Authorities and schools in Sharjah and Dubai are working to ease traffic problems after parents complained of heavy congestion during rush hours, turning a 15-minute drive into an hour-long journey.
Parents said the problem was acute in densely populated school areas. All pupils leave school at the same time during Ramadan, which adds to the congestion.
Most families said they prefer to do the school run because buses are expensive and the charge is the same even if it is only a 10-minute drive.
In Sharjah, congested traffic was reported in areas such as Muwaileh where there are 23 private schools with more than 49,000 pupils.
Most pupils finish the school day between 1pm and 1.30pm and long queues build up during drop-off and pick-up times.
Sharjah Traffic Police said they stepped up patrols around schools.
“We also have more officers on the ground during pick-up times to help direct traffic and prevent accidents,” said Lt Col Omar bu Ghanim, deputy director of traffic and patrols at Sharjah Police.
“The force works according to a plan that was developed to deal with traffic congestion around schools, on highways and internal roads.”
He urged motorists to always be patient and careful on the road, especially near schools.
But the heavy traffic persists.
“There are dozens of schools in the same area,” said Munawar Daoud, 50.
“Besides school buses, imagine how many cars drive on the same road to pick up thousands of pupils at the same time.”
Her children in Pace School and Rosary School finish at 1pm.
“When I went to pick them up on their first day back at school on April 11, I spent three hours in traffic,” she said.
But she could not reach the school on time and asked her son, 13, who was fasting, to walk to the car.
The Jordanian mother of two said she tried taking different routes to the schools in Muwaileh to make it on time, but all routes were blocked by heavy traffic.
“Last week I tried every possible road to get to my children in good time but it was no use, it was a sea of cars everywhere,” she said.
Ms Daoud said she left home an hour earlier and managed to reach the schools' zone ahead of time but, she said, traffic increased while she waited for her children.
“We were stuck on the way back and arrived home at 3.30pm. Now every day it's the same story,” she said.
Egyptian Nora Khaled, 45, said she picks up her daughters at 2pm from the International School of Choueifat in Sharjah and the drive home takes her 90 minutes.
“It's a 15-minute drive at worst. I can understand the delay if there is an emergency on the road, but an hour and a half is just too much,” she said.
Shireen Al Musalami, 38, from Jordan, stopped picking up her three children at 1.30pm after getting stuck in traffic on the first day of school.
“It was a nightmare so I asked my children to remain in school until 3pm when traffic has eased,” she said.
Yousif Salim, 50, another parent in the emirate, said he reached Rosary school at 12.40pm and returned home at 3pm.
“I haven’t seen such traffic congestion in my entire life here, and there is no construction work to say it's causing it,” he said.
Long delays around school zones in Dubai
The situation is the same in areas of Dubai where there are several schools.
Ambika Gulati, principal at The Millennium School Dubai, said her school was part of the Al Qusais School Zone, where there are seven institutions in the area.
Ms Gulati said there were more than 9,000 cars and 200 buses entering and leaving the school zone during drop-off and pick-up times.
She said before the pandemic, the roads in the zone did not have marked parking. In addition to the current exits from the school zone, there was an exit that was used by buses and cars between a nearby mosque and another school. This allowed for double-lane traffic as well as easy exit from some schools.
But during the 2019-2020 academic year, the emirate's Roads and Transport Authority began work to upgrade the roads, adding designated parking spaces and closing the lane next to the mosque. Now, there is only one lane exit, instead of two.
"When schools re-opened to full capacity in October 2021, the full extent of the traffic situation became clear," Ms Gulati said.
"Before Ramadan, we found that children who boarded the buses at 2.15pm would only manage to leave the school campus by 3pm to 3.15pm. This was, of course, not a desirable outcome, affecting their well-being, health and safety.
"As well as reducing journey times, congestion and pollution, free-flowing traffic is also critical to allow emergency services to reach schools in good time, and this is a significant concern."
The school organised a meeting with various principals and managers of other schools in the vicinity to understand the problem and come up with solutions.
After the meeting, all principals agreed to change school dispersal timings.
"As a group of principals, we also shared our concerns regarding pupils and staff well-being with RTA and KHDA, proposing a number of suggestions to RTA to solve the problem," Ms Gulati said.
School run traffic in Dubai - in pictures
A circular was sent to parents of pupils at all schools in the area, requesting their understanding and support.
Parents at The Millennium School in Al Quasis supported the decision to extend the school day by 50 minutes. Parents who picked up their children were asked to delay their arrival by 15 minutes to ease traffic.
"While this did bring some relief, it did not solve the problem. As a school, we also met RTA in February 2022 to press on them the need to remedy the situation. We have received assurances that the matter will be investigated in the coming months," Ms Gulati said.
"We requested RTA to carry out a detailed traffic management study and consider opening further exits from the school zone to allow traffic to flow more smoothly."
She also said that parents should be mindful of where they park, consider having their children use school buses or delay the time they pick up their children from school, allowing buses to leave the zone.
Maryam R, an Indian mother of three in Al Qusais, said a five-minute commute from her home to her children’s school could take up to 50 minutes on most days.
She said schools in the area tried to stagger timings but this did not help much and finding parking was another issue.
“Some people use a carpool while some prefer to walk home. Buses are very expensive. We would have to pay about Dh500 per child every month but it’s a five-to-eight-minute commute from our home to the school. Using a bus will also mean that the children will leave early and come back late,” she said.
She said something needed to be done to find a solution to the problem faced by parents.