Metro changes Dubai scene but car-lovers stick to the wheel

Dubai Metro may have altered the commuting scene in this car-loving city, but a year after the first train left the station winning over the hard-core motorists remains an uphill struggle.

Despite Dubai's severe financial crisis however, the rail authority is determined to complete its second line, delayed for more than a year.

Since September 9, 2009, when the network opened, the number of daily trips has reached 120,000, for more than 30 million riders, says Mattar al-Tayyer, CEO of the Road and Transport Authority.

Passenger numbers are expected to hit 40 million in 2010, Tayyer said, with the opening of the remaining stations on the Red Line, the first of two lines to enter service in the city of around two million people.

On one recent day, just after 3:00 pm when most employees leave work during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, passengers crowded the platforms at several stations of the Red Line.

"Using the train is better than being on the road, to avoid traffic jams," said Vijay, a 36-year-old Indian who works in customer service at a driving school.

He had been using the train for three months, since he got his new job in the upmarket Mall of the Emirates shopping centre, he said.

"It takes me only half an hour to get to work," said Vijay, compared to spending up to two hours on a bus, or in car-pooling.

Egyptian Mohammed Ahmed Mohammed, 25, agreed that the train was a great option.

"It is comfortable and fast. No traffic congestion," he said, sitting in a spotless carriage, where eating, drinking and even chewing gum are banned.

In a bid to lure motorists to park and ride, RTA built free multi-storey parking areas at some stations. But few appear to have taken up the offer.

"Only the ground floor is open" said a security man at the Nakheel Harbour and Tower station car park, towards the southern end of the line.

While it had a capacity for 3,000 vehicles, less 150 cars were left there during a weekday, he said.

But motorists in the Gulf are strongly attached to their car seats.

A survey published recently by Regus, a workplace solutions provider, showed that 91 percent of working people in the UAE preferred private transport, with 79 percent using their cars to commute and 12 percent taking taxis.

Dubai and Abu Dhabi have modern bus networks, and the latter has plans underway to develop its own metro.

"Car saves time and effort," said Muatassem al-Qudat, a Jordanian teacher who has been living in Dubai for nine years and does not use the metro.

He complained of the stifling heat during most of the year in the desert emirate, which makes walking to and from stations an unpleasant experience.

"It is difficult with the heat," he said. And the stations were too far from the starting and ending points of a normal journey, he added.

Many Dubai residents have echoed similar complaints about the route of the Dubai Metro, a great part of which runs above the artery of Sheikh Zayed Road along an elevated track.

To meet this objection, the RTA created a network of shuttle buses connecting passengers from residential and work areas with the main train line.

"I used the train only once, just to check it out," said Emirati oil engineer Mohammed Ali who lives in the northern emirate of Ajman - a commuting distance from Dubai.

He still would not bother to park and ride the train when visiting Dubai.

"Roads are now wider and traffic is less congested," he argued. "The car is faster."

Roads are certainly better than a few years ago when Dubai came up with the idea of building a metro network, becoming the vanguard of urban railway in the Arab Gulf region.

During a five-year boom, Dubai invested heavily in modernising and expanding its road network. It is now the best in the Arab Middle East, boosting its claim to be the regional centre for trade and finance.

This is backed by having the busiest airport in the region, which handled 42 million passengers in 2009, and a new airport that opened in June just for cargo and is touted to become the world largest when completed.

But as the credit crunch hit the ambitious construction projects of Dubai, the metro appeared to be no exception.

The cost of the metro had already doubled to 7.6 billion dollars (5.9 billion euros) by the time the Red Line was opened.

Meanwhile, a Japanese-led consortium working on the remainder of the network has reportedly slowed down work due to delayed payment, a matter categorically denied by RTA in January.

Only 21 out of 29 stations on the 52-kilometres (32-miles) Red Line have been opened. The remaining eight are scheduled to open in October.

But RTA is reportedly considering keeping some closed as the severe impact of the global financial crisis put nearby urban developments on hold.

The construction of the second 23-kilometre (14-mile) Green Line has gone slower as well. It is now expected to open next August after it was scheduled to open this spring.

The oil-rich Gulf region has begun to take railway seriously as an important mode of transport, with rail schemes valued at 94.5 billion dollars, out of transportation projects worth 170 billion dollars, the Middle East Business Intelligence (MEED) said in June.

These include a GCC rail link of 2,117 kilometres (1,323 miles) running from Oman to Kuwait through the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

But MEED said most of the transport projects are still in the design phase.