Abu Dhabi buses still packed after a year

Though the service is no longer free, demand for public transport keeps growing and the transport department plans more routes with shorter intervals.

A crowded bus on Muroor Road in Abu Dhabi. The service was launched on June 30 last year.
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ABU DHABI // Viswambharan Baby remembers driving his tourquoise bus behind Carrefour on Airport Road and being surprised by the number of waiting passengers. He had not been expecting too many people when, a year ago today, the Department of Transport's free new city bus service was launched on four routes.

The 48-year-old driver from Kerala was on Route 32 between Marina Mall and the hypermarket. He thought there might be 20 people waiting for the air-conditioned bus that first morning. Instead, about 50 jammed its 30 seats and stood in its aisles. "I thought not much people are coming, but everybody got the news from the newspaper so everybody was waiting there," One year on, the buses are still full, though the service is no longer free. Passengers now pay a Dh1 fare for a single ride, Dh3 for a day pass or Dh40 to ride all month.

The service is attracting new converts but passengers hope for more routes and shorter waiting times. Help is on the way, with the department expecting to run well over 1,000 buses around the emirate by the end of 2010, linking Al Gharbia and Al Ain with Abu Dhabi as well as improving the networks within each of those areas. The department had intended to have improved its suburban services by now, but has faced setbacks in bringing on the road the first of 500 German-manufactured buses ordered from MAN and Mercedes- Benz.

The 12-metre vehicles can seat 34 passengers and carry about 65 in total. They will take over on existing city routes, freeing the original, Chinese-built buses to supplement the services to the airport, Musaffah and other suburbs. While it remains unclear when those buses will start work, preparations are going ahead. At least 10 air-conditioned bus shelters are being constructed on the island, and there will be 80 shelters available in various locations by October and 550 by the end of next year.

The department is preparing to put out a tender for another 860 buses. Meanwhile, the existing buses have helped many people save money. About 65,000 people use the nine bus routes every day. Michael Querrar is one of them. The 25-year-old Filipino used to pay Dh150 a month for a private shuttle service provided by his company to his sales associate job at Marina Mall before the bus service started.

"It was good for us because we save a lot of money on the car lift," he said. Riding the buses is not always the most comfortable way to travel. Mr Querrar hesitated at first because they looked "really loaded". There were reports in the early days of the service of shoving matches between disgruntled passengers. During rush hours, men stand shoulder to shoulder and women complain that at the front, where prominent signs announce "priority seating for ladies", seats are sometimes occupied by men.

Still, Mr Querrar says he has made friends on the bus, after riding the same route with familiar faces for about 10 months. And new converts, such as Ronelle Peters, continue to join the haphazard queues. A charge nurse at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City, Ms Peters, 42, started riding the bus soon after arriving from South Africa six weeks ago, when a Department of Transport staff member introduced her to the monthly fare pass.

"I depend on the bus to get everywhere," she said. @Email:mchung@thenational.ae