Dubai: If Dubai doesn’t resolve its taxi shortage, Bala T.R. says he won’t keep coming back.
“This is the worst city for taxis that I have seen,” the 43-year-old chartered accountant from India said as he waited outside the City Centre Hotel. “It gets worse each time I come.” Once in a cab, he inched out into one of the desert emirate’s traffic jams.
For a city building the world’s tallest skyscraper, largest airport and biggest man-made islands, Dubai’s public transport system is still less than ordinary, putting strain on its taxi fleet and roads. The first line of Dubai Metro, a $4 billion (Rs17,120 crore) light-rail system, won’t open until September 2009.
Getting the transportation equation right will be key in Dubai’s competition for investment and tourists with neighbours including Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates’ largest member.
“So far, Dubai doesn’t have any public transport system worth mentioning,” said Eckart Woertz, chief economist at the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai. “The way it is, traffic is a serious disadvantage for Dubai as a place to do business.”
Traffic costs the local economy about 4.6 billion dirhams ($1.25 billion) a year in lost man-hours, says Dubai’s Roads Transport Authority. As much as 61% of the congestion is because of the lack of alternatives, the authority said.
Still, it will be a challenge to dislodge people from their cars when the metro opens, said Blair Hagkull, managing director for West Asia and North Africa at real estate consulting firm Jones Lang LaSalle. Gas sells for the equivalent of $1.70 a gallon and summer temperatures soar above 40 degrees Celsius. “The metro is not a panacea,” said Hagkull, who’s based in Dubai. “It will be the catalyst.”
The traffic headaches are growing pains and not insurmountable, he said. The economy of Dubai, which has expanded from its historic centre down a strip of the Persian Gulf coast, grew 20% a year in the five years through 2006.
On the surface, Dubai is well served by taxis when compared with other metropolises. About 6,900 taxis serve Dubai’s population of about 1.4 million. That’s 4.9 cabs per 1,000 people, compared with 1.6 in New York, 2.7 in London and 4.7 in Tokyo, according to a survey by Bloomberg.
It’s the gridlock and lack of public transport—the city’s bus service counts 500 coaches—that make the search for taxis nightmarish for residents and the more than six million business travellers and tourists who visit Dubai annually.
In addition to its iconic black cabs, London, by contrast, has a fleet of 8,000 buses. At peak hours, 522 subway trains run at the same time.
Bala, who visits Dubai about four times a year, puts his average taxi wait at an hour, though he lucked out at the City Centre Hotel and got one in half that time. “It feels as if you are being punished,” he said. “Dubai has a high standard of living, but the quality of life is very poor.”