Abu Dhabi, a rapidly-growing city

Abu Dhabi, a rapidly-growing city

The third in a series of reflections from the travels of a 34-year veteran Traffic Engineer from the New Jersey Department of Transportation.  Gary Toth, who had previously never been abroad, spent a week in the United Arab Emirates capital city of Abu Dhabi. He found the city to be rapidly positioning itself to become one of the most progressive and sustainable transportation networks.

Abu Dhabi is a city of almost 900,000 people. It has grown remarkably since 1960, when it was a village of 25,000 based on camel herding, pearl diving fishing and farming.  Then it was learned that Abu Dhabi – currently one of the seven emirates comprising the nation of the United Arab Emirates – was sitting on one tenth of the world’s oil reserves.

Abu Dhabi grew slowly at first.   With most of its growth after 1975, Abu Dhabi is a modern city that grew during the height and glory of the automobile era.  With endless and cheap oil, it was logical that the city planners saw no need for transit, walkability or other non automobile modes.  Interestingly, availability of cheap and abundant energy fueled Abu Dhabi’s growth much in the same way that it did for America in the 1950s and 1960s, when America was the world’s leading oil producer. Transit was deemed irrelevant, inconvenient and restricting, and the city was built on a backbone of wide, modern boulevards laid out on a super block type grid.   The downtown core consists of a multitude of 20 story or more buildings fronting on these boulevards.

Although their super blocks are very porous and contain low density buildings laid out on a grid, the grid is not connected well across the broad boulevards and much of the carrying capacity of the internal streets has been clogged by illegal but municipally tolerated parking.  The net result is the same as it has been for every other automobile oriented city in the world: cars and more cars, queued up 18 hours a day.

Inside a downtown superblock.  Note “illegal” row of parking in middle of the street.

Inside a downtown superblock. Note “illegal” row of parking in middle of the street.

With the downtown core at capacity, smaller satellite centers started springing up wherever there was space.  To its credit, Abu Dhabi recognized the unsustainability of continuing to base its growth solely on the car and cheap energy without planning to minimize congestion, conservation of natural resources and energy. The city is now planning for a sustainable new future.  In September 2007, it released Plan Abu Dhabi 2030, which calls for new national performance measures that respect natural resources, the fragile environment, air quality and livability.  A nation that has abundant oil has called to “…cautiously use existing wealth, to actively explore renewable energy production, to reduce the consumption of non renewable resources…”

This release was rapidly followed by the development of a new Urban Street Design Manual (SDM), due for publication in August of this year.  I was fortunate to have played a small part in it this past June, with the lion’s share of the work having been done by their Department of Transport, their Urban Planning Council and a consultant team led by Otak International and Nelson Nygaard.   The SDM pays homage to the AASHTO Green Book – America’s universally accepted design reference and highway design guidelines.  While thanking them for serving as the foundation for design of the current transportation network in Abu Dhabi, they found it lacking to serve as a guide for “…urban streets where modes of transportation other than the automobile are present.”

The new SDM will be founded on the following community based principles:

  1. Good street design starts with pedestrians. The world’s great cities are delightful and safe for walking, resulting not only in reduced rates of driving but also improved public health.
  2. Street design supports reducing Abu Dhabi’s CO2 emissions, urban heat island effect and water consumption.
  3. Street connectivity enhances capacity and allows smooth traffic flow.
  4. Street design follows from place. Streets are not just for movement, but for supporting the land uses along them, including the enjoyment of residents and economic success of businesses.

Wow!

A city with abundant oil and the ensuing wealth to accomplish whatever it pleases has decided to turn the corner.  A city that continues to grow in leaps and bounds in spite of escalating congestion and inadequate infrastructure has decided to reinvent itself based on placemaking and sustainability. Why can’t we do the same in the US?

Of course, I am not naïve, and there are some obvious answers that others will offer:

  1. Abu Dhabi does not have to face the political gauntlet to get things done.  Although my experience working with Abu Dhabi government in June reveals that they are open to ideas and input, the truth of the matter is that they don’t have navigate the grueling politics of America to get things accomplished.
  2. Abu Dhabi is in a much sounder financial position based on the nationalization of their oil reserves.  This will make a difference when it comes to rightsizing, retrofitting and traffic calming existing roads, as well as creating the transit backbone of the future Abu Dhabi.
  3. Abu Dhabi is so new as a major city that its bureaucracies have not had the time to develop an entrenched culture.

While the Untied States will certainly have to face these obstacles, there is no doubt in my mind that many can turn the corner here in America as well.  To do so, it will be necessary for those of us who recognize the need to change start working together to frame the issues in a way that encourages our political system to line up behind the national interest.   The myriad of non profits, philanthropic funders and private sector folks who are all pushing the proverbial cart in the same direction will have to roll up our sleeves and find a way to finally and totally align our missions.  We will have to work together to take advantage of the Federal Highway Administration’s Livable Communities Initiative.

If we sit back and watch Abu Dhabi, the Netherlands, Denmark and other countries of the world adapt to the new world order and position themselves to be world leaders, by default, America will be relegated to the “second world.”

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