Transport and Urban Design in the UAE

Dubai Marina at night, April 3, 2015.

Dubai Marina at night, April 3, 2015.

At the risk of this coming off like the introduction to a Tom Friedman column, I recently returned from a trip to the United Arab Emirates, thanks to Etihad honoring their Christmas mistake fares. It was totally worth it.

A lot has been written about Dubai and the UAE in general, but let me just echo the general idea that the whole place is a riotous cacophony of cultures and languages and buildings and architecture and food and smells and colors and it is by far the most global city I’ve ever encountered.

Actual transit is not especially comprehensive: there’s the two-line Dubai Metro, which is fully automated rapid transit, and the Dubai tram (a surface-running light rail line), as well as buses. Dubai faces some of the same transit problems as does a place like Los Angeles: overall density but geographically sprawling, with a long list of possible destinations to connect, and an environment clearly placing the car above all. There are plans for three further metro lines, as well as a national rail network, but those – especially the latter – remain in the planning stages.

In fact, the roads network of Dubai (and to a lesser extent, Abu Dhabi) is one of the more interesting – and crazy – designs I’ve ever encountered. In a city with no shortage of land or money, the logical extreme of road design has been reached. Few things outside of the older Bur Dubai and Deira neighborhoods actually front the street that their addresses indicate (street names and numbering being a whole separate issue); instead, shops and buildings feature frontage roads with parking and direct highway/road access.

Whereas in most of the rest of the world, two perpendicular roads intersecting would mean a single four-way signaled intersection, in Dubai it usually means two or three flyovers and an underpass. Here’s an example from Google Maps. Keep in mind that Sheikh Zayed Road is ostensibly a main street:

Intersection of Sheikh Zayed Road, 2nd of December Street, and Al Majlis Street, Dubai.

Intersection of Sheikh Zayed Road, 2nd of December Street, and Al Majlis Street, Dubai.

The alternative, of course, is a rare signaled four-way intersection, which features (among other things) an incredibly long light cycle. This is due in part to the fact that u-turns are actually designed as part of the road networks – all too often, you can’t get theah from heah – and this means that each of the four directions must have its own separately-signaled light phase. Take a look at this intersection, Al Maktoum Road and Omar Bin Al-Khattab in Deira, near the Union metro station:

Intersection of Al Maktoum Road and Omar Bin Al-Khattab Road in Deira, Dubai. April 3, 2015.

Intersection of Al Maktoum Road and Omar Bin Al-Khattab Road in Deira, Dubai. April 3, 2015.

Each roadway has its own right-turn slip lane. And each direction has its own green light, in turn, because at that point cars can proceed straight ahead, make a left turn, or make a u-turn; e.g., the cars in one set of lanes can head in any direction. Thus, if you’ve just missed the green, the wait is very long. I’ve never seen anything like it (and later on, as we tried to cross Al-Khattab…let’s just say slip lanes are not my favorite thing as a pedestrian). Furthermore, until that intersection, it’s difficult to cross Al Maktoum – this photograph was taken from a pedestrian bridge crossing the road.

To the left of that photo, you’d find the Union metro station, from which we were coming.

Dubai Union Station

Union station on the Dubai Metro. April 3, 2015

The design actually bears a slight resemblance to the Washington Metro’s canopy entrances, but on a much grander scale. Operationally, the Dubai Metro couldn’t be more different – the system is fully automated, equipped with platform edge doors, and seems to run 8-minute headways regularly (or at least, it was running 8-minute headways on a Friday, the UAE equivalent of Saturdays).

A Gold Class seat on the Dubai Metro. April 5, 2015

A Gold Class seat on the Dubai Metro. April 5, 2015

It also features a class system – the first car of every five car train is split into half, with “Gold Class” in the front and a women and children’s half behind that. Of course, we had to try Gold Class. From what I could tell, the main difference is that it is significantly less crowded. Also, it has tray tables. It’s also a fairly paltry price difference (at least by Western standards). A two-zone, one-way Gold Class fare is AED 9.00, as opposed to a standard ticket for AED 4.50 – so twice as much – but in US dollars that’s $2.45 as opposed to $1.23. I also lost my card somewhere on that five-stop ride [update: finally found it after doing laundry], so had to pay an exit penalty of AED 10. In total, my one-way trip in Gold Class cost about $5. Our first day in Dubai we’d bought a one-day pass (in standard class) for AED 22 each, or $5.99.

The other nice thing about Gold Class is that it’s the front of the first car, so with the train being automated (and thus having no driver’s cab), you get a pretty neat view of the train running through the system.

Riding in style on the Dubai Metro Gold Class #dxb #trainvideos #transitnerd

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While we didn’t ride the buses at all in Dubai (or Abu Dhabi), the one thing we noticed is that the stops are not only fully enclosed, but fully air conditioned. (I forgot to take a picture so here’s one from elsewhere.) However, frequency seems to be an issue, as does traffic. In general, surface travel in the UAE can be difficult, but with taxis as inexpensive as they were – and the walk to the Metro as hot as it was – we took them to most places. We even took a cab from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, not just because there are few other options, but because the journey of roughly 120km/45 minutes – or DC to Baltimore – cost the equivalent of around $75.

In Abu Dhabi, there’s no rail to speak of and the only transit available are buses. From what I’ve heard, they run very infrequently, and based on the rarity with which I even saw one on the streets, I’d have to agree with that. The streets are on a bit more of a grid in Dubai, but only on a macro scale – the city was divided into superblocks with sort of elaborate loops and cul-de-sacs of smaller streets within.

View of an especially distinct Abu Dhabi building taken from the interior roads of a superblock. April 6, 2015

View of an especially distinct Abu Dhabi building taken from the interior roads of a superblock. April 6, 2015

Almost all streets also featured parking, and they separated little islands of tall buildings from one another. In some places, buildings were separated by pedestrian plazas and in a few cases were even surrounded by them. And virtually every building in both Abu Dhabi and Dubai featured ground level retail – if ever there were proof that parking doesn’t make a business, this is it.

Pedestrian spaces between buildings and ground-floor retail, Abu Dhabi. April 6, 2015.

Pedestrian spaces between buildings and ground-floor retail, Abu Dhabi. April 6, 2015.

In terms of the built environment, the UAE is unlike anywhere I’ve ever been before. If there are any lessons to draw on for the US here, it’s that merely glomming transit onto an existing network isn’t a catch-all solution. The built environment matters much more. And Dubai and Abu Dhabi’s continuing functionality is probably due in no small part to the relative absence of single-use buildings and areas. Everything may be an island, but those islands have enough in them to discourage some number of unnecessary vehicle trips. It’s a lesson we’d do well to take to heart. And that fact that this all exists despite Abu Dhabi’s adoption of AASHTO terminology and concepts like LOS is a testament to…something.

But overall, the UAE was a truly fantastic experience and I recommend viewing this monument to late-stage hypercapitalism and carcentricity at some point while you still can.

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