Join me, I'm pedalling towards an alternative Abu Dhabi
So the other day I rode my bike to the grocery store.
In other cities, this statement would not be remarkable, but here in Abu Dhabi, bike riding is seen as being tantamount to having a death wish: far from being "bike friendly", Abu Dhabi streets are downright "bike hostile".
As I pedalled along towards the Corniche, I could see people staring at me, trying to figure out what I was doing. Clearly I wasn't an Aramex messenger; I wasn't delivering newspapers or restaurant orders; and I wasn't dressed in a weekend-warrior cycling outfit à la pre-disgraced Lance Armstrong.
I'm sure people assumed that my car was at the repair shop and that I'd not been able to find a cab, because surely no one would choose to use a bicycle for transportation.
Only on my way home, with my Carrefour bags dangling from my handlebars, did people seem to chalk up my actions to yet another instance of bizarre expatriate behaviour.
I do have a car, actually, but if at all possible, I prefer my bike. I like to imagine that I'm pedalling towards an alternative Abu Dhabi, in which instead of more malls the city builds bike lanes. After all, if New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg could finally bow to pressure from two-wheeled commuters and designate miles of main thoroughfares as dedicated bike lanes, why couldn't the same happen along Airport Road or Hamdan Street?
Right now, to avoid being killed or running into an opening taxicab door, I ride on the pavement, where I frequently get stuck behind herds of slow-moving tourists, or a piéton of pram-pushers.
Riding on the pavement also means bone-jarring drops off the kerbs, even at crosswalk ramps, which themselves sometimes have kerbs of several inches. I'd hate to see someone in a wheelchair try to negotiate that hurdle, which I imagine would be impossible without a significant push.
But rather than spending money to smooth the ramps, why not designate strips of roadway for bicyclists?
Think about it: whizzing past the line of traffic snaking along Airport Road at rush hour; shifting the gym membership money to a weekend away because you get your exercise during your morning commute; avoiding both Mawaqif fees and endless loops through parking garages.
Instead, pedal to the mall, lock up your trusty wheeled steed, and do your shopping. With a basket on the front of your bike and/or panniers on the back, your bicycle has about as much storage room as the trunk of a Toyota Yaris, so you've got nothing to lose but carbon emissions.
And if you equip your bike with a child seat (which will handle a child up to age five) you can even pedal your toddler off to nursery school or day care, which means that you've not only got your exercise, you've also set a healthy example for your child. Sounds like a win-win to me.
Oh sure, I can hear the protests already: Abu Dhabi will never be a bike-friendly city because it's too hot, too humid, too sandy. In response, I'd like people to think about the weather in Manhattan, Amsterdam, Delhi or London, all lovely cities but far from climatically ideal - and yet people living in these places cycle almost all year round.
Even fashion doesn't have to be an impediment: bikes can be customised with wheel guards that enable riders in abayas, saris, kanduras, long skirts or shalwar kameez to ride without fear of hems being caught in bike wheels. And I speak with experience when I say that riding in high-heels is not only possible, it's easy.
On a bicycle it's even simple - and safer - to indulge in one of Abu Dhabi's favourite past-times: texting. All you need to do is ride no-handed, and then you can text with impunity. It's possible that in the joy of riding no-handed, you may decide to put away your phone and have fun.
Even those Abu Dhabi drivers in love with their SUVs could be persuaded to cycle, perhaps by being reminded they could buy a really big bike, with a cushy seat - and that they can drive with as much recklessness on two wheels as they can on four, with the added bonus that fewer lives will be lost if they crash. As a further incentive, I'll just say that Ferrari makes bicycles. For that matter, so do Lamborghini and Maserati.
So the next time you see the crazy expat lady pedalling towards Carrefour, instead of staring, hop on your bike and join her. Who knows? Maybe we can start the wheels turning towards a cycling revolution.
Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi. She blogs at mannahattamamma.com
Published: November 16, 2012 04:00 AM