x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Mawaqif: between the lines

Two years after Mawaqif was launched to restore order to car parking in Abu Dhabi, the organisation has set its goals far broader than just taming the capital's congested streets.

The success or failure of the Mawaqif parking system will depend on whom you talk with and in what neighbourhood; some say it has freed up parking while others say it has taken away spots.  Silvia Razgova / The National
The success or failure of the Mawaqif parking system will depend on whom you talk with and in what neighbourhood; some say it has freed up parking while others say it has taken away spots. Silvia Razgova / The National

On a perfect balmy Abu Dhabi evening, the backstreets of Khalidiya are starting to fill with people enticed outside by open-air cafes.

Two years ago, these streets would also have been filled but back then it would have been with lines of cars parked illegally along the middle of the road, further exacerbated by motorists who double or even triple-park.

It's hard to reconcile the sight now with how it used to be, when drivers faced a dystopian Dantesque dance, searching with overheating engines and even more overheating tempers for parking spaces that didn't exist. With rising exasperation, they would eventually resort to an "it'll do" solution that would see cars parked on every possible flat surface until the entire suburb looked like a giant game of Tetris.

The difference between then and now is due to Mawaqif, the parking system that introduced Abu Dhabi car owners to the unfamiliar - and, for a solid proportion of them, unwelcome - idea of paying to park.

But as if creating what experts believe to be the biggest single parking project the world had ever seen was not enough, the architects of Mawaqif have set themselves even more ambitious goals.

Two years after it began operations, The National met with one of its most senior managers both to assess the progress of the scheme and also to raise problems and teething issues highlighted by our readers.

The manager (Mawaqif's media rules eschew any closer identification than that) said they had thoroughly researched each sector of Abu Dhabi island to assess the problem, to maximise the number of parking spaces available and, if insufficient, to defer the introduction of paid parking until there were enough spaces for drivers to park legally.

But it is the definition of "enough" that demonstrates the wider ambition for Mawaqif, which is not just to ease congestion but also to remedy illegal subletting, overcrowded apartments and even discourage the overwhelming reliance on cars for transport.

Anyone who lives in the area behind Khalidiyah Mall knows that Mawaqif's introduction has been a mixed blessing. There are fewer illegally parked cars (Dh500 fines quickly educated the drivers in the area) but there is still far more demand than supply.

That, the Mawaqif manager said, is because the area has illegally overcrowded and partitioned accommodation.

"We do that on purpose," he says. "We do it with Abu Dhabi Municipality and Abu Dhabi Police. We all agree we have to do it this way.

"It's not just because of the illegality; it's because of health and safety and security. There can be 20 people in partitioned studios and they have 20 vehicles. It's designed for one family."

Mawaqif assessed the need for parking based on the number of legal residents and the commercial businesses in the area, with the specific intention that it would encourage the illegal residents to move out to other areas such as Mohammed Bin Zayed City and Khalifa City A.

"You'll see there are over 200 new parking bays located in this area. We feel the extra bays are enough," he says.

"We're always careful to find out how many residents there are, how many coffee shops or banks or laundry places. We do a study and, based on that, we start allocating for residents and for other parking for commercial use.

"We know for sure if we're on the right track from the number of applications for residents' parking. We've never filled our number of parking applications.

"People complain and say there isn't sufficient parking. Check if they have a legal tenancy contract and 90 per cent of the time the answer is no."

There is always a lag between addressing the problem and the solution presenting itself. Those who are illegally subletting in the area are likely to reach the end of their annual leases before the move out to areas with better parking and even then some will opt to stay.

In the interim that provides cold comfort for people such as Mohammed Khalil, whose legal tenancy means he bought an Dh800 annual residents parking permit, only to learn that the permit is merely a licence to hunt rather than a guarantee of finding a place to park.

"I have a Mawaqif card for one year but it takes 45 minutes, minimum, (to find a car park)," he says.

"I'm calling Mawaqif for help and they say there is nothing to do, you have to continue searching.

"Sometimes maybe there's no place. All the time is the same - weekend, mornings, evenings."

The Mawaqif manager is empathetic but also unapologetic. Parking regulations are among the suite of options being employed to transform Abu Dhabi into a modern and functional city.

The reality is that drivers had to pay to park in the heart of Abu Dhabi long before Mawaqif came on the scene and it was just that the currency of the exchange was in aggravation rather than dirhams.

