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A young rider on his horse on the Dubai Abu Dhabi highway road - 16/12/1987 Image Credit:

Dubai: In the early days after the formation of the UAE, the country only had a few vehicles and even fewer roads. In fact, there were more camels than cars on the roads. This is a valuable insight if we are to look back at how the UAE has developed its road network over the years and how the nation strives to define the future of transport.

There was no Sheikh Zayed Road yet in 1971. The new Dubai-Abu Dhabi Road — constructed between 1970 to 1973 — was more of a tarmac than a two-lane highway and it had no lighting. Various reports said travel time between the two emirates was around four hours or approximately four times slower than today. Motorists could not drive fast as they always had to watch out for camels passing by. Driving at night, dusk or dawn was dangerous as there was practically no road lighting. Traffic congestion was not heard of back in the day but there was also no driving standard and road discipline was poor. More dangerously, several accidents were recorded due to wandering camels.

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From the Trade Centre, looking south along the Abu Dhabi Road (now Sheikh Zayed Road). The Trade Centre apartments are the only buildings on the left of the road (in front of where Dubai International Finance Centre, DIFC, now stands), and only the Al Rostamani Towers (closer) and the ˜Toyota building (further away) are on the right (all still standing in 2009). In the distance to the right the low-cost housing of Satwa has spread out over the sand. Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

If super cars are a common sight along Dubai’s sleek and well-paved highways today, the only way to get around back in the 1970s and early 1980s were by off-road vehicles, sturdy taxis and trucks. Early residents and locals said: “Vehicles travelling between Dubai and Abu Dhabi followed sand tracks along the beachline with the ever present risk of becoming lost or stuck in sand.” Old-time travellers said they relied on taxi drivers, who were the experts in navigating the sand tracks and highly-experienced in avoiding road problems.

It was really perilous to experience a vehicle breakdown and be stranded in the middle of the road — or desert. There was no immediate help to tow the vehicle and there were no mobile phones one could use to call for help. Motorists relied on ham radios and a wayside driver would need great luck to find another passing vehicle for immediate rescue.

Fast forward

The Dubai-Abu Dhabi Highway was completed in 1980 and became part of E11, which is currently the longest road in the entire UAE — connecting Abu Dhabi to Ras Al Khaimah. But rapid changes happened only in the 1990s and early 2000s when the UAE saw a construction boom. The highway was further developed into a major arterial road and widened to four lanes on each side as it became vital for the regional logistics industry.

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The Dubai-Abu Road is now called Sheikh Zayed Road and is now part of E11 — currently the longest road in the entire UAE. Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

It is also important to note that during this period — in 1997 to be exact — the idea of the Dubai Metro was first brought up as the city was planning a solution to meet the increasing traffic needs and leaders said it would be unwise to rely entirely on regular road transport system.

Dubai’s road and rail network

So, how did a nation of only 50 years fare in developing its road and rail network? Let’s look at Dubai in particular. The Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) told Gulf News, the emirate has a total of 18,255-km road network by end of 2020.

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The first interchange on Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai. The emirate has a seamlessly integrated road and rail network. Image Credit: WAM/Gulf News Archives

But the main highlight of its mass transit system is the Dubai Metro. RTA said: “To keep pace with its rapid urban development, an international company was appointed in 2003 to design Dubai Metro according to the highest international standards in the rail industry.” The plan was set in motion on May 29, 2005, when Dubai Municipality signed a Dh12.45 billion contract with Dubai Rapid Link and construction work officially began on March 21, 2006.

RTA noted: “The ground-breaking ceremony in 2006 marked the start of the Dubai Metro construction across a stretch of 75km from north to south along Sheikh Zayed Road, and west to east along the Airport Road and Al Nahda Road.”

Metro’s first trip

On September 9, 2009 — at exactly the 9th second of the 9th minute at 9pm — His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, officially announced the start of the operations of the region’s first and world’s longest driverless metro rail transport system.

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RTA described the Dubai Metro as one of the most iconic projects and the first of its kind in the Middle East. Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

RTA described the Dubai Metro as one of the most iconic projects and the first of its kind in the Middle East. “The opening of Dubai Metro’s Red Line — which was initially 52 kms in length and with 29 stations — marked the new era of public transport in Dubai,” it added. Two years later on September 9, 2011, Dubai Metro Green Line was inaugurated, adding 23 kms to Dubai’s rail network.

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On September 9, 2011, Dubai Metro Green Line was inaugurated, adding 23 kms to Dubai’s rail network. Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

Another major milestone in Dubai’s rail transit network was Dubai Tram. The light rail transit system was inaugurated by Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and Chairman of the Executive Council, on November 11, 2014. It has been serving the high-density tourist areas in Dubai with its total rail length of 10.6km and 11 stations, extending from Dubai Marina (Jumeirah Beach Residence) area to Al Sufouh. According to RTA, the total number of metro and tram riders is about 210 million riders per year.

Route 2020

RTA recalled: “After Dubai won the hosting rights for the Expo2020 event, the extension on Dubai Metro Red Line — called Route 2020 — was initiated immediately. The total length of Route 2020 is 15 kms and the project has increased the total rail transit network of Dubai (Metro + Tram) to 100km. Route 2020 is not only a convenient public transport for visitors of Expo 2020 Dubai, it will also serve as a vital corridor between Dubai communities and Al Maktoum International Airport in the future,” RTA added.

Inter-emirate bus services

Meanwhile, RTA’s intercity bus services from Dubai to Sharjah, Ajman and Fujairah were launched in 1997. Public buses to Ras Al Khaimah started in 2001 and the first bus trip to Abu Dhabi was rolled out in 2005. Dubai Metro feeder buses began operations in September 2009 and through the years, the RTA has introduced more routes and expanded its intercity bus services.

Bus-on-demand services were introduced in February 2020. After the initial launch of the services in five areas across Dubai, the expansion in other areas was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Eventually, services opened in the other areas and RTA noted that monthly ridership has risen consistently, with 261,000 aggregate ridership until the middle of 2021.

Moving forward

To sum up, the UAE has radically transformed its road and transport network in the last 50 years — from sand dunes to desert tracks; asphalt roads, tarmac to superhighways, smooth flyovers and rail tracks.

The UAE now is also a catalyst for new modes of transportation. While a few decades ago, it would take someone around four hours to traverse the 140km distance between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, soon it can be cut to just 12 minutes because of the hyperloop transport technology that authorities are promoting.

Green mobility is also high on the agenda of the UAE. The RTA noted it has adopted a road map to transform 30 per cent of public transport in Dubai to electric and hydrogen vehicles.

Dubai has also put in place micromobility or first and last mile solutions, including the pilot run of electrical scooter services in five locations across the city.

Future of mobility

RTA told Gulf News: “We not only look into the future of mobility, but we aim to shape the future of mobility that suits Dubai. In the future, we will have other modes, including self-driving transport. We will convert 25 per cent of trips using autonomous transportation by 2030. We have already piloted many modes like shuttles and taxis.”

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The flying taxi had a pilot run in 2017. Image Credit: WAM/Gulf News Archives

One highly-anticipated venture people are excited to experience are the flying taxis — to which the RTA said: “We had a pilot run in 2017, and we aim to introduce the service in Dubai in the near future.” This would be a crowning glory for the UAE to completely transform its transport system from camels of yesteryears to flying cars in the future.