x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Right signal from city planners

The Urban Planning Council last week released the blueprint for the streets of Abu Dhabi. Drivers reading it might be forgiven for thinking they were owed an apology.

The Urban Planning Council last week released the blueprint for the streets of Abu Dhabi. Drivers reading it might be forgiven for thinking they were owed an apology. For years, drivers had been blamed by the authorities for the high rate of accidents in the emirate, but now it turns out that roads are partly responsible for their so-called bad driving. Right-hand turning lanes are too wide while roundabouts with three lanes prompt drivers to switch lanes mid-circle. Also, the long distances between traffic signals encouraged a generation of drivers to press the pedal to the floor.

But before we get into our Pathfinder and race down al Khaleej al Arabi Street in celebration, let's pause for a moment to reflect on our recent manoeuvres, which were not so wise. We must acknowledge our flaws, because with the council's urban street design manual, planners are also acknowledging past problems and promising that they will make improvements. Even if you have missed it, the 130-page document, although mainly intended for property developers and government agencies involved in the business of building and redesigning roads, should receive a huzzah, especially from pedestrians.

It is laying down standards and regulations that will transform the motorways into pedestrian-friendly streets. The manual's ethos is safety for all on the road, including pedestrians. It is hard to envision the emirate putting pedestrians first and, indeed, I have trouble picturing cycle tracks running alongside traffic lanes or a tram stop in Muroor Road, but those seeing the Government's 2030 vision starting to take shape can only believe.

By the later half of this year, the plans on the paper will be put into action on Khalifa Street. Then we will see how an intersection can be made safer - with lowered curbs, curb ramps, countdown timers and shelters for pedestrians. The long superblocks that dominate the city will eventually be broken up with mid-block crossing points, offering more at-grade places to cross for pedestrians, who previously had to walk hundreds of metres on the streets to reach the nearest crossing point, or illegally run for their lives across the road. And, eventually, cars in the parking lots will go into multi storey car parks above or below ground, so you clear out all that space where the cars are now and you can have proper streets with room for on-street parking on some of them but you won't have this current mess where everywhere is a parking lot.

The full power of the manual will be seen as new developments come up, such as the Capital District. Enforcement and education campaigns will still need to address those who do not respect the new roads. But with this manual, engineering - the third "e" of road safety - is addressed. As the planners at the UPC tell me, the manual is not the most progressive in the world. Indeed, concepts in Europe, which see some streets stripped of signals, signage and pedestrian barriers leading to reductions in pedestrian injuries, cannot be implemented widely here as yet, they say.

Its standards, however, are a massive first, confident step towards such a place. Yes, we still will rely on signals at most junctions, but there the signal to motorists will be that pedestrians come first.