Salik, road tolls and how UAE motorists fare in global traffic jam rankings

Abu Dhabi is looking at introducing a payment system similar to Dubai's Salik. It is one, writes Jonathan Gornall, that may ultimately be worth all the effort

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - April 13, 2015.  The Al Barsha Toll Gate along Sheikh Zayed Road.  ( Jeffrey E Biteng / The National )  Editor's Note; Ramona R reports. *** Local Caption ***  JB130415-Salik10.jpg
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Being stuck in a traffic jam is no fun, especially on a hot summer day. Tempers fray and blood pressure rises with the frustration of arriving late for work or missing important meetings or family occasions.

But if the strain of going nowhere fast is irritating for the individual driver, the consequences for a city with a gridlocked economy can be far more serious, as a report published this week by international transportation consultancy INRIX makes clear.

The Global Traffic Scorecard, the largest study of its kind, analyses congestion in 1,360 cities in 38 countries – and its publication in the very week that Abu Dhabi has announced plans to follow Dubai's example and introduce road tolls can be described as timely.

INRIX analyses real time data from the navigation systems of 300 million cars around the world, which reveals exactly where, when and how fast – or slow – they are travelling. And, in an age of global economic competition, in which productivity can be a make-or-break yardstick for a nation's hopes of attracting inward investment, it will be a matter of grave concern to American economic planners, for example, that 10 of the world's 25 most gridlocked cities are in the US.

The worst city in the world for motorists is Los Angeles, where in 2017 drivers spent on average in excess of 100 hours sitting in traffic jams – more than four days of their lives.

By comparison, life for motorists in the UAE, where traffic in four cities was monitored, seems positively rosy. The most congested location, predictably, is Dubai. Here in 2017 drivers spent an average of 29 hours going nowhere at peak times, putting the city at a reasonably smooth-flowing 208th place in the global congestion table. A separate measurement that only looked at 200 major metropolises placed Dubai in 78th.

Driving in Abu Dhabi is even easier on the nerves. Motorists in the capital endured an average of only 13 hours in congestion in 2017, ranking the UAE capital in 727th place in the global congestion chart.

And, says Graham Cookson, chief economist and head of research at INRIX, comparing the percentage of time Abu Dhabi drivers spend in congestion during peak and off-peak times reveals an even less stressful picture. In chronically busy cities, such as Los Angeles and London, these figures vary wildly, but in Abu Dhabi there is almost no variation.

"Overall in Abu Dhabi, which is at all times of day, it is quite low at just 6 per cent, and it's only 7 per cent at peak time, so there's very little difference during the day," says Cookson, visiting professor of economics at Surrey Business School.

“That tells us that congestion in Abu Dhabi is both low and stable, which means it really hasn’t got a commuting problem.”

So, why does Abu Dhabi need road tolls, and why does it need them now?

This month is was announced that road tolls would be introduced in Abu Dhabi. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
This month is was announced that road tolls would be introduced in Abu Dhabi. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

The answer can be found in a far-sighted document published a decade ago by the Department of Transport, which not only predicted traffic troubles ahead for the fast-growing emirate but also proposed a series of solutions, all of which – including road tolls – are now coming into play.

Ten years ago, the Abu Dhabi Surface Transport Master Plan forecast that by 2030 the population of the Abu Dhabi metropolitan area would reach three million people, up from fewer than one million in 2008.

The annual number of tourists would also explode, from less than two million to almost eight, and on the roads the number of personal journeys each day would increase from about one million to five million.

This scenario, predicted the Department of Transport, “would negatively impact the quality of the physical environment as well as the general quality of life”. Both residents and visitors “would experience an increase in travel delays, and would likely face untenable commute times”.

And anyone who read the master plan at the time would not have been surprised by the announcement this week that road tolls were coming to Abu Dhabi. The solution, concluded the DoT in 2008, was "diversifying available transport choices" and introducing "demand-management techniques such as road pricing [to] further reduce the number of cars driving during peak travel times".

