A bumpy ride for the bus network

Public transportation in Abu Dhabi is so popular that it nearly overwhelms the system, leading to crowded, late buses.

Plenty of buses rolled by Mohammad Shajahan as he stood at a Hamdan Street bus stop. The trouble was, they were not the bus he needed to take him to work. The 54 bus was late. Again. Mr Shajahan's plight is not unique. The demand for public transport in the capital so far has seemed insatiable, and many residents find that the public buses they want are often overcrowded or behind schedule. Or both.

"It is very hard for me to reach my workplace on time," said Mr Shajahan, 33, a tailor from Bangladesh. "There is a lot of crowding, anyway, and the bus never seems to arrive on time," he said, pointing to the posted schedule. The bus system in Abu Dhabi seems to be a victim of its own success. The Department of Transport introduced a revamped bus system during the second half of 2008. Riders were allowed to travel for free, and they flocked to the buses.

By the time a Dh1 fare was introduced last February, ridership already was reaching as high as 65,000 per day, according to Saeed al Hameli, general manager in charge of buses for the Department of Transport. Now, as many as 90,000 per day crowd the 12 lines in the city. Mr al Hameli said new routes attracted new customers almost immediately. "When we introduce more services we think people will transfer to reduce the crowd," he said. "But every time we open a route, new passengers come."

Mr al Hameli urged passengers to use the 800-5555 hotline if they were having problems. He said the department would do its best to improve the service. "We need more feedback," he said. The majority of bus-users are men, but many women also use public transport. Hira Mansoor, a 22-year-old marketing assistant from Pakistan, last week said she had been waiting more than 30 minutes for her bus. She complained that "a bus is supposed to arrive every 10 minutes".

On the most popular routes, such as those that pass through Hamdan Street and Zayed the First Street, or the Tourist Club area, people struggle to get onto the buses at peak times. Many insist on boarding buses already filled to capacity, or beyond, and this means the automatic doors cannot close. Eventually the newcomers must retreat off the bus or force the passengers already on board to create space. This often means a delay before the bus begins moving again.

At peak times, the process repeats itself at nearly every stop, so buses rarely stay on schedule. The crowding also creates trouble for female passengers in the women-only areas at the front of buses. Seats that are reserved for women by law are sometimes taken by men, female passengers said, and older women and mothers have to stand. Some men enter through the front door and push past women to get to the back of the bus, behaviour considered disrespectful to female passengers.

The front door is supposed to be for cash-paying passengers and the middle door for holders of monthly passes. When the bus is crowded, men are expected to pay at the front and enter through the doors at the middle or the back of buses. Many of the women interviewed for this story, including Ms Mansoor, complained that boorish behaviour by male passengers made them uncomfortable. Hiba Ahmed, a 28-year-old ticketing assistant from Egypt, said that the bus experience was often unpleasant for her.

"Travelling on the buses is sometimes good but often there are so many people," she said. "The driver has to shout at people to keep things in order. That is not very pleasant for me so if I can find a cab, I just take it." Mr al Hameli said the department was looking into increasing the number of designated seats for women but said that the department hoped that riders would adjust their behaviour, over time.

He also said inspectors and drivers were being trained to enforce the seating rules, but added: "We are trying to let people build up this behaviour because [with] any enforcement there will always be rejection no matter how good you are." There are about 100 buses operating in Abu Dhabi city, with 60 running to the suburbs. The long-term goal of the department is an integrated network of more than 1,000 buses running on up to 150 local, regional and intercity bus routes around the emirate.

* The National