With a population that is expected to grow threefold to more than 3 million by 2030, and with tourist numbers set to quadruple to 8 million a year, Abu Dhabi is facing some significant challenges. To cope with this, the government has drawn-up a blueprint to create a city that is elegant, functional and sustainable. This autumn, Abu Dhabi’s Urban Planning Council (UPC) unveiled Plan Abu Dhabi 2030 – a AED600bn ($164bn) strategy to develop transport systems, economic and industrial districts, and residential zones.

Attracting investors

About 40 per cent of the cost of transforming the city will be paid by the government, says Falah al-Ahbabi, general manager of UPC, who is driving the ambitious venture. The success of the 25-year plan relies on foreign, local and regional investors carrying the remainder of the cost.

Improved transport is at the centre of Plan 2030, with a network that combines a high-speed passenger and freight service, alongside a metro and expanded road network.

The aim is to enable the growing population, including commuters, tourists and families on school trips, to travel around the city without relying on taxis and private vehicles, while providing a high-speed freight network for industry linking the city to ports and airports.

There are plans for a network of metro lines connecting Saadiyat island and Raha Beach in the northwest with the central market area and the Grand Mosque station to the south of the island. Lines will extend to the airport and the capital district in the east. The capital district, with its 20 skyscrapers, will become a hub for government, universities and knowledge-based industries, and has been designed to expand on the existing central banking district (see map).

Building infrastructure

“A high-performance public transport system will be critical,” says Alan Perkins, senior specialist for land use and transport integration at UPC. “As this is a 25-year plan, the system will develop over time. “In 2008, a surface transport masterplan will be developed by Abu Dhabi Department of Transport. That will specify the type of public transport system required to implement Plan Abu Dhabi 2030. It will determine the first stages of development of the public transport system.

“Major developers are incorporating light-rail and bus networks in their development proposals. Developments approved by the UPC will include corridors and reserves to accommodate public transport. A considerable proportion of the population relies on taxis, school and company buses and walking. There is undoubted demand for good public transport.”

Rail is also critical to the plans. Abu Dhabi will build rail freight links between the port, airports and nearby Jebel Ali. There is also talk of onward connections into the Saudi Landbridge railway, and to a trans-Arabian rail network north to the borders of Iraq and south into Oman.

A consortium of German consultants, including Dornier Consulting, Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Technische Zusammenarbeit and De-Consult, prepared a feasibility study on a 700-kilometre UAE cargo railway, linking Abu Dhabi with Ras al-Khaimah to the north and Fujairah to the east. Dornier has not yet published its findings. However, it says the government has yet to commission studies on passenger rail.

Dedicated routes

What is clear is that Abu Dhabi plans to incorporate dedicated lanes for inner-city rail lines, street cars and buses. A heavy goods route will carry trucks and trailers east of the new Capital District on Al-Suwwah Island, linked to the city and to neighbouring islands by at least 10 bridges.

In October, Abu Dhabi’s newly created Department of Transport invited bids from private companies to order and operate 287 buses serving five Abu Dhabi intercity routes from the second quarter of 2008. Contracts are scheduled to be awarded before the end of 2007.

Abu Dhabi aims to have the first phase of its surface transport masterplan in place by 2010. It has offered a further build-operate-transfer contract to install 550 air-conditioned bus shelters in 2008.

Better transport links are critical if government forecasts suggesting population growth will require more than half a million additional housing units, as well as schools, clinics and hospitals, prove correct. Urban growth will focus on sustainable development to position Abu Dhabi as a global city.

Plan Abu Dhabi 2030 places green spaces at the centre of its strategy. This includes restricting road and building works on national parks, which will be established to preserve natural habitats and enclose the city in a sand belt to reduce urban sprawl.

Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan has declared that the future city will be a low-density environment. And while many nationals own up to three private cars each, the government aims to persuade everybody, including business people, to commute by train or metro to work – a notion that will demand a significant shift in mindset among nationals.

The development of shipping infrastructure is also planned. The government aims to build a new port at Taweelah and to gradually close the old Mina Zayed port, which handled 400,000 20-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in 2006, moving commercial shipping to Taweelah’s AED8bn Khalifa Port & Industrial Zone (KPIZ), scheduled to open in 2010.

Mina Khalifa will handle containers, raw materials and bulk, with a 100-square-kilo-metre site for logistics and industries.

The port is being developed in five stages. Covering 2.2km, it will initially handle 2 million TEUs and more than 6 million tonnes of cargo a year.

Logistics hub

In 2006, Abu Dhabi Ports Company (ADPC) appointed consultant Bechtel as port project manager and Halcrow as project manager for KPIZ. In October, it awarded the $1.5bn dredging and quay construction contract to a consortium comprising Archirodon, Boskalis and Hyundai.

KPIZ will be developed as a logistics hub, with roads to Jebel Ali, to two international airports and to the emirate’s rail network. Industries include steel, chemicals, heavy and light industries, construction, logistics and warehousing.

In June, ADPC finalised a deal with DP World to manage Khalifa Port. DP World’s sister company, Economic Zones World (EZW), will manage the 25 sq km Trade & Logistics Free Zone inside the larger Industrial Zone beyond the port.

Meanwhile, the Department of Transport is preparing to invite bids for elements of the surface transport masterplan in 2008, including roads, light rail, ferries and the intercity high-speed rail link.

“There is definitely a need for the high-speed passenger railway,” says one observer. “But as far as we know, this project has been delayed, with the initial focus on transport of cargo and logistics. Abu Dhabi needs efficient public transport, but the masterplan is not yet under way.

“However, we expect some movement soon. The new Department of Transport is becoming more active and visible, and will put more studies out to tender soon.”

Contracts are being awarded in the roads sector, however. In October, Australia’s Leighton Holdings won the $550m contract to build roads on Saadiyat Island, TDIC’s $27bn mixed leisure and residential project.

Developing partnerships

In November, UPC held a joint press conference with developers Aldar and TDIC to unveil the 10-lane Shahama-Saadiyat Highway, developed as a public-private partnership (PPP).

Aldar is contributing AED1.8bn to the project, linking Abu Dhabi with Shahama, Yas island and Saadiyat island by 2009.

UPC awarded the construction contract to Six Construct and the Taisei Corporation under the management of Aldar and TDIC. The Department of Transport sees the highway as a central pillar of the surface transport masterplan.

Aldar says it places infrastructure at the centre of its plans. Mohammed al-Mubarak, director of estates and infrastructure, has adopted the motto “infrastructure is king”.

“In all our developments, we use Plan Abu Dhabi 2030 as our guideline,” he says. “We are building to meet demand. This is not about building ghost cities. We are in the business of building communities – and that means infrastructure.

“In the past, Abu Dhabi was been known as a sleeping bear. Now the bear has woken up and is hungry. The developments planned for Abu Dhabi in the next few years will be mind-blowing, and Aldar will play a central part in developing the infrastructure it needs.”

Key challenge

Creating a public transport system with private sector investment that is good enough to shift people from cars to other transport modes.

Fact file

Key elements of the surface transport masterplan will include:

  • High-speed rail brtween downtown Abu Dhabi, the international airport and Dubai

  • Rapid transit linking primary (major metropolitan areas such as the airport, Grand Mosque and Central Market) and secondary (smaller, mixed-use centres) nodes of intensive development

  • Local bus and tram systems within Central Banking District and the Capital District

  • Local buses to the suburbs and desert eco-villages

  • Ferries between island eco-villages, the Central Banking District and the mainland