Sunday, December 11, 2005

Ask not for whom the road tolls. It tolls for thee

Today’s Gulf News reports that Dubai is apparently planning a wall around the entire emirate so that it’s impossible to drive in or out without paying a toll. Well, that is what Dubai Municipality will have to do in order to stop the huge numbers of 4x4 drivers from simply driving across the desert to avoid the toll gates.

One particular hot spot is Al Ittihad Road, a four-lane (that’s four in each direction) dual carriageway that links Dubai with Sharjah. Fences, bollards, high-containment kerbs and walls force the commuters to queue to get from Sharjah to Dubai every morning, and then again every evening if they’re going out to a restaurant, cinema, shopping mall, concert, or whatever people do for fun. All the traffic on Al Ittihad Road is shoehorned into a two-lane underpass just over the border. Four into two clearly does not go.

Many people living in Sharjah do so because they either won’t or can’t afford to pay the Rahmanian rents demanded by Dubai’s landlords. But Dubai has so much more to offer than Sharjah in the entertainment arena, and is the region’s commercial hub. Dubai is where a lot of the jobs, shops, offices and sports facilities are.

Despite Dubai’s continued efforts to alleviate traffic congestion by building ever grander highway schemes, the increase in population and car ownership outstrips highway capacity – just like everywhere else on the planet where the traffic congestion disease has been treated by building more roads.

So Dubai is going to build the DLR – Dubai Light Rail. Huzzah: a metro system to augment the existing bus service. I’m sure we look forward to 2010 when the metro is to become operational. In the meantime, Dubai Municipality is intent on netting between US$80M and $110M a year from motorists.

I thought that the idea of congestion charging was to discourage private car use. Provided that there is a viable alternative, this may be true. There is currently no sensible alternative to driving between Sharjah and Dubai.

Queues: How much would you be willing to pay to do this?

From my apartment in Sharjah it is around 5km to the existing bus terminus, and a similar distance to the proposed metro. Let’s assume that I wish to go to a theatre in Dubai one evening. I can either drive or use public transport. A five kilometre walk in the sand alongside a motorway does not appeal, especially in the summer when the temperature at night is around 35C with 90% humidity, so I’m looking at driving.

Queue to pay the toll, pay to park in the Park and Ride, pay a third time to use public transport. Having paid to drive into Dubai, why don’t I drive all the way to the theatre?

“Aha,” you protest, “but what about public transport from Sharjah to Dubai?”

Well, I can hail a taxi, drive 5km in the wrong direction to the bus terminus before sitting in the same queue as before to pay the toll. Bus lanes are non-existent here, primarily because it is impossible to enforce them. Drivers can and do use every piece of asphalt including breakdown lanes, hatched gore areas, parking bays and the sand alongside the roads to push to the front of a queue.

Tolls, runs the Gulf News article, are to be collected through booths at the borders or by pre-paid smart cards. Of course, it will be impossible to whiz through the express lane because the queues to pay manually will expand to fill every square inch of asphalt. I can’t imagine Sharjah or Abu Dhabi going much on providing queuing space for Dubai’s money-making scheme.

It is even suggested in the article that an annual fee of US$550 to $820 is to be levied at annual registration. How this would discourage private car use and boost public transport patronage and car sharing is anybody’s guess. If I’ve just forked out that sort of money I’m darn well going to get my money’s worth – doubtless along with the other half a million car owners. And I don’t imagine the vehicle registration authorities (i.e., Traffic Police) of Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah, Fujairah, Umm Al Quwain, Ajman or Abu Dhabi will much enjoy acting as tax collectors on behalf of Dubai.

Maybe the plan is to levy the annual charge on Dubai-registered vehicles, and toll the ‘foreign’ cars from the other emirates. This is not clear from the Gulf News article.

Perhaps part of the solution to Dubai’s traffic woes is to reconsider the pace of development. Great forests of high-rise residences are rising near Jebel Ali and elsewhere. Trapped between the sea and existing ribbon development along Sheikh Zayed Road, there is nowhere for the residents to travel except along this corridor. It is already a traffic congestion nightmare. The effect of perhaps an additional seventy thousand households on the same transport corridor can at present only be guessed, but it ain’t exactly rocket science.

So what am I whinging about? I am not averse to the principle of congestion charging per se. But imposing such a charge on a population that has no practical alternative means of transport is surely a revenue raising scheme with no benefit in terms of reduced traffic congestion.


Mme Cyn said...

This is one reason I never lesa ve Dubai to go to Sharjah. -- Mme Cyn

didaxis said...

you remember Doha? that centre of forward thinking and good planning? well the rumour is that when the asian games are on in December 2006 the Emir is going to close all of the roads in town. Yes all of them. only taxis and busses will be allowed to move. That'll be fun for everyong who actually has to get to work. We believe the school is actually going to have to close for all of December. Some schools have already had official notification of this, we however have not.

There go any chance of decent results for students taking exams in January. Oh well its only their entire future being jeopardised, sports are so much more important than that! :(

Oh did I mention we've actually got busses here now? the drivers, apparently, have no clue where anything is, and as evidence of this on of the opening events at the West Asian games (currently being held here) had to be cancelled because the bus driver took the athletes to the wrong stadium!

Grumpy Goat said...

An entire year's notice of planned road closures is unprecedented.

Normal procedure is to wait until the first day of the Games, Conference or Visit From Important Foreign Dignitary and then send the entire police force out with every road cone and barrier they can muster.

Never mind the offices, shops, workers, customers and other miscellaneous hoi polloi. Thay can go elsewhere.

didaxis said...

well, I am just really glad that I will haved moved on by then, not sure where yet, but I am certainly not staying here for this fiasco.

ThrashB said...

I appreciate that, from the Western point of view, the Middle East puts its own slant on any situation. However this looks like a microcosm of traffic problems all over.

In the UK, they came up with the suggestion of peak time congestion charging on the roads to encourage the use of public transport. Immediately the railways pitched in with the idea of congestion charging on the railways, presumably to encourage car use.


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