Dubai’s road network has grown by 50 per cent in the last eight years, but traffic density is still high. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

Dubai: The launch of the Nol card’s discounted packages by Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) on Tuesday is an important step towards encouraging the public to use the advanced and increasingly integrated public transport system and reduce traffic congestion in the city.

However, experts and RTA officials stress that it needs more than discounted public transport tariffs to solve the chronic traffic congestion, which has direct and indirect negative consequences on the economy and the population.

According to the latest figures made available by RTA, the authority has spent a massive Dh60 billion since 2006 to upgrade the road networks in the city, build the first Metro system in the region and overhaul its bus and marine transport operations. On November 11, the Dubai Tram starts operations in the Jumeirah Beach Residence area. Currently, 13 per cent of residents in Dubai use public transport. The RTA’s goal is to raise that to 30 per cent.

The UAE was ranked first in the world for quality of road networks on the Global Competitiveness Index (GCI) for 2014-2015. According to an RTA official, Dubai’s road network has grown by 50 per cent in the last eight years.

“Every year we calculate the amount saved or lost due to traffic congestion by comparing the project we did and the impact it could have on traffic if we didn’t do a certain project,” said Nasser Abu Shehab, Director of RTA’s Strategic Planning Department.

“We have seen traffic growing in a few areas. Dubai’s time travel index is increasing overall, which shows that we are facing more congestion with the passage of time,” he added.

Abu Shehab said that Dubai will continue to invest in infrastructure, while at the same time RTA is “considering legislations and policies” that will encourage use of public transport and impose certain restriction on the use of private cars.

“Congestion will remain an issue unless we try to tackle it with out-of-the box solutions, including policies and legislations” that would address the rising number of cars on the roads and the movement of cars at certain times on vital arteries in Dubai, another senior official at RTA said.

The number of cars registered in Dubai has almost doubled in recent years, jumping from 740,000 in 2006 to 1,360,000 in September 2014, with an average of 2.3 cars per family — one of the highest in the world. Hundreds of thousands more enter the city weekly from other emirates and neighbouring countries. Dubai has a population of 2.2 million, with an additional 1 million visiting Dubai daily, at least half of them in private vehicles.

Obviously, the rate of growth in the road infrastructure will not match the spiralling number of road users, considering the fast growth in the country’s economy and the millions of visitors to Dubai and other emirates every year.

The congestion has a direct economic cost due to delays on the roads, increase in the spending of road building and maintenance and traffic accidents. There are also other indirect impacts on the population, the official said, such as health issue due to increase of stress levels or accident injuries, among other issues.

A road design expert, who declined to be named, said there are a number of “creative solutions” to reduce congestion drastically but they would involve UAE-wide legislation. He suggests “flexible school working hours”. If schools start one hour later than now, for example, that would reduce the number of school buses on the roads during peak rush hours in the morning. However, such a suggestion needs a unified UAE rule since it involves public schools too.

“Heavy usage of the roads could very well be regulated also in cooperation with the private sector to allow for different office hours,” he added.

Another suggestion raised by RTA officials in recent years calls for the ‘decommissioning’ of vehicles older than 20 years. That means pre-1995 models would not be registered. That would reduce the number of cars on the roads and reduce the usual congestion often caused by broken old cars. That will also help in improving the environment by allowing only new and energy-efficient vehicles on the road. Again, this needs a unified cross-country policy.

“Congestion is a real issue but it can be solved with a certain degree of alignment of policies and legislations aimed at regulating the usage of the road,” an RTA official said, pointing out that there is an urgent need to tackle the issue immediately since the UAE is preparing to host major events including the Dubai 2020 Expo. Officials expect 25 million people to visit the expo that will run for six months.

— With inputs from Shafaat Shahbandari, Staff Reporter