Abu Dhabi transport chiefs have officially embraced car pooling for the first time, as part of a drive to reduce the number of vehicles on the roads.
The Department of Transport launched a new online system that encourages motorists to sign up and offer lifts to strangers, friends and work colleagues, ahead of the introduction of new toll gates on all routes in and out of Abu Dhabi island on Tuesday.
Those signing up to the new Uber and Careem-like platform can either look for rides or offer them, with the system relying on good Samaritans who are keen to help cut carbon emissions.
It could also help people save money by splitting costs of petrol or the new toll charges, the Department for Transport said.
Charging for a ride itself will remain illegal, although sharing the cost of fuel and other expenses will be permitted, according to information published on the website. This means that while drivers will not be able to make a profit, they will be able to reduce their expenses.
The move marks a partial reversal in Abu Dhabi authorities' stance on car pooling, which they had previously warned was illegal and could lead to fines and vehicles being impounded, in an effort to discourage illegal taxis.
Ride-sharing had proven popular in major US cities and had potential to encourage carpooling in the UAE, said Saif Jabari, an assistant professor of civil and urban engineering at New York University Abu Dhabi.
Competitive costs, which are agreed in advance for each trip, make-ride sharing attractive alternatives to taxis.
He said how the carpooling system is implemented would be vital.
“The short answer as to why people share their vehicles is additional income.” he said. "Incentivising drivers to participate and use their vehicles is critical.
"This makes sense: transportation systems here are dominated by automobiles. The roads are great and the cars are nice.
"But ride-sharing competes with other modes of transport and taxis. Users will have to believe that carpooling is an easy option and for transit to succeed, it has to be competitive."
The new platform launched online by the Department of Transport includes a tool to help people calculate how much they will save in terms of cash, but also carbon emissions, in an attempt to take advantage of growing public awareness of the need to protect the environment.
Transport bosses say the new toll gates, which go live on Tuesday, October 15, are part of efforts to reduce the number of cars on the road and therefore carbon emissions, which have risen in Abu Dhabi over recent years. Passing the gates will cost Dh4 at peak times and Dh2 in off-peak hours.
However, some have pointed out that there is a lack of public transport in Abu Dhabi, meaning some people have little alternative to using their cars.
Recently, there have also been reports of a clampdown on cycling, with some claiming their bikes have been seized by police as part of what authorities said was a safety drive.
The roll-out of an official car pooling platform is an attempt to offer more options for people travelling in the capital, other than driving themselves, while the city's bus fleet has also been expanded.
A new website offering the car pooling service requires motorists to upload images of the Emirates ID and driving licence. They are then vetted before they are accepted onto the system. They will then be allowed to offer lifts, with others able to search for rides on an interactive map.
While individuals will be able to offer lifts to strangers, closed private groups can be created between groups of friends. Businesses can also set up their own closed groups, allowing employees to take part in an internal car pooling scheme.
The Department of Transport has said this can reduce employee stress, boost workplace morale and help workers save money.
Alerts can be set up so a user is notified when they are offered a lift.
In its pitch to motorists to sign up, the Department for Transport states: “Are you a driver with empty seats in your car? Is driving alone tedious? Do you want to be more sustainable? Would you like to offer a ride to someone travelling in the same direction?
“Introduce meeting points of your journey into carpooling and they will be displayed on an interactive map easy to find for other users.”
Preferences around languages, levels of comfort of vehicles, smoking and whether animals use the car can also be set to match drivers and passengers.
On the costs of carpooling, the website states: "Charging money for the ride itself is illegal; however, carpoolers can share the cost of the ride such as fuel and parking expenses… etc.
"If the car owner requests a payment from you, please report it through this carpooling website, and provide details of what happened for us to take the right action."