On the straight and narrow: Road layout changes suggested for safer driving in UAE
Small is beautiful where road design in Abu Dhabi is concerned and the capital is proving that when the slightest of layout changes is put into effect using some clever software, pedestrians and motorists enjoy big benefits.
How do you make roads safer, not just for the motorists who drive on them but also for cyclists and pedestrians?
There has been no shortage of suggestions this week as the UAE has celebrated the 31st annual GCC Traffic Week under the slogan Your Choice Determines Your Destiny.
As the slogan suggests, the promotion of a heightened sense of personal responsibility and civic-mindedness has featured heavily.
On Sunday, the security media department of the Ministry of Interior and the Abu Dhabi Education Council launched Messages of the Heart, a public awareness campaign in which children aged 11-14 were encouraged to send road safety-related messages to their families and friends.
There has also been a host of practical suggestions ranging from competitions to reward responsible driving to the need for mandatory fog lamps and the use of programmable signs capable of providing road users with real-time information about “surprises”, such as freak weather conditions, congestion and accidents.
For Essam Dabbour however, one of the easiest and most immediate solutions is also one of the strangest-sounding and counter-intuitive: the engineer wants to put many of Abu Dhabi’s inner city roads on a diet.
“Maybe you don’t notice it, but the travel lane here is now smaller, which causes the cars to slow down,” says the engineer as he stands at a crossing on the downtown, inner city stretch of Sheikh Zayed Street near its junction with Sheikh Zayed the First Street.
“There’s a common problem here in the UAE,” Mr Dabbour explains, shouting over the noise of passing traffic. “A lane width of 3.6 metres actually encourages drivers to speed, but by shaving just 30cm from each lane and taking them down to a width of 3.3 metres, you slow vehicles down, making them safer for drivers as well as for pedestrians.”
As well as a skinnier right-hand lane that slows approaching cars by effectively creating a pinch-point at the junction, the crossing also features raised tables that slow cars as they approach the turn, bollards to protect pedestrians while they wait, and gently-sloping ramps at each entry and exit point.
“If you look, the pedestrian refuge is now also much bigger and is friendlier, especially for people who are using prams or wheelchairs,” says the director of Abu Dhabi University’s Centre of Transportation and Traffic Safety Studies.
While the idea of a “road diet” might sound like a joke, Mr Dabbour is in good company and the principle is already enshrined in the policies that are starting to determine the design and construction of Abu Dhabi’s roads, pavements and neighbourhoods, the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council’s (UPC) Urban Street Design Manual (USDM).
As well as along Sheikh Zayed Street, the effects of the manual can also be seen along the recently retro-fitted Fatima bint Mubarak Street (formerly Najda Street) and in new communities such as the all-Emirati neighbourhood Al Falah, near Abu Dhabi International Airport.
“With the new standards, they improve safety and reduce fatality possibilities from 25 per cent to 5 per cent for pedestrians,” explains Euclide Malagrino, a senior associate planner with the UPC.
“Many people think that tighter lanes and more room for pedestrians means less capacity for the cars, but our studies show that not only is there no negative impact on the capacity for cars, but there is four to five times more space for pedestrians and a fivefold improvement in safety.”
For Mr Malagrino and his colleagues at the UPC, a redistribution of space between cars and pedestrians in urban areas is not only safer but it is also more equitable.
“Everybody thinks that Abu Dhabi is a very car-oriented city where everybody drives, but when we did our evaluations we studied different junctions and we counted the number of cars and the number of pedestrians,” the Italian explains.
“We found that there are junctions in Abu Dhabi, such as the one at Hamdan and Muroor, where there can be as many as 4,000 pedestrians an hour crossing the junction and that wasn’t even at peak time. Pedestrians are almost 40 per cent of the users at these junctions and yet, when you look at the way pedestrians are treated and the space that is currently given to them, they receive less than 10 per cent of the available space.”
If the practice of road-dieting is just starting to make its impact felt in Abu Dhabi, the concept is already well established in the United States, where it is also referred to as “right-sizing”.
Right-sizing may be an equally inelegant phrase, but it hints at the wider variety of techniques that can be used when reconfiguring roads and streets that no longer meet the needs of the communities they are meant to serve.
“When Abu Dhabi was first planned, people did not know much about sustainability and alternative forms of transport, the things we are trying to promote now. At that time everyone was expected to use a car, very much like the United States, but now the standards prioritise pedestrians,” Mr Dabbour says.
One of the ways in which the UPC has ensured that new standards are adhered to is through the USDM online design tool, a piece of street visualisation software that all authorities, developers and consultants are now required to use whenever they submit plans for new urban roads and streetscapes.
The tool allows engineers and designers to quickly create cross-sections through proposed roads and streetscapes, while providing guidance and visuals for the user when they are creating a scheme that does not conform to Abu Dhabi planning guidance and regulations.
“Any project that requires adherence to the USDM has to use the tool,” explains Ibrahim Al Hmoudi, a planning manager with the UPC.
“The tool has an auto-correction function and that has saved us a lot of time when it comes to reviewing huge submissions for mega-developments on Reem Island, Hodariyat Island, Yas Island and Saadiyat.
“When these submissions come, it takes ages to go through every kerb, street and sidewalk, but when you ask a consultant to use the tool, it will automatically make corrections,” Mr Al Hmoudi says.
“We care about creating an efficient design that adheres to our standards and the only way to do that is with the tool. To have a scheme accepted, you may need to provide 20 cross-sections for a single street and producing those can be a hell of a job with traditional tools,” says Mr Al Hmoudi, an engineer with more than 15 years of experience.
“This work used to take a consultant two or three weeks and it was very expensive, but with the tool it is very quick. I would say that it can even be done by a university student.”
Mr Dabbour’s students at ADU prove Mr Al Hmoudi right. Last year, the associate professor trialled the software as part of a motorway design course and this year the software became an accepted teaching tool within the university’s curriculum.
“I’ve taught highway design in Abu Dhabi and in Canada,” says Mr Dabbour.
“Whenever we teach students how to design urban streets, we used to ask them to adhere to international standards, but when I saw the tool what appealed to me was that it wasn’t just a piece of software, it embodied a whole set of standards as well.
“It’s easy to use, very easy to understand and at the same time related to something that they can see every day here.”
Developed in 2012, the UPC’s USDM and online design tool have attracted international attention.
In 2013, the manual won the prestigious Institute of Transport Engineers award for best programme, the first time the award has been won outside the US, and the online design tool has also started to be used by architectural and engineering students at universities in the US such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Despite the software’s very practical local purpose and applications, Mr Al Hmoudi sees potential for the software on an international stage.
“All of this knowledge that is being used in Abu Dhabi today was taken from global resources. We went to Canada, we went to the UK, we went to Australia and we learnt from them,” Mr Al Hmoudi says. “It’s time for us to share what we have learnt and to show how it has been enhanced. It’s take and give and I think that this is part of our global responsibility today to the global community.”
Updated: March 11, 2015 04:00 AM