x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Parking: when free is fair but fair is not free

With the city making the transition to paid and enforced parking, the time is ripe to promote public transportation and a bike culture

I knew returning to Abu Dhabi after more than a decade away would present its challenges, but I never imagined parking would be one of them.

The country's capital, as I remembered it, was a city with ample car space that came at no cost.

Even in the few areas where parking was a challenge, improvising a spot by double parking, parking on the curbs and in the middle of the roads was tolerated and common practice.

The system lacked order but that mattered little because it worked.

This was in sharp contrast to the extremely difficult and harshly enforced parking system in San Francisco, the city I left for.

Being the second most densely populated city in the US at 6,632 people per square kilometre, parking in San Francisco is a constant challenge.

It is normal for unfortunate car owners in the Californian city to spend hours searching and fighting for spots, walk 30 minutes to their destination after parking, pay up to US$6 (Dh22) an hour for parking meters, and have a monthly budget set aside for parking fines - mine was about $300 (Dh1,100).

Faced with these costs and hassles, 32 per cent of San Francisco's residents opt to use public transport and are discouraged not only to drive but also own a car in town - every day I thought of getting rid of mine.

So when it was time to bid farewell to the Bay Area city, I thought I was leaving my parking woes behind.

I was sadly mistaken.

I have come back to a city in the midst of the painful transition of putting a price on and strictly enforcing parking.

Abu Dhabi residents are now having to adjust to the reality of paying for parking where we reside and work, spending more time looking for paid parking and dealing with Mawaqif fines regularly.

Where once we could fashion a space to our convenience with abandon, we are now forced to contend with hefty parking fines.

Introduced in late 2009, paid parking in Abu Dhabi will expand to more than 70,000 spaces by the end of June.

These measures may seem harsh to a populace used to having its parking freedom, but the city has no choice.

Abu Dhabi's rapid population increase over the past decade has seen the number of its residents top one million, making its population density almost three times that of San Francisco. Furthermore, the number of cars in the city is staggering, with 755,000 registered at the end of March last year.

These figures necessitate action, as having a car culture city increases congestion, pollution and promotes inactivity, all of which costs the capital billions of dirhams a year.

But in the city's drive to get its populace out of the car, Abu Dhabi's government could benefit from using carrots as well as sticks.

Advancing and promoting public transportation and a bike culture would go a long way in shifting commuting habits.

Although kicking the driving habit will never be an easy process for Abu Dhabi residents, a smoother and cheaper transition could be achieved with viable and convenient alternatives.