Can Abu Dhabi be a pedestrian city?

Wide, sweeping boulevards with shaded walkways, express traffic lanes and dedicated car, bus and taxi lanes are all part of a bold vision to transform Abu Dhabi into a pedestrian-friendly city.

Streetscape, as the plan has been called by the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council (UPC), will not stop there. Existing blocks will be broken up, dissected by side roads in which thriving new communities will spring up.

Further details of the project, outlined in the Plan Abu Dhabi 2030, will be officially unveiled at Cityscape next Sunday, according to the UPC’s corporate communications director, Jean-Philippe Coulaud.

Michael White, senior planning manager for the UPC, also told The National this week that making Abu Dhabi a pedestrian friendly city was a top priority.

Mr White was responding to calls by Col Gaith al Zaabi, the director of the Ministry of Interior’s traffic department, urging municipalities to do more to improve pedestrian safety and protect drivers on the roads.

He acknowledged that changes had to be made.

“I think pedestrian safety is a problem in Abu Dhabi, and we need to do a number of things to improve comfort and safety,” he said. “So safer crossings, more frequent crossings, shorter crossings, more comfort providing shade, better universal access.”

With Streetscape some of the roads will be given back to the pedestrians, he said.

He noted that some blocks were nearly a kilometre long and needed to be broken up. “We want to create pedestrian friendly streets that respect the car,” he said. Hamdan Street, one of the city’s most congested roads, would be more efficient if there were points of access through the blocks, he said.

“The whole city will work better,” he said. There could be better car parks, and more sidewalks in front of buildings. It would be safer and easier to walk through blocks and streets, he said.

Abdul Rahman Sharif, quality manager for the Saadiyat Bridge Project with the civil engineering contractors Züblin, called the plans “a welcome achievement”.

“If they can’t do it in Abu Dhabi,” he said, “then where can they do it?” Col al Zaabi, who oversees traffic in the whole of the emirate, said those in charge of urban development had to become more proactive to see the project through.

Pedestrians jumping over barriers and ignoring bridges, women too scared to use subways and drivers flouting the law are just some of the problems to be tackled, he said.

“The strategy is to reduce the number of crashes involving pedestrians being run over,” he said. “The Ministry of Interior is always coming up with new gestures, such as increasing traffic education by catching and fining jaywalkers.” He noted that motorists who did not give priority to pedestrians are fined Dh 500 (US$136).

Municipalities should also add control systems for pedestrians in front of crossings with traffic lights. Sometimes, pedestrians cross when the pedestrian traffic signal is red and are fined for doing so. Cars should not cross the yellow area in front of traffic lights, he said. Col al Zaabi also said municipalities had to do more to deter jaywalkers.

Sometimes construction workers put up barriers that are easy to break, so pedestrians pull them apart and cross the road, he added. These barriers may remain broken and for a long time.

Surveillance cameras should be added to pedestrian subways to reassure women, who may fear danger or harassment at night. People with special needs should also be taken into consideration, he said, citing the pedestrian overpass in the Tourist Club area. There should be a lift in front of the bridge, he said, not only stairs.

In the first 71 days of the year, 26 pedestrians died while crossing roads in Abu Dhabi and 117 were injured; in Dubai 24 were killed.

Police officials aim to reduce the number of these incidents mainly by fining pedestrians for jaywalking. The fines were raised last month to Dh200 from Dh50, but people continue to stream across multi-lane roads because cars rarely slow down at the zebra crossings, pedestrians say.

In the first 95 days of the year, Abu Dhabi police handed out 1,843 fines to jaywalkers, but only 64 motorists were ticketed for not giving pedestrians priority at designated crossings. A further 93 were fined for stopping on a yellow box junction inside an intersection, an offence that carries a penalty of Dh500.

“We set annual plans, we identity areas that need pedestrian crossings and coordinate with municipalities to add them,” Col al Zaabi said.

Abu Dhabi plans to have 500 new German-manufactured buses operating in the emirate by the end of the year, joining the existing fleet of 125 city buses and 30 suburban buses. Trams, a metro and water ferries are all part of a 20-year plan to reduce traffic in the emirate.

The Department of Transport, meanwhile, has set out measures to improve pedestrian safety, including reducing speed limits, particularly in school zones. The plan proposes that by 2015 speed limits be cut to 30kph from 60kph in some residential zones and that air-conditioned walkways be introduced.

But as the Urban Planning Council pointed out in its Plan Abu Dhabi 2030, every trip begins and ends with a walk, so maximizing pedestrian safety and comfort is “an absolute priority.”

At the moment, pedestrians do not enjoy that safety or comfort and there are few options for crossing roads safely other than to walk long-distances to the next intersection. There are 30 under-utilised underpasses in the emirate, according to the municipality. As part of its Salam Street expansion project, three pedestrian bridges were built in the Tourist Club Area – one near Abu Dhabi Mall, another on 12th Street near Hamdan Street and another on 10th Street near Hamdan Street. While some people make use them, others continue to dash in front of traffic at street level.

The municipality announced plans nearly a year ago to build more than 30 footbridges, including one near the public beach on Corniche Street and at least 12 outside the city. None appear to have been built.

Abdullah al Shamsi, director of roads and infrastructure for the municipality, was not available to comment this week.

In Dubai, the Road Transport Authority is working to protect pedestrians. Last year, six new footbridges were installed, and 17 more are expected to open by the end of the year. Dubai Metro, which is scheduled to begin service in September, will add an extra 29 footbridges, 18 of which will extend across Sheikh Zayed Road.

Matthew Chung and Eugene Harnan , 11 april 2009,

Workers cross eight lanes of traffic on highway 11, near Al Raha Mall. Ryan Carter / The

Workers cross eight lanes of traffic on highway 11, near Al Raha Mall. Ryan Carter / The

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