x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Leave the driving to the professionals

Abu Dhabi's transport strategy will greatly improve the capital, if pedestrian-friendly policies supplant the emphasis on the automobile.

Public transport is a booming business in the Middle East. Over the next decade, Abu Dhabi, Mecca and Kuwait City will all have new rail links and metro systems, and capitals across the region are lining up to fund similar car-free alternatives for getting from Point A to Point B. The question now: how to put people in the seats?

This week's gathering of transport experts in Abu Dhabi offered a reminder that while tracks can be laid, routes added and budgets allocated, the hardest part of selling a new transport scheme is dispelling the myth that only poor people will use it.

"We need to find a way to change the perception of public transport for the new generations," said Khalid Hashim, an executive director at the Abu Dhabi Department of Transportation.

There are multiple ways to do this, first with policy and second with education.

On the policy front, the Emirates, and the capital in particular, have made progress. Abu Dhabi's Mawaqif parking scheme, for one, has forced drivers to consider alternative options. More people are taking the bus in the capital than ever before.

But hard work remains. A comprehensive overhaul of Abu Dhabi's surface transport strategy will mean more people on the street, walking to catch the bus or a train. Yet pedestrian options remain dismal, walkways and underpasses are few, and zebra stripes are hazardous to cross even during off hours. In some parts of the capital, jaywalkers are policed more aggressively than speeding drivers.

We will not soon forget the image of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, taking the Dubai metro to a meeting in Deira last year. New York subway passengers also know to be on the lookout for their mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who is frequent user. But how many other high-profile people, in the UAE or around the world, grab a newspaper and let a professional do the driving? Not enough to change people's perception.

People of all income brackets will flock to public transport when the price is right, the options clean and plentiful, and the ride more convenient than driving. So far the scale is still tipped in the car's favour.