x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Race to Dubai: are four wheels faster than two wings?

Domestic airline Rotana Jet launched its inaugural Abu Dhabi to Dubai flight yesterday - but does the service offer a realistic option for commuters? We challenged four journalists to find out.

Credit: clockwise from upper left: Silvia Razgova / The National ; Philip Cheung / The National ; Srijita Chattopadhyay / The National ; Silvia Razgova / The National
Credit: clockwise from upper left: Silvia Razgova / The National ; Philip Cheung / The National ; Srijita Chattopadhyay / The National ; Silvia Razgova / The National
The rules were simple. Leaving at 8am, each reporter would be required to travel from The National's office on 15th Street in Abu Dhabi to The Pavilion in Downtown Dubai.

Emirati Thamer Al Subaihi would take a plane, money-conscious British expatriate Kyle Sinclair would take a bus, Emily Cleland, also British, a taxi, and Emirati Hareth Al Bustani would aim to beat them all in his white 4x4.

Who would come first and at what cost? Would Thamer's 30-minute flight be cancelled out by queues at check in? Would his Dh150 ticket be such a bargain after travel to and from the airport?

Would the favourites in the car and taxi be scuppered by their inept navigating and could the bus traveller score a last-gasp moral victory on the environmental front?

For a detailed account of the Race to Dubai, click here.


And they're off

Car - Hareth

This would be easy, I thought. I had been commuting from Dubai to Abu Dhabi for the past month and a half and was confident of my speed - my only doubt was the cost.

I expected Kyle's bus journey would be the cheapest - petrol may be cheap in the UAE, but not cheaper than a bus fare, surely?

I set off at 8am sharp, last out of the gate. Giving everyone else a head start seemed only fair.

I expected to win, followed by Emily's taxi, and then a close race between Kyle's bus and Thamer's plane. All that waiting time at the airport was bound to add up, I figured.

It wasn't long before I hit Salam Street - just four minutes. Sheikh Zayed Bridge was only six minutes away. As I reached the Dubai-Abu Dhabi motorway, I realised my only true competition was Emily's taxi.

Kyle's bus had not even left yet, and Thamer's plane would not leave for some time.

Taxi - Emily

Getting a taxi to Dubai is not usually a particularly exciting affair and the long journey normally involves a certain degree of boredom. This time was different - the race was on, I was competitive and, importantly, confident.

Not having a car, I was already well versed in the highs and lows of relying on taxis for transport and knew where valuable time could be saved.

With taxis, the real journey begins before you even get in the vehicle, with the art of hailing.

Knowing a poor start would do me no favours, I was eager to get to the road ahead of my team. Mission No1 was accomplished.

The next bit was down to chance. As any taxi commuter is aware, overall journey time very much depends on when a free taxi happens to pop into view. It is at this stage, especially when in a hurry in the stifling summer heat, minutes can feel like hours.

Happily, on this occasion I was opening the taxi door soon after reaching the roadside and at 7.58am I was in pole position.

Bus - Kyle

Could a bus trip from Abu Dhabi to Dubai be faster than taking a jet?

I'll admit I had my doubts, but there was only one way to find out.

To get to Abu Dhabi Central Bus Station from The National's offices I took the easiest possible option - a taxi.

The cab was easy to hail and the journey took only a couple of minutes, costing Dh6.75.

By 8.07am I had purchased my ticket to Dubai and was heading to the waiting bus. At just Dh25 the trip was nothing if not affordable.

The question was, how much time would those few saved dirhams cost?

Things started off promisingly. The driver checked our tickets and we took our seats. There was no need to book or queue and the timetable meant buses leave the city regularly. The whole process was quick and painless.

The bus left at 8.11am, with about 30 passengers on board.

Plane - Thamer

The Race to Dubai was my chance to experience a jet-set life at a bargain cost. It was apparent the competitive juices were flowing among my challengers at the starting line, with some trash-talking taking place despite the early start time.

Not being the liveliest morning person, I kept my taunts reserved and demeanour relaxed - a reflection of the way I travel.

My greatest apprehension was not whether I could win but whether I would make my flight at all. I had not booked a taxi and was heading to an airport I had never visited - both facts weighed heavily on my mind.

Thankfully my apprehension was short-lived. I flagged down a taxi outside the The National's Abu Dhabi office at the official start time of 8am.

