Global gridlock: how the UAE and the rest of the world is combating congestion

A recent survey found UAE motorists spend dozen of hours a year stuck in traffic – but they are not alone

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - August 12, 2018: Morning commuters head from Dubai towards Abu Dhabi on the first day of no speed buffer. Sunday, August 12th, 2018 on E11, Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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A recent global survey showed Dubai motorists spent the equivalent of nine working days stuck in traffic last year, but the Emirates is just a small part of global gridlock.

While Dubai residents faced 80 hours of hold-ups – and Abu Dhabi commuters were left stuck for 50 hours, according to the Global Traffic Scorecard by Inrix – many other major cities are facing the same struggle.

The UAE has sought to tackle traffic jams by improving public transport. The Dubai Metro was introduced in 2009 along with an annual Car Free Day. Road tolls in Dubai are run by the Salik system.

Here are how cities on five continents are working to reduce their own gridlock.

Cars move slowly on an elevated road on the first day of school in a traffic jam in Beijing, China, 25 February 2019.  (Imaginechina via AP Images)
A number of initiatives have been introduced to cut down on congestion in Beijing. AP

Beijing: from bicycles to backlog on roads

A few decades ago the streets of Beijing were filled with people on bicycles, but today the car holds sway and China’s capital has become notorious for gridlock.

Car ownership soared in line with the growth of the country’s middle class and there are now more than five million vehicles on Beijing’s roads.

Reports indicate that car numbers are increasing by as much as 10 per cent annually, despite restrictions on the issuing of new licence plates, which are allocated by lottery.

As a measure to limit congestion, Monday-to-Friday licence-plate restrictions were introduced in 2008. Cars with a plate that ends in 1 or 6 are not allowed within Beijing’s fifth ring road between 7am and 8pm on Mondays, while cars with plates ending in 2 or 7 are not allowed on Tuesdays, and so on.

The authorities have significantly expanded the city’s metro system, while subsidising prices to keep ticket costs low – a single journey costs just 2 yuan (Dh1.1).

Congestion charging has been proposed several times but it has yet to be introduced.

Cars sit in a traffic jam along the Embankment during the morning rush hour in central London, Britain, August 29, 2017. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
Efforts have been made to reduce congestion in London in recent years but it remains a major issue for road users. Reuters    

Londoners pay price to drive with congestion charge

The UK capital is known for making a success of congestion charging in 2003.

Owners of non-exempt cars – electric-car owners don’t have to pay – give £11.50 (Dh55.70) to enter the 21-square-kilometre zone in central London between 7am and 6pm from Mondays to Fridays.

“Congestion charging is a pricing regime that discourages people at the margins from using their cars and increases the alternatives,” said transport specialist Prof Tony May of the University of Leeds.

The number of private cars being driven in the centre of London fell 39 per cent between 2002 and 2014, although the city still has significant congestion and is ranked sixth in the Inrix Global Traffic Scorecard.

London has long had a comprehensive metro system and in 2016 some lines began to run 24 hours a day. The congestion charge has funded improved bus services and cycle paths, while bikes can be easily hired on the street.

“It’s quite costly to use cars through congestion charges and parking charges, so a lot of people, particularly young people, are voting with their feet,” said Prof Miles Tight, professor of transport, energy and environment at the University of Birmingham.

Cars and public buses are seen in a traffic jam along a main street ahead of local elections in Bogota, October 20, 2015. The local elections in Colombia will be held on Sunday October 25 amid outrage over chaotic transport, increased insecurity, dirty streets and corruption in the capital. Picture taken on October 20, 2015. REUTERS/Jose Miguel Gomez
Bogota motorists lost a staggering 272 hours to traffic jams in 2018, a recent global survey found. Reuters    

Bogged down in Bogota's rush hour

Motorists in the Colombian capital lose an average of 272 hours a year to congestion, according to the Inrix Global Traffic Scorecard, the highest figure for any city.

It is perhaps unsurprising that the city suffers from severe traffic congestion, because the main alternative – the TransMilenio bus system – is often overcrowded.

Its complex routes, and the fact that not all buses halt at every stop (so near-empty buses may drive past waiting passengers), have been criticised.

However, major improvements are on the horizon, because plans for a much-needed metro system were given the green light last year when the World Bank confirmed that it had approved an initial loan of $70 million (Dh257.1m) to fund the scheme’s preparatory work.

The total cost of the metro is projected to be $600m, and the first line will be Colombia’s biggest infrastructure project.

According to officials, the project will benefit almost three million people, the vast majority of whom are in the lowest income groups.

Like the Dubai Metro, the underground in Bogota will consist of trains running on an elevated track. The 24 kilometre, 16-station line, will intersect with the bus system.

Auto traffic flows in and out of Los Angeles, California, one of the worst traffic-congested cities in the country, on August 28, 2018. - Shares of big US automakers rose on news the US and Mexico reached a deal to update the 25-year North American Free Trade Agreement, pending Congressional approval. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP)
Congestion is a major issue for millions of drivers in Los Angeles. AFP

Los Angeles: America's car park

This metropolis has long been dominated by cars and it suffers from some of the worst congestion in the US.

Los Angeles has exceptionally high levels of car ownership, with about 7.8 million vehicles among the city’s population of 10 million people.

It has extensive public transport options, including half a dozen metro lines and buses that connect with them. However, analysts say that for many journeys, public transport is slower than driving and is not a realistic option for many commuters.

Residents have approved at $120bn plan to expand both public transport and the road network.

Officials want to increase the number of shops around transit stops to reduce the need for additional travel. They also want to add more rail and bus lines and expand car pooling.

In line with California’s role as an autonomous driving pioneer, officials are also keen to have driverless buses.

Controlled by computers, these vehicles reduce erratic road behaviour, particularly late, heavy braking on busy routes, which causes tailbacks. They also make better use of space.

“The vehicles can drive more closely together, so you get a shorter time interval between successive vehicles,” Prof Tony May says.

Motorists wait in a traffic jam under banners bearing a portrait of Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari, who is on official visit to Lagos, on March 29, 2018. - Nigeria's economic capital Lagos was on a lockdown on March 29, 2018, as Buhari makes his first official visit to the city of 22 million inhabitants since coming to power in 2015. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)
Motorists face daily frustration in heavy traffic in Lagos, Nigeria. AFP

Lagos turns to public transport for answers

As many as four in 10 cars in Nigeria are registered in Lagos, which is Africa’s most populous city, with some estimates saying 21 million people live there.

The need to improve Lagos’s transport infrastructure is well known, with a new authority – the Lagos Metropolitan Area Transport Authority – set up in 2002 to push through changes.

After launching a bus rapid-transit system in 2008, Lagos followed Dubai’s lead in examining an overground railway. Lamata’s flagship scheme is the Lagos Rail Mass Transit, which will have seven lines.

Announced in 2008 with a projected opening three years later, the project fell behind schedule and is now due to open in 2022.

Initially, it will consist of an east-to-west line running through Lagos’s central business district, complementing the bus network, which runs from north to south.

The authorities recognise that dealing with Lagos’s congestion requires several approaches and want to improve waterways transport and make use of the way the city is spread across several islands. They also want to build better cycle lanes and routes for pedestrians.

Action is needed not just for today, but for the future. A prediction in 2016 suggested the Nigerian capital’s population would double over the next 15 years.