ABU DHABI // Friday may mark the start of the weekend, but it is the one day most people regard with dread because of the seemingly futile search for an empty taxi. This weekend, however, promised to be different. For the first time, taxis had a rival: free, air-conditioned buses. After a few journeys across town, it was evident that the fleet of turquoise buses was winning the battle for passengers.
And the hordes, it seemed, were a little less mad. Bus after teeming bus, ferrying hundreds of passengers, lurched into the dozens of new terminals that have appeared across the city. Most were packed to capacity, with people standing and hanging on to safety harnesses as the buses swung round corners. Taxi drivers, waiting for fares and looking on with envy, muttered about losing passengers and, more importantly, money to public transport.
But most people were appreciative of the buses. One mall reported its "best ever" business, claiming the buses were bringing in new shoppers who had never ventured there before, reluctant to pay taxi fares. "Today is more busy than a normal day, maybe the best we have ever had," Dias Antony, the manager of housekeeping at Marina Mall, said as he watched streams of shoppers cut through the taxi queues to board waiting buses.
It was mostly middle-class who shoppers who appeared to be using the buses to get to malls, he said. "We noticed many more customers coming now because of the buses," he said. "And they are not just the people who have cars or the rich people, so we are very happy to see this." Mohammed Ounah, a petrol-station worker from Syria, said he opted for the bus after waiting for an hour for a taxi on Muroor Road.
"I wait, I wait, I wait and no taxi is coming. I don't know where [this bus] is going, but it has air-conditioning and someone told me I can ride to Abu Dhabi Mall." Others travelling on the No 54 bus said they were sacrificing the comfort of a taxi for the convenience of the free bus. Sweaty arms competed for handles, but commuters kept things civil, apologising for any rogue feet that trod on neighbours' shoes.
"Be careful - quickly, quickly!" warned Mohammed Khalil, clearing other passengers away from the side entrance as the bus heaved to a stop and the automatic doors swung open. "These doors are a danger," the student, 19, from Palestine, said. People were squeezed into any place they could find. Bakhtrawam Abdul Gafar, the bus driver, estimated he was carrying "90 to maybe 100" passengers at a time. This is despite a maximum capacity of 45 passengers.
Crammed among the anonymous limbs was Aarni Kudtarkar, aged two, who was being carried by her father as the family rode home to Hamdan Street. "She is very small, but she enjoys travelling," Nilesh Kudtarkar, an accountant from India, said of his daughter's first trip on the bus. "Sometimes we can wait for one hour for a taxi. Today, [the bus] came within five minutes. It's a big difference." The difference was noticeable near closing time on Friday night at Marina Mall - the only stop shared by all four bus routes.
But while the malls saw more customers, taxis saw fewer. "Compared with other days, this line is nothing," Mohammed Atta, a taxi driver on a break at Marina Mall, said of the taxi queue. "Normally, this Friday and Saturday is always crowded, but nowadays it is much shorter. Maybe it's because of the buses, but this is also holiday time." Sameh Elmusry, an Al Ghazal driver from Egypt, pointed to the six empty silver cabs lined up behind him.
"You see many people here for buses, but not taxis," he said. "Before, everyone was taking taxis back from Marina." Another taxi driver, Farid Shawky, wondered whether the days of people coveting taxis were drawing to an end. "Before, if there is one taxi here, then you will have 100 people running for that taxi," he said. "Yes, now it is easier to find a taxi. But if everyone goes on the bus and they do not come to us, then this is a problem."
Mr Shawky hoped the popularity of the buses had peaked and that passengers were enticed only by the free fares until the end of the year. The Department of Transport (DoT) plans to charge fares from the end of the year and to increase the number of routes to 21. Fares have not yet been decided. "Once they begin charging to ride the bus, I want to see many people going back to taxis because they are in a hurry," Mr Shawky said.
The DoT plans to have buses making 2,000 trips a day on 21 routes on the island. By 2010, the department hopes to have 1,360 air-conditioned buses in the emirate. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org