Just 10 minutes and Dh17.75 later I arrived at Al Bateen Executive Airport. Taking the taxi helped save money because although parking is available at the airport, it costs a flat fee of Dh99 for up to seven days.

I arrived at the airport an hour before the 9.15am departure time and was told to relax as check-in was not until 8.30am.

Rotana Jet had recommended I take my passport, which seemed odd for an internal flight considering that as a GCC national I can fly to Kuwait and back with only my Emirates ID.

At the check-in counter I was told UAE nationals need only their Emirates ID, while all other nationalities required passports.

After a quick security check we boarded our 50-seat Embraer ERJ 145 jet. I had not asked for a window seat, but found this didn't matter as there were only three other passengers.

Five minutes after the scheduled departure we took off at 9.20am.


The open road ... and sky

Car - Hareth

I knew that for most of the journey, an empty motorway, I could legally, and comfortably, go up to 140kph. I expected Emily's taxi would travel at about 120kph, and Kyle's bus 100kph.

After just a minute on the motorway, the beeping began. My Toyota Rav-4 discourages speeds of more than 120 kph, which it punishes with a rhythmic shrill beeping. A minor annoyance, but I was used to it.

By 8.24am I had already passed Zayed Military City. In the Bentley beside me a driver was texting using both hands. Fortunately, my colleague Jen Thomas was updating Twitter on my behalf. I am not one to tweet and drive.

As Emily passed Khalifa Port, she tweeted: "Wonder how long a boat would take?" I passed a racetrack, and wondered how long a camel would take.

Just as I grew impatient with my progress, I spotted a silver Abu Dhabi taxi in the distance. Slowly, I caught up with it. As I passed, I glanced over at the back seat. It was Emily. I was in the lead.

Her taxi fell farther into the rear-view horizon, engulfed eventually by dust. Kyle probably had not even crossed Sheikh Zayed Bridge yet, I assured myself.

Taxi - Emily

One area of concern during any taxi journey is whether the driver knows the destination. On this occasion "Dubai" sufficed and we were on our way.

Having smugly updated my Twitter account, to put a bit of pressure on the others, I sat back to enjoy the ride.

With the exception of the car driver, I knew the others were having to put in a bit of effort just to get to their chosen modes of transport. Both had to get taxis and then go through various "admin" procedures before even boarding plane or bus.

There was not much traffic and by 8.07am I had reached Sheikh Zayed Bridge. I was pleased to see on Twitter that Kyle had only just bought his bus ticket.

As I passed Deerfields Mall at 8.19am my thoughts turned to the car driver, and I considered Hareth my only real competition.

Given he was driving a white 4x4 I gave up trying to spot him. At 8.39am I casually glanced out of the window and was confronted by the sight of him cruising past me. As disappointing as this was I knew victory could still be mine. Taking a taxi meant I would not lose time searching for a parking spot.

Bus - Kyle

Contrary to the horror stories I've heard of old Abu Dhabi public transport, the bus itself was clean, air-conditioned and comfortable.

So comfortable in fact, that most passengers were asleep and snoring within the first 15 minutes of travel.

At other times of the year a member of staff would offer passengers food and drinks for purchase during the ride, but as the trip took place during Ramadan that option was not available.

As you might expect, leaving Abu Dhabi took longer than it might by car or taxi, as the bus struggles through the dense inner city traffic.

Once on the open road to Dubai, the journey was smooth, but slow. The bus must stick to a speed limit of 100 kph, so it was with a pained expression I followed on Twitter the progress of my colleagues in the taxi and car.

It took an hour to reach the border of Dubai, by which time the taxi and car teams were already on their final approach to the finish line at The Pavilion.

I asked the passenger sitting next to me, a man called Ayman Kahwaji from Syria, what he thought of our venture.

"It is a good way to test this I guess, I don't know what would be faster," he said.

"On the plane you have to check in and taxi around the runway, there is a lot of waiting."

Mr Kahwaji takes the bus to Dubai every Thursday to spend the weekend.

His reason is simple: "It is cheap. It is easy."

No disagreement there.

Plane - Thamer

As soon as the jet took off I could see the appeal.

We were treated to gorgeous aerial views of mangrove forests, skyscrapers and bright blue waters as we flew over the Corniche and banked east towards Dubai.

Despite knowing my colleagues were far ahead of me I took great comfort in knowing their views would not be remotely as pleasing as mine, nor their journey as hassle-free.

