Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Finally, I bought a car… now I just need somewhere to park it

By Jen Gerson

After four months of fighting fellow commuters for the winning hail, cheating my fellow man out of cabs as they drew up, and even sometimes standing directly in the path of an oncoming taxi only to be refused service because I was not travelling as far as Mussafah, I had had enough. It was now far too hot for this tripe, I decided… and no one had told me that the municipality was to launch a bus service. So I bought a car.
As so often happens, I have traded one set of problems for another. Although I no longer have to bear the brunt of the mid-morning sun while waiting for a taxi that may never come, I do have to contend with the green sentinels perched at all corners of Hamdan Street: the portents of the imminent arrival of paid parking. In a recent interview, Abdulla al Shamsi, the director of roads and infrastructure with the Abu Dhabi municipality, said that the green parking machines are not yet functioning as the laws required to enforce parking infractions have not yet been put in place. He was very proud, however, that the green machines are the latest and greatest in the field of parking technology and will accept coins, credit cards and even allow drivers to recharge their stubs by mobile phone.
The new machines do offer one considerable downside, however: They mean we will all have to pay for parking. But Mr al Shamsi assures us that this will not be an out-and-out cash grab; the meters are intended as a means of reducing traffic and nudging drivers into the paid, multi-storey car parks. There is one problem with that theory, as anyone who has attempted a 33-point turn through a triple-parked back street can attest: the car parks are full, too.
The municipality has said that additional parking towers are to be built across the city to alleviate the nightly parking smash and dash. This sounds wonderful, until we see where they are to be placed: in the Tourist Club area and in the east of the island, away from central Hamdan and Electra Streets, where parking is most problematic.
So why would new parking towers not be placed in the most congested areas?
“There’s no room there,” the municipality said. Thanks, we had noticed. The municipality does admit, however, that it does not want to improve the parking situation too much, as that would encourage new residents to buy more cars.
The Abu Dhabi municipality does not have an easy beat. It has to manage a city that is growing exponentially and a road system that is at, or over, capacity. According to Mr al Shamsi, the number of cars on the motorways has doubled in each of the past two years.
Any city in the world would be straining under that kind of growth. But fresh fields of shaded free parking spaces on their own will not create a further spurt in car sales. In Abu Dhabi, the car is king because there is no viable alternative. I would have been happy to skip the expense and trouble of a car but, as a recent report pointed out, the number of taxis in the city had increased by only eight per cent in the past decade, while the population had grown by 70 per cent. Because of this strain, depending on cabs is not a reliable way to get to and from work. The new bus service I have yet to test and now never will.
The lack of an inter-emirate train system makes seeing friends and doing business in Dubai inconvenient and expensive without a car. Entire swaths of Abu Dhabi, including attractions such as the Zayed Sports Complex, the summer festival at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre, Khalifa City and the Bateen neighbourhood are virtually inaccessible without private transportation. The city has been built for the car and parking meters are not going to stop people from buying them. Where there is no alternative, the meters are just going to add to the spiralling cost of living.
How is it that we can build the world’s next major cultural district in less than a decade, the planet’s most expensive hotel, and yet omit to pencil in bike lanes or hire enough taxis? Why has it taken two years of congested roads to implement a basic bus system?
Although the municipality has not said when it will start charging for parking on Hamdan Street, it has promised that the system would only come on line with the availability of public transit. Well, the buses are here now, so the charges are unlikely to be far behind. In the meantime, I am just one more driver with nowhere to park.

jgerson@thenational.ae

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