Tuesday, January 04, 2005

The World's First Emirate to Charge Entry

The Emirate of Dubai announced yesterday that it will be introducing tolls on all roads into the Emirate. We're not talking about a City Centre Congestion Charge here, you will even have to pay to enter from the Abu Dhabi end, and that is not exactly congested.

It's not a huge amount, 3 - 5 Dirhams (about 50 - 75 British pennies), but todays Gulf News is full of letters from irate people who live in Sharjah and commute to Dubai, who might be discouraged from coming into Dubai for shopping and entertainment, who might have to consider car-pooling or one of the many private bus services that ply between the two Emirates, and other terrible stuff like that.

Honestly, the blindness of some of these people is amazing. Yes, the tolls will discourage people from commuting between Sharjah and Dubai. That is exactly what they are designed for. If you've ever tried getting into Dubai from Sharjah between 6.30 am and 9.30 am, or into Sharjah between 5.30 pm and 8.30 pm, you will know that it is something to be avoided at all costs. There are only 3 or 4 roads between the two emirates, and they are all completely jammed beyond their capacity at peak times. Throw in the ocassional (hah!) accident on any of the roads, and you have almost total gridlock for hours and hours.

Public transport policy is something Dubai is beginning to address. There are serious plans underway to build an emirate-wide light rail system. But it will stop at Sharjah. Dubai has a pretty good public bus network. But it stops at Sharjah. Dubai built an excellent city bypass road (the Emirates Road), but it grinds to a halt, literally, these days, at the National Paints Roundabout on the Sharjah border.

The problem here is basically that Dubai has become so successful that rented accommodation prices have risen sharply, so lots (hundreds of thousands, I guess) of people who work in Dubai cannot afford to live there, and have to stay in Sharjah where the rents are lower. Sharjah has not been spending much on its infrastructure, and will not allow Dubai Municipality buses to operate into Sharjah (this is bizarre because Sharjah does not yet have a public bus system, so they are saying that allowing Dubai Buses into Sharjah would take revenue away from Sharjah taxi drivers - methinks not).

But really, the fundamental problem is that transport systems need to be co-ordinated on a nationwide basis. Actually they don't really. There is one highway connecting Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and that works fine. The real problem is that Dubai and Sharjah are practically a conurbation, and they have a symbiotic relationship. Sharjah undoubtedly benefits greatly from being a spillover town for Dubai, and Dubai benefits because lower-paid workers can find somewhere affordable to live. But the price is this horrendous congestion and air pollution caused by the cross-border traffic.