Going public with a greener commute: a Dubai experiment
Endless traffic and nowhere to park seems to make driving in Dubai more trouble than it's worth. With the Metro and a wide network of buses there is every reason to use public transportation, but the biggest reason of all is, of course, cutting your exhaust pipe emissions. Dubai could certainly use all the help; anyone driving into the city on a hot day can usually see that unappealing brown haze lingering over the skyscrapers.
But how practical is public transportation compared with driving? I'm not alone in never having used the Metro before, despite there being a station within easy reach of my home. Many Dubaians haven't and why would we? Petrol is cheap and taxis are plentiful, and cycling here qualifies as an extreme sport with all the danger and none of the fun.
With such a reliance on cars, it is not surprising that recent figures show Dubai has one of the largest carbon footprints of any city in the world. And per capita, it has more cars on the road than any other developed city, including New York, London and Singapore. This makes us car lovers part of the environmental problem - and the cause of that brown haze.
With this in mind, and as an eternal car user, I wanted to see how easy it would be for myself and others like me to suddenly switch from using our own wheels to public transport. For the next week, I resolved to ditch my car, go cold turkey and shun all modes of private transport.
On the first day, and solely at the mercy of the Metro, the bus and my own legs, I leave the house 20 minutes early to allow time for error. JLT station is swarming with commuters at 8.30am. The escalators and lifts are crammed with passengers making their way to the busy platforms.
They know exactly what they are doing; unfortunately, I need some help. I am told I need a Nol card, which I soon discover is a vital tool for any public transport user in Dubai. Not only is it used to pay for Metro rides, it will also work on RTA buses and water taxis, none of which accept cash.
Four types of Nol cards are available and, on the advice of a friend, I opt for the gold card, which holds up to Dh500 credit and allows me to sit in the first-class section. It might cost more but I soon find the point of gold is not to get more comfortable seats but to enjoy breathing space during rush hour when the standard carriages are packed.
The gold card is best suited for visitors or light users and, as this experiment may only be a temporary measure, I am going to travel in style.
Throughout the week, I use the Metro almost every day and find that it's a very pleasant way to travel around the city. There is never more than a five-minute delay between each train arriving on the platform and, during rush hour, it is definitely preferable to crawling along Sheikh Zayed Road in a traffic jam - if you have a gold class Nol card, that is. Looking down the train at those squashed into the standard cars, it's clear that not everyone enjoys the same, pleasant experience.
Seven minutes after leaving Jumeirah Lakes Towers Station, I'm at the Media City stop, Nakheel, which, like many of the Metro stations here, is confusingly named after a company rather than its location. The time of my journey is more to do with the short distance I have to travel than the speed of the Metro; it may be efficient but not particularly quick.
But other destinations of mine won't be so convenient. This is partly the result of to the Metro's limited coverage of the city; for many places I visit throughout the week, including Jumeirah, Arabian Ranches and the outer recesses of Al Quoz, I'm forced to acquaint myself with the feeder bus or walk to reach my final destination. This is not a prospect many will relish come summertime.
At the weekend, even in the comparatively mild and dry April heat, I find myself longing for the air-conditioned comfort of my car as I leave the Khalid Bin Al Waleed Metro station, trudge to the bus stop and hitch a ride towards the Dubai Museum.
Some trips, like this one and a visit to Dubai Mall, are certainly quicker and more convenient by car. It takes about half an hour to get from Dubai Marina to the Burj Khalifa/Dubai Mall Metro stop and a further 15 to 20 minutes to get a bus to the mall entrance. Even without speeding, I can do it in 20 minutes door to door by car. For other destinations, such as Mall of the Emirates and Dubai World Trade Centre, there is every reason to use public transport. The journeys take 10 minutes and half an hour respectively and the destinations are just a short walk from the platform.
It is when I have to use buses that I can see the comfort and practicality of a car winning out. Waiting in the heat to board a bus, which more often than not is packed, is certainly less appealing than going directly by car or taxi. And to get to the Irish Village on Thursday evening, a journey that would normally take me half an hour by taxi, takes twice as long on public transport. It would have been longer had I not pre-planned a relatively complicated trip on Wojhati.rta.ae, the RTA's online journey planner. There is also a 24-hour contact number so people can plan their journey with the help of an assistant.
Beware, though, that if you need to move after midnight, it's taxi or nothing. By 11pm the Metro and every bus apart from the airport shuttle stop running and all public transport systems close until the following day.
By the time I am ready to head home from the Irish Village it is well after midnight and I have no choice but to cheat on my public transport pledge and take a taxi towards Dubai Marina. Not that I minded; the prospect of taking the three different buses required to get home wouldn't have been appealing even during the day, let alone at the end of a long night. But I do share the taxi with a friend for most of the way, which helped my eco agenda.
On Friday, I awake to discover that the Metro is closed until 1pm, but by now my week of using public transport has ended.
Spared the cost of taxis and petrol, I can claim big financial savings, but my findings from the week tell me that moving about Dubai purely with public transportation is either for those who can't afford a car or the extremely dedicated, green-minded commuter. It all boils down to convenience, and it is unlikely that I will remain committed to using public transport.
For those without their own car, most of the city is accessible, but it is time consuming and uncomfortable in comparison to using a car. By its geography and climate, Dubai will struggle to develop a culture of public transport the way that the more temperate and nuclear cities of London and Paris have.
Still, the RTA is taking steps to promote public transport, and the system is fast improving. But for me, my preferred option will remain my car - at least for the foreseeable future.
Olivia Cuthbert is a freelance journalist living and working in Dubai.
Updated: April 16, 2011 04:00 AM