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Transport / Mass transit

Dubai is building a new tram and the residents just don’t seem to care

It’s hard to compete with the string of glittery announcements that have come out of Dubai recently. World’s largest mall? Check. World’s largest sustainable underwater tourism site? Obviously. World’s most expensive smile? What else?

Yet burbling in the background is a less bling but equally important news story: the city has traffic problems. According to Dr. Arun Bajracharya, a traffic expert at the British University of Dubai, nine out of 10 motorised trips made in the Emirate use private cars. That means congestion, pollution and high accident rates. What’s more, a 2009 study suggest that as much as 3.5 percent of the UAE’s GDP is lost to traffic congestion annually.

Officials are trying to fix things, investing heavily in transport infrastructure, and working on a plan to complete a mass transit system by 2020. A key part of this will be the Dubai Tram, which will stretch along the affluent, expat-dominated and increasingly crowded coastal strip of the city’s “new side”. It’s scheduled to go live in November this year.

And no one really seems to care.

In case you’re not up on your Dubai transport news, the tram was announced in 2008, hailed as a way of linking neighbourhoods including Media City, Internet City, Knowledge Village, and the Dubai Marina. Plans also show it connecting to several luxury hotels, the existing metro, and the currently isolated but tourist-friendly monorail on Dubai’s manmade island, The Palm. For 20 hours a day, the tram will transport passengers along a 10.6km route in streamlined, air conditioned splendour.

As with so much of Dubai, the official map of the tram may be a little too baroque for its own good… 

Back when the project began, Mattar Al Tayer, chairman of the board and executive director of the Dubai Roads and Transport Authority (RTA), told a press conference that the tram would “encourage people in these up-market areas to use an alternative mode of transport instead of private cars”. The districts it would cover contain 180,000 residents, 210,000 workers, and 20,000 visitors per day, he added. “The tram project will help us control traffic congestion in such a high concentration area.”

Construction began – but then, pretty much immediately, the economy crashed. Funding floundered. And the Dubai Tram was delayed, pushed back from an early 2011 launch to late 2014. “Because of the recession we had to replan and reschedule,” noted Abdul al Hassan, the director of rail planning and development at the RTA in 2010. This was true “for all projects in Dubai, not only transportation”, he added – but nonetheless, for several years, all the city had to show for its troubles were miles of construction, blocked streets, increased congestion, and temporary roads.

In 2012, the tram restarted with – in true Dubai fashion – another press conference: “Now we have secured the financial package,” Ahmad Al Hammadi, chief executive of the RTA’s Rail Agency, explained, “and the project will be kicking off within the coming three months back to full scale.”

The stops and starts, though, have resulted in a worsening of the very traffic situation the Dubai Tram aimed to alleviate. Owing to the financial crash and the paused construction with closed streets, traffic congestion became the stuff of nightmares. “I’ve always known the Marina to have the middle of the roads dug up, so any improvement would be better,” a resident told the UAE newspaper The National. But, the article added: “The disruptions have been going on so long that residents of Dubai Marina said it had become part of the Marina lifestyle.”

…so we drew our own. Here’s a tube-style map of the Dubai tram’s 10.6km route.

Yet this delay isn’t even the biggest issue with the Dubai Tram. The biggest issue is that no one seems very bothered at all.

To understand why – or rather, why not – you need to look at the city’s existing transport system. Most people drive in Dubai. Those who don’t have a couple alternatives. Taxis are cheap, safe, easy to find, and get you anywhere; not surprisingly, they’re very popular. Buses exist, but most people avoid them like unreliable hotboxes on wheels. Walking isn’t really an option, as pavements are rare, the roads are dangerous, and the sun is brutally hot.

Then there’s the Dubai Metro. It’s clean, efficient, and reliable. Yet its still-developing route is limited, offering only two lines, one of which runs parallel to Dubai’s main road. It’s also very linear and long – according to the record books it’s the longest driverless metro network in the world – but this unfortunately means that getting from one side of town to another can take a pretty long time too.

What’s more, given the location of its stations, the metro often requires car transport at either end of the journey. You can’t just nip to the tube stop at the end of your street. You’ve got to get to the metro first.

Into all this comes the tram. The success of the Metro suggest it has the potential to play a role. Yet its finished route will be short, under 15km, little more than a dot in a city that’s 110km from end to end. And many journeys – from the Dubai Marina to the airport, say, or from The Palm to the financial centre – will require at least three modes of transportation: tram, metro and something else. The ”something else” will most likely be a taxi. It all raises the question: why go to all that bother, when you could just take one for the entire journey, saving 30 minutes in the process?

The Dubai Tram might prove to be a roaring success. The Dubai Metro certainly has taken off, and the RTA are doing some clever things (two days of free public transport a year, free Wi-Fi at stations, cheap tickets) to encourage public transit. But given the current public boredom with the project and the continued appeal of cars, one does have to wonder: when the tram goes live in November, will anyone even care enough to notice?
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