Thursday, August 10, 2006

Taxi 1

They are yellow and white in Abu Dhabi--cheap, plentiful, almost always available and the driver usually knows exactly where to go. Who would complain?

They often smell bad (the drivers, the cars--take your pick) and are frequently driven kamikaze-style. The drivers are sometimes rude, speak little English (or even Arabic it seems) and don't usually make for very pleasant conversation anyway. Even worse, for women there is the likelihood of getting ogled.

There is an alternative. They are white with a little green--but they are expensive, only camp out at hotels and other haunts for the moneyed, may not know how to get to your destination, and lest I forget to mention, they are expensive--like 3 to 5 times that of the yellow and white. So, give me the yellow and white. I'll fasten my seat belt tightly and cover my nose and ears a bit.

Public Transport?

The yellow and white have been in operation in Abu Dhabi since I arrived in 2000 and it would appear for many years prior. (Drivers will often tell you that they have been at it for 10 to 20 years.) They are so ubiquitous, one would think that Abu Dhabi had a very well-coordinated fleet of municipal taxis.

Although they do not belong to the city, they are relied upon by its residents as a de facto form of public transport. The fee for a ride is often equivalent to what one pays to ride a bus in other cities of the world. Seventy cents (US) to a dollar fifty to go just about anywhere within the city--door to door. It's hard to beat that.

Abu Dhabi does have a bus system but it is the epitome of uselessness. On the one hand there are what appear to be bus stops all along the city's main streets. These streets are wide, straight and all in a clear grid-like pattern--so, easy to accommodate an efficient public transport system, right? Right. But does it happen? In one's dreams. What there is, for all intents and purposes, are unmarked buses stealthily plying unannounced routes.

Although there is some indication that they are municipality buses due to recognizable color patterns and painted-on symbols, these vehicles have no visible signage or route numbers except for the tiniest of handwritten posts in their front windows--in Arabic only--indicating some sort of destination.

Actual routes are unexplained, also with no signs or markings at what appear to be bus stops. No indication is given of when or even whether buses will actually stop at these otherwise, perfectly situated stops. In similar fashion there is a huge, somewhat ghastly eyesore of a bus terminal on the edge of city center open 24-hours, again with no route numbers or markings posted and no information obtainable except for the grumpy response of a grumpy clerk when one asks specific questions.

The public transport system in Abu Dhabi is in a word, pointless.

Who Wants to Play the Fool?

Even the laborers, who are usually more efficient than others at finding out how things work at ground level, have no use for this system. With fares at only 30 cents within the city and at around 90 cents to more outlying districts, it is the most economical option. But few fools will stand around and wait for or try to decipher a system that dares anyone to actually understand, much less use it.

There is, for example, one such route between the city and the airport. To my knowledge (not very easily obtained) it ploughs this 35-kilometer, 30-40 minute route in either direction once every hour, 24 hours a day, at a cost of just Dhs 3 (90 cents). It is a large bus, always more than half-empty.

So, why don't people utilize this cheap, efficient form of transportation to and from the airport. Try no markings on the buses to indicate that such a service exists, no signage at either the airport or the bus terminal indicating same, and the grumpy response one gets whenever asking for details from anyone who looks like they might know.

I don't mind playing the role of the fool on occasion and have waited around for the municipality bus on several, including on trips to and from the airport. It was always a thrill to see a bus actually pull up, let you get in and then take you to where you wanted to go. That moment of achievement is almost worth the trouble of bothering with such a pathetic system.

Why the coyness?

The city has the aforementioned public bus service. A recent improvement has been the provision of and clear marking of buses that ply the Abu Dhabi/Dubai route, at a cost of about Dhs 15 (4 dollars). There are also buses that run between Abu Dhabi and other towns in the emirate--like Al Ain, Tarif, etc. that are used even to capacity. All of these buses ply intercity routes with no intermediate stops (except for sometimes letting people off, when they request, at odd spots along the highway). As for inner-city transport, one must rely on the yellow and white.

The reason for this, it appears, is that these ubiquitous yellow and white taxis are owned by nationals and provide for them a ready source of income and profit. Not so for the drivers, unfortunately, who bear all the costs of fuel and vehicle maintenance while being restricted to charging minimal fares. The owner collects a set fee of say Dhs 2500 (680 dollars) per month from the driver--with no expenses apart from the purchase price of the vehicle.

The drivers, meanwhile, don't earn enough to afford, for example, clean or comfortable housing, thus the unpleasant odors. The city strictly enforces a cap on prices, most likely to negate its responsibility to provide an efficient transport service.

As for the no excuse of a bus system that does exist, not only do authorities not want to disturb the profitable businesses that national owners are operating, but, like many master-planned systems, the master-planners of Abu Dhabi seldom manage to get things right despite having all the cash resources one could ever hope for.

It is either a fault of design-by-committee where too many heads in the mix results in the poorest of compromises, or it is more likely a case of no one daring to challenge the decrees of the man--therefore even the most unworkable and impractical of solutions gets passed along.


There were announcements in late 2005 that all of the yellow and white would be replaced by a fleet of municipal taxis. There were ads in the newspaper calling for drivers. The hard working, much derided but sorely needed drivers of the yellow and white were to be unceremoniously shipped back to where they had come from--mostly Pakistan's Pashtoon region and Afghanistan. An era in Abu Dhabi was about to come to an end.

This was all supposed to happen by an announced date in early 2006. The date came and went and nothing happened. People had already begun to debate the merits and demerits of the plan. "Finally, clean and polite drivers," some said. "Oh no, more of the Gazelle (white and green company) and Dubai-like high fares," others complained.

Apparently the powers that be, that rule by decree, had had a change of heart. The yellow and white would continue to ply the roads--the drivers once again secure in their jobs, miserable as they were, and the riders once again assured the lowest of fares, unbearable as the rides could sometimes be.
1277 words
Open a printable copy, in a new window.
Taxi 2 (in Dubai), coming soon.


For those who haven't already discovered it the hard way, the so-called Taxi Stand (beside the large Bus Stand) does not actually offer taxis. That is, the taxis there function only as inter-city, not inner city transport. So, arrive at the Taxi Stand from, say Dubai, on a mini-bus or taxi and get ready to switch to a local taxi to get around town. Think again, i.e. abandon all logic. Haul your heavy luggage out to the street in the 40°C heat and try to flag a taxi down. Hey, it's Abu Dhabi!

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dubai is a heaven for qualified professionals. Good income, but, Taxi s are known for bad smell, dirty drivers, spitting and chewing hashish ! rude also. So want the money, you swallow the bitterness. No one cares as locals are rich and seldom use taxi s. Locals are also polite, and in good mood all the time. But under that politeness, lies some good negotiators.