangkok, for example, a circular line of light rail service was never fully embraced by residents because it did not link with feeder buses or other mass transit modes.
With subsidised fuel, zero-import taxes on new cars and a lack of mass transit alternatives, Abu Dhabi residents have overwhelmingly chosen the car as their preferred means of travel.
Car ownership is growing at an alarming rate, putting a serious strain on the roads. More than 600 vehicles were registered in the emirate per day last year - twice as high as the population growth.
To persuade residents to leave their cars at home in favour of mass transit, even during the Gulf's sweltering and humid summers, Abu Dhabi needs to build a sophisticated system of links, analysts say.
Six areas of the city, such as the airport, have been designated as "key interchanges" to allow efficient transfer between different modes of transit.
Meanwhile, each transit stop will also link with feeder buses, water taxis, and even personal rapid transit vehicles - small podcars that run along tracks to preset destinations.
"Convenient interchanges are a must," Mr Anderson said. "We have a rule in the industry that anything over a four-minute wait is a negative."
The plans for these feeder services are equally grandiose - with 1,360 air-conditioned, handicap-accessible buses planned for the emirate by 2010, and low-emission and alternative fuel buses by 2015. Abu Dhabi is also considering smart cards that will allow passengers to travel across the various transit systems, air-conditioned walkways and pedestrian zones.
But with cars such a formidable foe to rail, deterrents to driving could be on the way.
The transport agency is considering levying new fees on motorists, eliminating fuel subsidies and introducing congestion charges.
The municipality is also introducing parking metres and moving car dealerships, which occupy thousands of parking spaces downtown, to Motor World near the airport.
And at the Urban Planning Council, Mr Ahbabi is overseeing a study to make walking and cycling more attractive. One focus is to build pedestrian walkways and plant more trees.
"We want to give life to our streets," he said.
With residents so poorly served by public transport, the amount to be done by 2015 and planning for 2030 can seem a Tantalus-like task: ever-receding as the emirate's population continues to swell. But planners must persevere, because the alternative will not work.
That is the view of Blair Hagkull, a managing director at the property consultancy Jones Lang LaSalle, who has consulted for Dubai on its metro plans.
"From a practical perspective, you can't build roads forever," he said.