So what is the public bus system in Dubai really like? Well, for one, a sweeping generalization is probably not really possible. It seems there are lots of complaints by regular users, yet on some level the bus system is pretty impressive. If nothing else, I don't think anyone can deny that it is ever improving.
On the upside the new buses are quite amazing and there would appear to be a great number of them. Most it would seem are either those long double-buses--buses with long appendages--or genuine double-decker buses of an ultra-modern variety. Who can complain when one of these pulls up and it's your bus!
But therein lie two of the problems. Does the bus actually pull up? Buses often seem to zoom past without any intention of stopping. Presumably they're full, but one wonders, and one can get extremely frustrated when bus number two, three and four zooms past without stopping. The second problem is is it your bus. Another great frustration is seeing that second, third and fourth bus pull up but it isn't your number.
Now again on the upside there are an increasing number of air-conditioned bus shelters. It would seem there are dozens, probably over a hundred around the city. I haven't heard many expressions of appreciation for these, but it is only now, since the shelters were first erected, that the weather is starting to get really hot. I think bus riders will soon start to count their blessings.
So, you've got some incredibly modern and impressive buses on the roads and air-conditioned bus shelters. Why then all the long faces?
An Unsystematic System
There is a bit more to the downside than the anecdotal reports of long waits and buses that zoom by. There is very little information to assist riders at either the bus stops or on the running buses. What routes exactly do the buses take--how about a decent map? What are the upcoming stops, for passengers sitting on the buses?
If not a frequent rider then it's all guess work. Worst of all is the fact that the posted timings at the bus stops appear to be in large measure fiction. Somewhere there appears to be a serious system breakdown, where drivers couldn't care less about schedules, supervisors don't monitor or control anything or the posted schedules are, in fact, just fiction. This, it seems, is where the greatest frustration lies among riders. This is what makes the bus system still in many ways impracticable.
Now, interestingly there is one issue that I seldom hear bus riders talk about--prices. It costs a flat 2 dirham to take any bus to anywhere. It's simple and reasonably cheap. That's 54 US cents. There is also an unlimited use bus pass which costs US$27 per month. So cost is not an issue.
The Big Picture
Those who do complain are often regular users, so they would seem to have valid issues. That said, one should look at the bigger picture. From a bird's-eye view what you have is a very scattered city, sort of Los Angeles-like but probably worse. There are two older sections of the city which straddle the Creek--a wide, water inlet that bisects the older part of the city. This consists of a traditional city layout which a normal bus system might easily serve. Beyond these two districts, however, is where the problems begin.
One source of problems is the great Sheikh Zayed Road, which starts at the edge of the traditional city and stretches on for 40+ kilometers before finally reaching the city iimits. Not only is this 40 kilometer stretch an issue, but the two sides of the highway are, practically speaking, as cut-off from one another as if the highway were a grande river. SZR is basically a super-expressway, but unlike the traditional superhighway, it is lined on either side with tower blocks of residences and offices, shopping centers, showrooms, etc. which means that one is always going to have something to do on one side or the other and more commonly both. Yet there is no way to traverse the two sides by bus--and certainly not on foot. If without one's own car then one can look at spending $5-10 just to get to the other side in a taxi.
The other problems are due to the numerous far-flung sections of the city, those along SZR being only one set among several. This is perhaps very much like Los Angeles. One's errands are likely to be scattered about 30 kilometers in one direction, then 40 in another and then another 50 to get back to where you started. When it comes to the daily commute between home and office, 50-70 kilometer runs each way is the norm for the many workers who can't afford to live in Dubai and have to travel cross-emirate. (My own daily commute is 150 kilometers each way.)
Under these circumstance the bus-network is severely challenged. Thankfully, the opening of the first metro line is but a few months away.