x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Claiming back the streets

The car's days as 'king of the road' may end as planners in Abu Dhabi look to make more room for people.

Traffic congestion on Hamdan Street.
Traffic congestion on Hamdan Street.

After decades of prioritising cars in urban street design, a new generation of planners in Abu Dhabi - indeed in many of the world's great cities - is beginning to create roads that put vehicles and pedestrians on an equal footing. Terms such as "traffic calming" and "naked streets" are just two of a myriad of initiatives that are slowly chipping away at ideas that shaped previous developments in which the car reigned supreme, including two institutions that symbolise the many benefits and challenges of the Abu Dhabi streetscape - urban highways and the superblock. "Urban places are being claimed back from places where only cars could penetrate - it's being given back to the people," said Jamshid Soheili, the director of transport and infrastructure planning at Scott Wilson, which consults for the Abu Dhabi Government on infrastructure projects. The road hierarchy - assigning priority to cars, for example, above pedestrians and cyclists - was being revised and upgraded to make urban areas more vibrant, he said. Some examples around the world include the creation of 100km of new bicycle lanes in Paris in the past two years, and the closure of Times Square in New York to motorists in May to create a pedestrian-friendly zone. In Abu Dhabi, pedestrian-friendly zones are just one of many initiatives that will reshape the city, according to its 2030 plan. The Abu Dhabi Government is planning to spend up to Dh300 billion (US$81.74bn) building new bus, road and rail projects over the next 20 years, and it is considering everything from congestion charges to dedicated motorways for lorries to improve its transport system. Pedestrian access is not only key in assessing the quality of life of a city, it is also a safety matter. The dynamic between cars and pedestrians has taken on renewed importance in Abu Dhabi since the deaths of three sisters when they were hit by a car last month. The girls, aged four, six and seven, and their nanny were hit as they attempted to cross an eight-lane motorway at night near the Carrefour hypermarket on Airport Road. "There is no place to cross out there, and it is so busy," said one passer-by. The deaths - three of 3,000 children and teenagers who have been the victims of accidents in the past five years - has prompted The National to launch a campaign to reduce road fatalities. Road engineering is one of the three pillars of driver safety - along with education and enforcement - and the roots of the emirate's street design dates back to the 1960s. Abu Dhabi's new-found oil wealth was then beginning to be felt, and the emirate came of age when the car was not only king, but represented modernity and sophistication. It was an age when, in New York, Robert Moses was capping a legendary career as the city's master builder, spending decades erecting 13 major expressways traversing the city and often overlooking public transport. Abu Dhabi's streets and roads are dominated by superblocks, longer versions of the standard city block. A central feature of the superblock design is that it is bordered by multi-lane arterial roads, which one local city planner called urban highways. They also have complex interior roadways, which local planners say do not function as proper streets, since they have limited access and exit routes. The particularities of Abu Dhabi's street design, including long blocks and multi-lane roads, are two reasons why it is common for pedestrians to dash across the capital's streets, particularly when summer temperatures soar. The city also paid homage to cars at the expense of pedestrians through dedicated right-turning lanes, which allows motorists to avoid slowing down when turning, and wide lanes that enable speeding. But the emphasis on building an abundance of wide, straight roads to ease traffic is being upended, according to Dr Alan Perkins, a senior planning manager at the Urban Planning Council (UPC) in Abu Dhabi. "As time has proceeded, we've learned the lessons of expanding road space, which expands the number of vehicles on a road and doesn't actually solve the problem in the end," he told a conference this year. The UPC, working with the Department of Transportation and Abu Dhabi Municipality, is planning to slowly introduce new techniques to alter the existing car-pedestrian hierarchy. One option is breaking up superblocks by introducing a mid-block intersection, says Bill Lashbrook, transport planning manager at the UPC. This would create a safe pedestrian crossing, and provide another route for vehicles to enter the superblocks, he said. Abu Dhabi could also phase out the free right turns, replacing them with systems that force motorists to stop and yield for traffic before turning right. Another possibility would be to build pedestrian tables - pedestrian crossings that are elevated slightly to make the pedestrian more visible to motorists, as are in place at Marina Mall and the airport. Other options include "traffic calming", which forces motorists to slow down by giving them the feeling of enclosed space, such as narrower lanes or tree-lined streets. By contrast, the road lanes on many Abu Dhabi city streets are so wide they are comparable to the widths of North American freeways, according to Mr Lashbrook. Trees are also important tools to provide shade for pedestrians at crossings, he says, making it easier for pedestrians to wait until they can legally cross. In the new development of Al Raha Gardens, the UPC has created a "shared services" road, or what is in Europe called a "naked street". Described in some reports as a street where cars and pedestrians "are encouraged to mingle", they feature none of the traditional signs and barriers. Both pedestrians and cars have the same right of way, forcing motorists to slow down and establish eye contact before passing a pedestrian. These concepts and others will be unveiled in the middle of next month when the UPC publishes Abu Dhabi's first street design manual. In the process, Abu Dhabi will join an elite club of cities, including New York and London, that recently issued their own design guides. The 130-page report is primarily geared to inform property developers, which are planning new residential and commercial space on undeveloped islands next to Abu Dhabi, as well as on the mainland. The first tangible evidence of the new thinking on improving pedestrian access and safety could be seen in the next few years, as street redesign teams piggyback on the efforts of rail planners who will launch the first attack on city streets. Over the next 20 years, the emirate is expected to perform one of the most ambitious and dramatic programmes to upgrade its transport infrastructure. This includes new motorways, tunnels, bridges, water taxis, buses and an extensive network of rail systems including a tram, metro and long-distance train. The first completed system should be a tramline in 2014. The new systems should automatically improve road safety - by taking many drivers out of their vehicles and into safer buses and train carriages. But once the first jackhammers begin tearing up streets and pavements to make way for new tram and metro lines, it will also provide a golden opportunity for city planners to reconfigure city streets. As those streets are torn asunder, they may increasingly be replaced by something more friendly to people on foot. igale@thenational.ae