x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Keeping Abu Dhabi on the move

Within two decades, an ambitious public transport system will have revolutionised the way we get around the capital.

Standing room only on a packed bus.
Standing room only on a packed bus.

Colin Sherwood, a British civil engineer, smiles like a proud parent as one of Abu Dhabi's 125 new buses thunders past. "There aren't many," he says. "They only operate on four routes." But, glowing with pride and satisfaction, he adds: "It is the beginning of a public transport system." Mr Sherwood, 59, is one of the world's leading authorities on transport. He is now a key figure behind probably the most ambitious - and expensive - transport plan in history: to bring buses, trams, a metro, trains and ferries, and much more, to Abu Dhabi and the country.

As project manager of the Surface Transport Master Plan he leads a multinational team of consultants who are helping the Department of Transport (DoT) to develop a multibillion-dirham, 21st century transport system. "It is a once-in-a-life time opportunity," he says. "To design, from scratch, a transport system for a city and an entire country. It will be the crowning achievement of my career."

The first step came when the buses, currently free of charge to encourage commuters to try them out, were introduced last week. Mr Sherwood says he cannot claim credit for them, since they were the idea of the DoT and, technically, not part of the master plan he is working on and which will be published in February. But buses will be an important element, he says, and his team is monitoring the performance of the vehicles now criss-crossing the city.

"Buses are a good place to start when you are building a transport system. They are cheap and you can move them if no one uses them. But the signs so far are excellent. We are pleasantly surprised how many people are using them." As soon as the buses have proved their value beyond any doubt, he says, the city will turn its attention to trams, parking and a metro. Mr Sherwood says, in retrospect, he should have known the buses would be a hit.

"So many people in Abu Dhabi come from countries where public transport exists. It is normal for expatriates from Western Europe. If people are from South East Asia, they are used to privately owned minibuses if there's no public system." What is more, he says, "many Emiratis go on holiday in Europe so they know about public transport, too. Only Americans from the Midwest don't understand." And, of course, for many low-paid workers, Abu Dhabi's taxis, cheap though they are by international standards, are a heavy expense, so buses, even when fares are introduced, will still be widely used.

The vision is that, within two decades, Abu Dhabi will be transformed. Inevitably, cars will still be important in such a wealthy and relatively empty country, but they will no longer dominate. Parking - currently free, oversubscribed and occasionally chaotic - will be expensive and rigorously enforced. Speed cameras will monitor traffic. Penalty notices will be dispatched instantly. There may even be congestion charges, as there are in other cities around the world. There will be bus and cycle lanes. There will be air-conditioned bus shelters everywhere. Trees will provide shade.

However, nothing is simple. Take buses. "You have to decide how far people are prepared to walk to catch a bus," says Mr Sherwood. "It won't be the same here as in a temperate climate. You must decide on frequency and routes. You must identify the busiest corridors." Above all, the city will feel different. As he outlines his vision, Mr Sherwood's excitement is palpable. "Every city must have high-class public transport. If they don't, they die. Look at what has happened in the United States. People give up going to the city and it dies. Eventually, that would have happened to Abu Dhabi. But it won't now."

When he came to Abu Dhabi in November to meet his potential employers at the DoT, Mr Sherwood was worried he would not be able to cope with life in the city. As a veteran of many postings around the world, sometimes in more difficult places, Mr Sherwood is not the type of expatriate who bursts into tears if the air-conditioning breaks down. His concern was not about coping with an unfamiliar culture or the scorching summers.

As a confirmed non-driver who has no intention of learning as he approaches the age of 60, Mr Sherwood was worried that he would not be able to get around a city that had no public transport and where anyone who did not drive a car had to rely on a few thousand taxis. "All I saw were people standing on the street, waving their arms at these taxis," he says. Despite his concerns, however, the job was so exciting and challenging that he accepted.

"We have a blank sheet of paper," he says. "Nothing like this has ever been done before. I cannot think of any city of this size that effectively had no public transport." It would be an exaggeration to say that money is no object. However, thanks to oil and petrol, Abu Dhabi is so wealthy that the budgetary constraints that would exist in, say, the UK, do not apply here. And Abu Dhabi, says Mr Sherwood, is in no mood to waste time.

"The leadership here has decided that it wants the best public transport system in the world. And they want it yesterday. They know that a high-class system is vital if Abu Dhabi is to become a global city." A stream of recent reports has emphasised the urgent need for such a system. Last month, a government survey revealed that traffic congestion was costing Abu Dhabi Dh5 billion (US$1.36bn) a year. One person dies every eight hours on the roads. The city's population will double, to 2.5 million, in four years.

The physical structures - a metro, bus shelters, railways and so on - will eat up money and take years to plan and build, but there are even more complex challenges, which are cultural, social and political. Abu Dhabi is the Texas of the Gulf. Here, owning a car - the bigger the better - helps to define a person's status. "We have to change attitudes. It will take generations," says Mr Sherwood. "I believe you have to start when people are young. If children are always driven to school in cars, they want a car as soon as they are old enough. But you can change that if they travel on buses to school."

Mr Sherwood is too shrewd to believe that a country - especially one as hot and rugged as Abu Dhabi - can ever be car-free. People will always want the best cars they can afford. They offer freedom, they provide privacy. But he believes cities belong to people, not cars. As in any city, there will always be some people who will use cars. But the majority, who cannot afford chauffeurs or parking that costs Dh100 an hour, should be able to rely on efficient, clean and safe public transport.

In London, bankers on multimillion-pound salaries travel to work by bus and on the Underground alongside their office staff. Increasing numbers of high achievers in the UK capital choose to get around by bicycle, among them David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative party, and Boris Johnson, the capital's mayor. Temperatures in London, however, rarely reach the high 30s - and there are cultural potholes to overcome. "We need cycle lanes, but we also need to educate drivers here that cyclists have rights," says Mr Sherwood. "To cycle here at the moment is suicide."

He wants to create a transport system that is as efficient as those in Singapore or Hong Kong. "Everyone uses public transport there. There is almost no parking. The system is clean and efficient. You know to the minute when you will get to a meeting. Why would you want to use a car there?" Mr Sherwood says cultural sensitivities will be respected. This will include not only the obvious, such as separate seating for women, but could, he thinks, also mean VIP compartments to satisfy local traditions. None of this is unusual, he says. "Wherever you work, you have to adapt your ideas. The object is to build a system that everyone will use."

In the UK, he says, it would be impossible to plan anything like this, even if there was enough space and money to do so. "There would be endless public inquiries and debate. Nothing would get done." But in Abu Dhabi, the Government can simply act. That is the advantage, says Mr Sherwood, but there is also a downside: changing habits and attitudes - convincing people that travelling by public transport is not undignified - will take years and involve the kind of debate that is not usual in the region. The Government has to carry the public with them, rather than simply announce what has been decided.

There are, he says, welcome signs that the leadership realises the necessity of involving the people. The DoT has created a website, which describes the options being considered for transport and invites comments. For example, would people prefer bigger roads? Would they like buses or trains to link the emirate to Dubai? How about ferries? Or congestion charges? Would they like a low carbon system, even if that costs more to use?

Mr Sherwood sighs. There is so much to do. "Sometimes there aren't enough hours in the day." But at least there are now buses, a good start that Mr Sherwood has a personal reason to appreciate. "I used to walk to work," he says, "but now I can hop on a bus." @Email:sfreeman@thenational.ae