The master plan envisaged both a metro and a tram service for Abu Dhabi, and both those projects moved closer to reality in January last year with the publication of tenders for the first two phases of a tram line and an initial 18 kilometres metro line, with 17 stations.

In Dubai, they built the tram system and the Metro and that's the infrastructure investment you would hope to see to tackle congestion. How effective road tolls are depends upon whether commuters have some good alternatives

It is not yet clear when the capital's road toll will be introduced, which roads will be covered, how much it will cost or whether it will be a standalone system or an extension of Dubai's Salik. But Abu Dhabi is clearly in the throes of following Dubai's decade-old lead and, says Prof Cookson, is to be commended for doing so.

“Economists like me would say that where we don’t price roads drivers overuse them and create congestion, and so the most efficient way of tackling that is to price the roads,” he says.

But road tolls alone are not enough.

"In Dubai, they built the tram system and the Metro and that's the kind of infrastructure investment you would hope to see if you want to tackle congestion," he said.

"How effective road tolls are depends upon whether or not commuters have some good alternatives.”

When Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority introduced the Salik system in 2007, it did so as part of a broader strategy “to curb traffic congestion, reduce the dependence on private vehicles and encourage use of the public transport system”.

At the time, that transport system was barely off the drawing board – it would be another two years before the first Metro train ran and 2014 before the tramway opened.

But Salik, designed to redirect traffic away from overcrowded roads, came not a moment too soon, as anyone who remembers commuting to or from the city before the global financial slowdown will attest.

In 2007, Dubai earned the dubious distinction of being the most congested city in the Middle East, with commuters spending an average of one hour and 45 minutes on the roads each day. If you lived in Sharjah, the 15-kilometre commute could take up to 2 hours and 45 minutes.

Stan Cooper / The National
Stan Cooper / The National

Salik, said the RTA when the system was introduced in 2007, would “help to ease the flow of traffic, minimise traffic bottlenecks and encourage motorists to use alternate routes”. And, crucially, the revenue collected by the tolls would be used “to improve the infrastructure of Dubai”.

Yet although innovatory and a success, Dubai's Salik system remains something of a blunt instrument. The RTA has developed a Smart Drive App to help motorists to find routes that bypass the tolls, but overall the system is fairly rigid and Abu Dhabi, says Prof Cookson, has the opportunity to introduce a smarter system.

Most road toll systems around the world, he says, “Are not implemented in the way that economists would say is most efficient, which is to vary the price of the toll according to the time of day, the place and the distance travelled.

“For example, if you want to drive a long way right in the centre of the town at the busiest time of day, the cost should obviously be higher than if you want to travel in the middle of the day on the outskirts of the town.”

Dubai’s Dh4-per-toll-gate Salik and its Abu Dhabi equivalent might seem like an unwelcome financial burden, but in the long run the alternative is almost certainly much worse.

In a complex calculation taking in a wide range of factors, the INRIX study looked at the economic impact of congestion on individual drivers in three countries, the US, the UK and Germany – and the results were shocking.

Congestion across the three countries cost almost $461 billion (Dh1,693bn) in 2017, with the average cost per driver $1,445 (Dh5,307) in the US, £968 (Dh4,935) in the UK and €1,168 (Dh5,268) in Germany.

In certain cities the cost was even higher – in London being stuck in congestion cost individual drivers £2,430 (Dh12,388), adding up to £9.6bn (Dh49bn) across the city as a whole.

Salik or no Salik, Prof Cookson offers a positive thought for the next time you find yourself stuck in traffic.

“Congestion is usually the negative effect of a positive, vibrant economy with a growing population that’s getting richer,” he says.

As Dubai drivers discovered a decade ago, “when there’s an economic downturn and unemployment goes up you see a reduction in congestion. Yes, congestion is unpleasant and it damages business. But none of us would want to live somewhere where there’s no congestion, because that would probably mean we were all sat at home not doing anything.”