It was into this environment that the Department of Transport introduced Mawaqif in 2009, the scheme having been in gestation since 2005.

Even by UAE standards of mammoth projects developed with vastly accelerated time frames, the scope was gargantuan. Peter Guest, a parking specialist based in Britain who helped create Mawaqif, described it as "the equivalent of introducing the whole of the central London parking system, which has developed over 50-plus years, as a single project in two to three years".

And by any measure, the improvement brought about by regulated parking has been fundamental.

The Mawaqif senior manager said they have tried to strike a delicate balance between enforcing parking rules and giving residents the chance to adjust to unfamiliar strictures.

"It's new for people. We're going gradually," he says.

"We're not using all the types of fines we have and we don't tow all vehicles (that are in breach).

"We went from a culture where everyone could park, where there are no limitations - on the footpaths, next to shops, the middle of the road, anywhere - and now we're asking people to respect the parking laws because it's the law."

In many areas, such as sectors either side of Hamdan Street, east of Airport Road, there was enough parking in underground car parks but drivers preferred to avoid payment and find an illegal park closer to their homes.

"Previously, the underground car parks were 75 per cent or sometimes even 50 per cent full. Now it's nearly 95 per cent. It's better utilisation of space," he says.

"Before someone wouldn't move because it's free and they don't care if other people can't find a parking space. Because there's a payment, he uses his parking space in a proper way."

Another goal is the concept of encouraging Abu Dhabi residents to use public transport instead of their cars, a concept that would seem almost heretical in the car-obsessed capital.

When Guest wrote his assessment of the parking need, there used to be only the most basic public transport system in Abu Dhabi; but with it having improved vastly in the last three years, the senior Mawaqif manager says it allowed them to push drivers away from using their cars.

"We want people to go from car ownership to public transportation. Cars mean congestion and pollution and it puts stress on infrastructure," he explains.

"There are more buses and more taxis. We want people to get the message and start thinking: 'I've got six vehicles and I don't need all those now that it will cost me'."

Parking costs money in areas with restricted capacity but Mawaqif has introduced parking enforcement in other areas with excess capacity, such as Khalifa Park, where people would use illegal parking spaces because they were more convenient.

"We don't want to collect money [there] but before there was no enforcement. As long as you left your mobile number on your dashboard, you'd be OK," the manager says.

"At Khalifa Park, our intention is to make it a more beautiful area and give it control."

Other complaints relayed to The National by readers reflect the slow process of changing the reality on the ground. One Khalidiya resident sent in a photo of a row of parking bays occupied by large rubbish skips.

The Mawaqif manager said Abu Dhabi Municipality is introducing a system of underground bins that would free up the parking bays. The system requires significant work and takes time but, he says, they are determined to maximise the number of bays.

"Even one parking bay is, for us, very important."

Delays caused by infrastructure works to provide extra parking are also responsible for Mawaqif not being implemented in areas such as Tourist Club and the new souq area on Hamdan Street.

Back in Khalidiya, in the area near The Lebanese Flower, a landmark local restaurant, the difference is dramatic.

Unlike the area on the other side of Khalidiyah Mall, here there was a serendipitously vacant block of land that was used to provide 1,650 extra parking spots right next to one of the most high-density sections of the city.

The result is dramatic, to the point where speed bumps - previously the most redundant road feature possible to imagine in the pre-Mawaqif congestion - are once again needed to slow traffic.

And on one such perfect balmy night that makes living in the UAE at this time of year seem magical, Khalidiya resident Sana Mahmoud was facing what had been a classic problem: her saloon has been blocked by an illegally double-parked car.

Given all the privations endured by the residents as Mawaqif invoked order on what had been parking chaos, she could be forgiven for asking what's really changed.

But as the Syrian filing clerk waits for the other driver with a patient equanimity required for anyone who parks in the downtown area, her verdict on Mawaqif is unequivocal: "Now it's better.

"Before Mawaqif, to find parking, it would take me maybe an hour."

Instead of endlessly circling through backstreets clogged with lines of cars parked along the centre line, she is almost always able to find a space within 10 minutes walk of her home.

And, importantly for a woman walking home alone, the space she finds for her car isn't in some obscure and dimly lit area.

Within 10 minutes, the errant car driver arrives with his wife and four-year-old son, they get inside and drive off. No apology is offered and nothing is said. The car, I note, isn't from Abu Dhabi: it has Sharjah plates. Things really have changed here.