Flying at a top speed of 444kph - more than 300kph faster than the speed limit on the roads below - it took just seven minutes to reach Kizad, normally a 45-minute trip by car.

The Palm, Jebel Ali and Dubai Marina appeared below just six minutes after that.

The executive feel of the journey continued as we arrived at Dubai Airport and were greeted by fire engines spraying arcs over the plane in a time-honoured tradition for special flights.


Bringing it all back home

Car - Hareth

At 8.44am I hit Dubai. Not long now, I told myself. I wondered why reckless drivers felt the need to leave their blinders on all day. I also noticed the corpses of many tyres, battered by the long, hot road.

Thamer's plane had not even lifted off yet.

Ten minutes later, I was travelling along Dubai's famous corridor of skyscrapers. The speed limit fell, I slowed down and the beeping stopped.

I took the correct exit, but turned off too soon after that. This led to an arduous detour. Surely, I had given away the lead. Then Emily tweeted - her driver had taken the wrong exit too.

Finally, I reached the Pavilion at 9.26am, with no one else in sight. I had won with a total journey time of 86 minutes. The cost? A quarter tank of petrol - Dh30 at most.

It turned out driving was not only the fastest option, but the cheapest too.

Taxi - Emily

I reached the Dubai border at 8.45am. The road was not too busy and the driver, who had not yet uttered a word, was maintaining a steady speed.

As the skyscrapers started to appear, I realised another crucial part of any taxi trip was about to come into play - locating the final destination.

At this point it emerged the driver, who did not know where The Pavilion was, was not able to converse very freely in English.

Luckily, my companion from the multimedia team was able to talk to him in Hindi.

But then my luck ran out. We took the wrong exit and the usual frantic studying of Google Maps followed. In between turning my phone around and looking hopefully for landmarks, I checked Twitter and realised, happily, that Hareth was also lost.

Asking for a U-turn, surely the most-heard term in a taxi, I worked out my bearings and set off for the finish line.

Unfortunately, arriving at 9.29am with a total journey time of 92 minutes, I was three minutes too late and Hareth was there to greet me. To add insult to injury, my trip cost me Dh240.25.

I was surprised that Kyle arrived only 35 minutes later, with his trip costing Dh52.75.

For those who don't have a car, a bus is certainly the value-for-money option. My journey may have been convenient but was it worth an extra Dh187.50? On a regular basis, probably not, but on a rare occasion when time is of the essence, yes. I just need to brush up on my map-reading skills.

Bus - Kyle

The bus dropped me off at the World Trade Centre at 9.53am, leaving me with the problem of how to get to my final destination.

I once again opted for a taxi - an option that cost me nearly as much as the bus trip. It cost Dh21 to take me to the finish line at the Pavilion near the city's landmark Burj Khalifa, where I arrived at 10.04am.

That meant my total expenditure for the journey was Dh52.75 - significantly cheaper than the taxi or plane. My overall journey time was 124 minutes, meaning I was slower than the car and taxi, but I felt there was a lot to gain from those extra minutes, both financially and morally.

The bus carries far more passengers than the taxi and car, meaning that I was responsible for only a fraction of the carbon emissions of either of my opponents on the road, and certainly for high-flying Thamer.

The bus is undeniably the green way to travel and I still arrived before the Rotana Jet Passengers had even disembarked.

There cannot be many places on earth where a trip is faster on the bus than on a plane, but the UAE is one of them.

Plane - Thamer

Touching down at 09.50am with a flight time of no more than 30 minutes, I was sure I had made up ground on the others. But I had no idea how much waiting was in store for me.

I spent the next 10 minutes updating Twitter and watching the fire engines leave as the captain apologised for the delay. He said the ground crew had not been expecting passengers on this flight, so did not have a bus waiting.

Twenty minutes after landing the bus arrived to take us to the terminal, where we were further delayed due to the complications involved in flying domestically but landing at an international terminal.

After 10 minutes, immigration let me through, checking only my Emirates ID.

The final leg to the Pavilion was more straightforward. It was Ramadan and still early in the day so finding a taxi was easy. My concern now was less about the time and more about the cost. And, with the taxi meter reading Dh63.50 - about a third of the flight's cost - my apprehension was justified.

As I pulled in at the Pavilion 160 minutes after leaving the office I could see all my fellow competitors waiting for me.

Despite bringing up the rear, I strolled across the finish line in complete relaxation, without a trace of road-rage.

* The National