x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Capital tackles its traffic nightmare

Abu Dhabi's police consider applying the Japanese traffic model to ease congestion and protect the environment.

Traffic lined up on the New Airport Road.
Traffic lined up on the New Airport Road.

ABU DHABI // The rapid economic expansion that has propelled the UAE capital into the international fast lane has spawned traffic congestion so heavy that some of the city's most important thoroughfares have become near-permanent go-slow zones. At peak times, the city's roads are approaching gridlock. Meanwhile, the UAE has become notorious for the number of deaths on its roads.

Traffic managers say they are keenly aware of the worsening problem and are seeking solutions. Now, that search has led to Japan. "The traffic system in the emirate is no longer sufficient for the current traffic density, which is caused by the constant economic growth and increase of population," said Col Hussein al Harethi, the head of traffic engineering and road safety for Abu Dhabi Police. "There is an incredible increase in the number of cars," he added.

The number of cars rose 16 per cent from 2005 to 2008, official statistics show. The police, the Department of Transport, the Urban Planning Council and the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi are among the agencies that have begun jointly assessing a traffic management system being used in Tokyo. In the Japanese capital, which has 12 million people and is the country's most densely populated municipality, traffic flows are electronically co-ordinated with the help of a system of sensors measuring volume, speed and even vehicle exhaust emissions.

The information is processed at a central command post, from where the timing of traffic signals is adjusted, and drivers are warned of trouble ahead via road signs, dashboard displays and radio. The ability of Tokyo's system to speed the movement of buses especially caught the attention of Abu Dhabi officials. "The traffic signal could sense a bus coming from a certain direction, as the bus is already fitted with a server directly connected to the traffic light and the entire system," said Col al Harethi.

"So the traffic light gives more time for the bus to pass to show people that public transport is faster. As a result, people will use public transport instead of their personal cars, which eases road congestion." Cars can be fitted with dashboard displays that communicate with the traffic control centre. "The road is monitored from all sides, through cameras, sensors and sometimes helicopters. So the motorist is constantly informed of the road situation.

"If there is an accident ahead, he or she is told to take a different route or to slow down." In addition to the guidance from in-car displays, drivers can monitor traffic broadcasts on the radio. When such a system might be introduced in Abu Dhabi is unclear, but the results of the study could be ready by the end of the year, said Col al Harethi. Some of Abu Dhabi's long-suffering drivers welcomed the study.

"I think it's a very good idea, especially considering the construction all around. Constantly there are new projects in Abu Dhabi, so with this system, we can know which road to take," said Jinan al Madfai, 24, an Emirati. But "everybody will ask 'what's in it for me?' I mean, if one road has many cars and I'm the only car on another side of the road, my traffic light will be delayed because of the other side?"

Razul Basheer, 40, said the capital needed such a system. "Abu Dhabi is a planned city, so it will be easily implemented here. Also, when the roads were designed, they did not focus on the long run, so now there are traffic jams and accidents." He said the current system was sometimes inefficient because traffic light were preset. "Sometimes I'm driving late at night and there are hardly any cars on the road, but if the first traffic light I encounter is red, then the rest are all red, because it is all time-based."

Dr Yaser Hawas, a professor of transportation and traffic engineering at UAE University, said the redevelopment of the traffic control system could have a "tremendous" impact on road safety. Whatever system was adopted should link signal control with information for drivers about alternative routes and should also closely monitor aggressive drivers by linking in-vehicle black boxes with a control centre, he said.

"It is so important that these systems be envisaged as integrated systems linking hardware, databases, logic of operation and drivers' information systems." hdajani@thenational.ae hhassan@thenational.ae