ABU DHABI // Two days after it was launched, the city's free bus service has been so successful that it has left taxi drivers struggling to find passengers. Taxi drivers say they are already seeing a drop in business as they compete with the fleet of air-conditioned buses picking up passengers around the streets. "Before, people were fighting over who would get into my taxi," said Ghadi Hussain, a gold and white taxi driver. "Now, who will go to taxis? Taxi drivers are going around and their cars are empty."
The turquoise buses have quickly become a hit with residents, who say riding for free and in air-conditioned comfort is a hard deal to beat. "Now we can visit all our Abu Dhabi customers very easily," said Kashim Raza, 25, a credit card salesman commuting from Marina Mall. "It takes longer, but it saves us money." However, opting for the bus is by no means the fastest transport option. A ride from Marina Mall to the Al Meena shopping centre, with all stops in between, took more than one hour yesterday. The trip takes about 15 minutes by taxi.
Taxi drivers claimed they were losing money. "Last night, I was at Abu Dhabi Mall. There were two lines of people waiting for buses and no one was taking taxis," Mr Hussain said. Silver taxi drivers, including Khawaja Sultan Ali, said they were also scrambling for customers. "We're going after the buses, to their stops, thinking that some passengers will come to us," Mr Ali said. "But no one comes."
Mr Ali said the timing of the introduction of the bus service was bad. "Right now, there are less passengers on the streets," he said. "School is out, people are on holiday. There are all these extra cabs out on the street, all trying to get the same passengers." Ghadi Hussain, who drives a white and gold taxi, said he could not compete with the free fare for the bus. The majority of his passengers were labourers who use cabs for short-distance rides.
"The market in Abu Dhabi is different than Dubai; there are less Europeans taking taxis," he said. "Most of our passengers are poor workers: Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis. They will, of course, choose the cheaper way to travel." Khadim Hussain said Abu Dhabi was too small a market for old and new taxis and now the new buses. "This isn't India or Pakistan. How far do most people travel?" he said. "People don't go out much at night, maybe to Marina Mall for shopping or for a walk along the Corniche."
Business was booming on the buses yesterday. There was standing room only on buses heading towards Carrefour on Airport Road and into the city on Fourth Street. Mr Raza, 25, and his colleague, Mohammed Shahid, 26, said they would continue to use the buses as it would save about Dh50 (US$13.61) a day, the amount they usually spent on taxis. Richelle Celda, 31, who works at the Arty Shop in the Al Meena Shopping Centre and at Marina Mall, said the spacious, air-conditioned buses were more comfortable and reliable than taxis. Before Monday, the only other means of public transport was a municipally run van that had a capacity for about 15 passengers. "If the seats are full, you could not get on," Ms Celda, from the Philippines, said.
"Most of the time, I was waiting for taxis or for the [van]." At Marina Mall, Mohammed Haneefa, a bus supervisor, was handing out copies of route maps and schedules. He said interest in the bus service was growing rapidly. "Today it is going up, up, up," Mr Haneefa said. There are four routes for the new service, which will be free until the end of the year. Buses depart from Marina Mall, Al Meena Shopping Centre, near Abu Dhabi Mall on 10th Street, the City Air Terminal on 12th Street and from Carrefour on Airport Road.
The first bus sets off at 6am and the last leaves at 11.30pm. The buses, which can carry about 45 passengers, are a short-term solution. They will be replaced by buses of a higher quality by the end of the year, according to the Abu Dhabi Department of Transport. Next year, the department plans to have buses making 2,000 trips a day on 21 routes on the island. By 2010, there will be 1,360 air-conditioned buses operating in the emirate.
* The National