Monday, September 05, 2005


For reasons that I won't go into here, I have been sans wheels for the last week or so. So I've been using buses and taxis to get around.

We have a marvellous bus service that can take me from just outside my apartment to my office in 20 minutes for Dhs 1.50. This service theoretically runs every 20 minutes. The only problem is that the schedule doesn't take account of rush-hour traffic, so by mid-morning the buses seem to be running more-or-less randomly. The other problem is that there are no shelters at either of my departure points which means that in the summer heat you become a sweating, stinking wreck in almost no time.

But this is about taxis. When I first arrived in Dubai, taxis were run by private operators and they were unmetered. The fares, I think, were set by the police. The cars could be anything from a fairly new and clean Toyota Corolla to a 20-year-old falling-to-bits Nissan Sunny. The state of the drivers was similarly variable.

After we'd been here in Dubai for a few years, the Gubment announced that it was starting its own, smart, taxi service, and the old private cabs would be phased out. So here comes Dubai Transport Corporation with a fleet of brand-new Mercedeses, equipped with GPS-enabled meters and drivers in uniform. Marvellous! Obviously more expensive than what had gone before, but still a fraction of the price that a London cabbie would have to charge you.

After a bit the fleet was expanded, and the cars tended to be Toyota Camry's. More expansion followed, and other operators were allowed to 'compete'. But here's the thing - they were franchised by DTC, and had to charge the same fares.

Dubai Transport has had a pretty nifty booking system for the last few years. If you want to order a taxi, you call them, and if you are in their system it says 'we know where you are, your taxi is on its way'. This only works for landlines at the moment - if they could figure out where your mobile was that would be truly amazing! But it's pretty clever, and saves you having to explain your location every time. A message goes out to any taxi that is close to you (they all have GPS so the computer knows where the cars are), and the first one to get to you is rewarded with an extra dirham on the fare.

Since I've been using taxis again, I've noticed that the original meters in DTC cars are being replaced with a very small unit. The old meters used to be enormous - about 35 x 12 x 20 cms - and glued onto the top of the passenger-side dashboard. The new ones are about 6 x 4 x 1 cm, and screwed into the middle of the dashboard. The space where the old box used to be is covered in bits of epoxy glue that cannot be removed without melting the dashboard.

I was in a cab a few days ago, and the driver couldn't get the new meter to start. He rolled down the road a little way, and then it fired up. He explained that it was connected to the interweb, and with Etisalat's current problems they could not always get online. Hmm. I'd mistakenly shown a bit of interest in this so he was telling me all about the various foibles of this new gadget. How it would set itself to Dhs 20 if you took a speed bump too fast. How it wouldn't tell you the name of the person to pick up if you were answering a booking. Stuff like that.

I had to make a trip this morning. I called DTC and went down to wait outside my building. Taxi pulls up, I get in. 'So, Mr Marwan, where do you want to go?' says the driver (he's got an old meter, and is not scared of speed bumps). I tell him I'm not Mr Marwan, I'm Mr John. 'Oh, OK, never mind, let's go'. Then after a bit of banter he asks me to call Dubai Transport and cancel my booking. I do that, and take the opportunity to hopefully correct a small problem with their database. Ever since they started doing this service, their computer has told them that the bloke who lives in my apartment is called John. Which is a bit bizarre because we are the only folks who have occupied that flat since it was built. I ask the guy if he can change the details.

'Sure', he says, 'Mr Marwan, right?'