For those who want to avoid the nightmare of commuting in Dubai, the UAE’s largest city, the only solution is to live so close to their work that they do not have to.

Traffic has become the bug-bear of people living in the city. A study last year by website Gulftalent.com found that people commuting to Dubai spend an average of one hour and 45 minutes travelling to and from work each day. With few viable alternatives to using private cars, commuters have to accept that a large part of their working days will be spent in traffic.

But all that will change on 9 September 2009 when Dubai opens the first phase of its long-awaited metro project. The date is eagerly anticipated as it is widely expected that completion of the $4.6bn scheme will finally bring Dubai’s much-derided congestion problem under control.

Congestion cost

For Abu Dhabi, the opposite is true. Population increases and economic growth are starting to make their presence felt on the capital’s roads, and by the time the Dubai Metro opens, the situation in Abu Dhabi could well be reminiscent of the one experienced by its neighbour in recent years.

People working outside Abu Dhabi in the Musafah industrial area already complain of a lengthy commute back into the city every evening, and parking has become a major issue for residents. The problem has become so acute that many prefer to take a taxi when they go out in the evening rather than risk losing a precious parking space close to home. By late next year, the situation is expected to be even worse.

“I think you will see a reversal in the current situation next year,” says one European traffic consultant. “The nature of Abu Dhabi’s road network means it probably will not be as bad as Dubai was, but there will certainly be congestion as the economy continues to grow. They are where Dubai was four or five years ago.”

If Dubai’s traffic does start moving again in 2009, the emirate’s government will breathe a sigh of relief. Congestion has been at the top of its agenda for several years. In November 2005, all transport projects and services were transferred from Dubai Municipality to the newly formed Roads & Transport Authority (RTA) to tackle the problem head on.

The solution was a massive investment programme that includes the metro and a series of major road projects. The road-building programme has involved the construction of new interchanges, highways and bridges, all aimed at taking the pressure off the existing road network.

Over the past three years, the agency has spent about $1bn a year on new roads, together with about $1bn on the metro and other alternative transport schemes.

In total, it plans to build 500 kilometres of new roads, 95 new interchanges, nine new ring roads, and to increase the number of road lanes crossing the Dubai Creek – an inlet into the emirate – to 47 by the end of 2008 and 100 by 2020, from 19 in 2006. At the same time, it wants to increase the use of public transport, which accounts for a meagre 7 per cent of all journeys.

Although the financial commitment involved in such a programme is significant, it is a calculated investment. The RTA says that congestion costs Dubai’s economy $1.25bn a year.

But even the investment of billions of dollars will not solve Dubai’s traffic problems overnight.

Throughout 2005 and 2006, it appeared that the situation was getting worse rather than better, as a raft of new road projects and their diversions created more bottlenecks.

For many commuters, the RTA seemed to be stepping backwards rather than forwards.

Three years on, road projects such as the Ras al-Khor crossing scheme and the floating bridge, as well as several new interchanges, have been completed and traffic flow has improved.

“There has been an improvement in traffic flows,” says the European consultant. “Particularly across the creek, where there is now the Business Bay crossing, the new Garhoud bridge and the floating bridge.”

But these projects have not yet solved Dubai’s congestion problem. Population growth and increasingly high rates of car owner-ship are at the root of the issue. Dubai’s population is growing at about 6 per cent a year, and the number of cars is growing by 17 per cent a year.

Changing behaviour

The authorities realised that new road projects alone would not solve the city’s congestion and that something radical had to be done.

Its response has been to develop the metro, a light rail scheme that offers an alternative method of transport to commuters for the first time, and aims to remove a large number of road users from the emirate’s highways.

But the RTA is not leaving anything to chance. Rather than relying on the impact of its new transport projects, it is also considering policies that it hopes will encourage commuters to use alternative forms of transport.

“The RTA has started doing a lot of policy studies,” says the European consultant. “It is the right time because from 2009, people will have an alternative to using cars.”

It will also be a watershed year for Abu Dhabi. By the end of 2009, two UK engineering companies – Mott MacDonald and Steer Davies Gleave – are scheduled to complete the masterplan for surface transport for the emirate’s newly formed Department of Transport.

The study will complement the emirate’s Plan 2030 Urban Masterplan that was launched last year, outlining a transport strategy for the Abu Dhabi metropolitan area, Al-Ain and the Western Region, along with new transport projects for the emirate and plans for inter-emirate and international passenger and freight movements.

Stalling projects

Once this study is completed, the government will be able to move ahead with schemes aimed at bringing traffic congestion back under its control.

“I expect Abu Dhabi will be very busy from 2010,” says the European consultant. “We are all waiting for that masterplan to be completed.”

The problem for Abu Dhabi is that it can only begin to tackle the problem in 2010.

Whatever the transport study recommends will require further design work before it can be tendered, so it is unlikely that any contract to build a light rail system will be awarded before the end of 2011 at the earliest.

With an expected construction period of two to four years, the emirate will probably have to wait until 2014 before any new system becomes operational.

In the meantime, some progress is being made to upgrade the road system. But these projects could have moved ahead more quickly.

Since late 2004, the Abu Dhabi government has undergone a massive restructuring that has involved new client bodies being created to oversee transport infrastructure and the overhaul of traditional bodies, most notably the Department of Municipalities.

As a result, projects have not moved ahead as quickly as they should, including the transport masterplan.

Abu Dhabi Municipality tendered a transport study in 2006 that also included the design of a proposed light rail system, but the study was shelved after the emirate decided to create the Department of Transport.

Despite these delays, there has been some physical activity. Over the past year, Abu Dhabi Municipality has made contract awards to improve road access into the city along the eastern corridor, and the government has allowed private developers Aldar Properties and the Tourism Development & Investment Corporation to start work on alternative routes into the city across Yas, Saadiyat and Reem islands.

But as neighbouring Dubai has found to its cost, ongoing projects make traffic worse in the short term.

The worry for Abu Dhabi is that this short-term problem may become an increasing headache if it fails to accelerate its plans for a new urban transport system.