Feature One day last week, drivers in Abu Dhabi discovered that Al Salam Street had been paralysed by roadworks and diversions.
Almost overnight, Al Salam Street - a street that is ironically named to mean "peace" - has been transformed from just another Abu Dhabi thoroughfare into a melee of chaotic traffic jams and roadworks. The breakfast radio shows report "heavy traffic on Al Salam Street" in morning traffic updates with monotonous repetition, and it has become increasingly difficult to find a taxi driver who will take you down to the Tourist Club area.
The road works have affected the day-to-day lives of Abu Dhabi's drivers, as well as nearby businesses, but what is the purpose of the works that have suddenly caused so much inconvenience? The upgrading work takes in Al Salam Street as well as the Eastern Ring Road, with an expected completion date of late 2010. Khaled Al Junaibi, an Abu Dhabi Municipality engineer, says the project is "on schedule" with work taking place 24 hours a day to ensure this happens.
Road closures and diversions have been systematically put in place since Oct 24, with the partial closure of Street 31, which links Al Salam Street and Muroor Road. The main closure runs from the Salam Street-Al Falah Street intersection through to the Mina Road intersection. But the Abu Dhabi Municipality is trying to reassure irate drivers that the inconvenience will be all worthwhile.
"We cannot do this level of road works without people being affected, that would be impossible," says Al Junaibi. "With the development on Saadiyat Island and Reem Island and the Tourist Club area, the traffic demands would increase in a few years." The solution is a four-stage project, the piece de resistance being a 3.2km tunnel that will run from the Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank area near the port to the Al Salam Street/Al Falah Street intersection, near the access to Reem Island. Tunnels to link the Corniche Road with Al Salam Street will also be built.
The other main features of the project include a bridge-and-tunnel interchange at the intersection of Al Salam St and Hazaa Bin Zayed Street and a tunnel at the Sea Palace Intersection that will run under Al Salam Street. Al Junaibi stresses the importance of these projects, especially once residents move into properties on Reem Island and will need to leave the island every morning to travel to work and schools. "If this is not done, we will end up in a very bad position," Al Junaibi says.
The work will increase Abu Dhabi's capacity to handle large volumes of traffic. "We will go from the city taking 3,000 to 6,000 cars per hour," Al Junaibi told The National. The roadworks have also been devised with plans to make crossing roads safer for pedestrians. Three out of six planned pedestrian bridges along the Salam Street roadworks have already been completed. The road closures and resulting detours have played a big part in the confusion motorists have experienced. Al Junaibi advises that motorists follow the yellow detour signs rather than try and work out their own short cuts. "When the road first closed, about 10 per cent of drivers tried to create their own route rather than follow the signs and it caused problems in other streets," he says pointing out smaller streets that come off the main thoroughfares on a large map on his office wall.
"There's a one-way system (with the detours) but some people are not used to it," Al Junaibi says with a laugh. "But if they follow the signs, it gives smoother traffic flow." "We encourage people to plan their trip and to use other roads, such as Airport Road and Khaleej Al Arabi Street to get to the Corniche, wherever possible." The first phase of closures shut down Al Salam Street from the Corniche Hospital intersection up to the intersection in front of Abu Dhabi Mall as well as Mina Street from Intersection 12 in Al Salam Street until the Capital Hotel intersection.
A big part of minimising the chaos is ensuring the public stay informed about the progress of the road works and locations of road closures and detours. As well as regularly informing the media, there are plans underway for a website and hotline to keep the public updated. This is welcome news for Siju T. Davi, a pharmacist who works at Al Saada Pharmacy, a business affected by the road closures. "Nobody has told us anything," he says. When he was informed that the roadworks will continue until 2010, he looks shocked and more than little worried. "As long as that?" he asks incredulously. "It has already really affected business - I don't know how much, maybe 50 per cent less now."
Maristel Fallarne, who works at Mr Balloons gift shop, was optimistically sweeping the footpath outside the store. Mr Balloons is unfortunately located on the Al Salam Street block between Electra Street and Al Falah, and the once-busy four lanes of Corniche-bound traffic is now closed. This has virtually ended any chance of the business along this stretch from getting any passing trade.
Across the road, there is plenty of traffic heading in the other direction but none of it is able to pass by the row of shops shadowed by the three towers of the National Drilling Company, Adnoc and Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank. Parking spaces in front of these shops were reasonably plentiful but now customers have to try and find a space in the increasingly crowded streets behind the shops, most of which have been nabbed by residents.
Fallarne has only been working at the shop for two months, but in that time, she has noticed a decline in customers. "No people come here, so there is less money," she says. "It is very quiet since the road closed, it gets boring." A few doors up at California Sports Fitness Nutrition Centre, Ashiq Pattileath echoes Fallarne's sentiments. He estimates business is down by "40 per cent, maybe 50 per cent" since the road closed in front of the store.
"The financial crisis didn't really affect us until now," he says of the road closure. "But people are lazy and they can't access parking easily." Like Davi, Pattileath says he has not been visited by the municipality or received any information on how long the road closures will last. "Nobody has come here until now," he says referring to The National's visit. Noor Al Aklouk, the pharmacist-in-charge at Al Saada Pharmacy, has found that her 10-minute commute to work now takes at least 30 minutes because of the roadworks. And as she works two shifts in a day, it usually seems like a waste of time to go home between shifts because one hour of her break will be spent in traffic.
Obtaining information from the municipality has also proven problematic. "The municipality usually shuts at 2pm, so it can be hard to see someone," says Al Aklouk. The customers at the pharmacy are conspicuous by their absence. "Our regular customers are not coming; they are trying, but it is hard," says Davi. "There is no parking." A receptionist at a car rental office who did not wanted to be named says she has been working and living in the same Salam Street building for six months and has noticed a big downturn in business. "Renting cars is slow right now," she says.
She also attributes the downturn to a lack of available parking spaces since the road closed. "People have been fighting for the parking spaces, and by six o'clock in the evening it is full." The biggest saving grace for some businesses affected by the roadworks is to offer a delivery service for customers. Hussan Al Bayed, who works with his father in the 36-year-old family business Al Ameer Corner Meat Trade Company, says: "Business is OK.
"We do mostly orders and home deliveries so it is going well - parking is hard but parking is always hard in Abu Dhabi." Fallarne says that deliveries are still doing well at Mr Balloons - the company delivers balloons, gifts and flowers. "At least we can still deliver," she says with a shrug. Unfortunately, Al Saada Pharmacy doesn't have that option. "You can't really deliver prescription medicines, that is not a good procedure" says Al Aklouk.
"It may be OK for cosmetics but people need to bring prescriptions in to the pharmacy. It's not like delivering the groceries." The municipality has vowed to constantly communicate the road closures and detours to the public, especially residents and business owners directly affected by the ongoing work. But the real challenge will be finding ways to minimise the financial hit that Al Salam Street businesses will suffer between now and late 2010.
"This project is a long-term investment in the continued growth and prosperity of Abu Dhabi," says Al Junaibi. In the short term, however, many shops will remain eerily quiet. firstname.lastname@example.org