Roads to nowhere

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DUBAI: “First Salik violator spotted,” read a prominent headline on one Gulf daily last month. It led into a description of how a renegade Nissan Altima driver had been caught on CCTV crossing one of Dubai’s new toll gates without the requisite badge, just minutes after the system came online at midnight on July 1.

Salik has been gripping the nation for some time — and not just due to the lack of more interesting local news. The new road toll system, which is the first in the Gulf and one of a handful in the Arab world, has found itself at the center of much controversy and criticism.

In short, it works by scanning vehicles at two toll gates on the city’s main drag, Sheikh Zayed Road, charging a little over $1 a time. If drivers want to use the tolled roads, they buy credit for a special badge which is fixed to the windscreen. If you don’t have a badge, you pay a $27 fine every time you go under a toll. You are a Salik violator.

The scheme is expected to generate annual revenues of about $160 million for its creators, the Road and Transportation Authority (RTA), although it is unclear what proportion of that will come from legitimate use and what proportion from fines.

But whatever its business model, the new system’s purported aim is an ambitious one: to tackle some world-class traffic problems in one of the most rapidly-growing cities on earth.

A recent survey found that the average commuter spends one hour and 45 minutes in traffic everyday, a statistic which made Dubai the most congested city in the Arab world. Cairo took second prize. Another study claims that $1.2 billion is lost from the Emirate’s economy every year due to traffic inefficiencies, and that the resulting stress is having a negative impact on the productivity of employees.

Something, then, needed to be done. But Salik has come under heavy fire from many quarters. Many say it has actually made congestion worse, cramming up smaller streets with queues of motorists unwilling to pay for the convenience of the main roads. Cynics say it is another stealth tax imposed by the authorities. Car rental agencies moan that they are losing business and suffering from a constant headache of administrative paperwork.

Others complain that Salik, like many other things in Dubai which sound very sophisticated, just doesn’t function properly. Irate drivers say that customer helplines are constantly busy, that they receive erroneous text messages about the amount of credit in their Salik accounts, and that some have been charged without ever using the tolls. The Salik website has apparently been receiving over a million hits a day, which could make it a fortune in advertising if its owners signed up to Google.

A lot of these issues are probably teething troubles which might iron themselves out over time. And, for now, the newly-tolled roads are less crowded than they used to be at the peak times of day. Yet it’s difficult to see how Salik, or indeed anything, can hope to permanently solve Dubai’s traffic problem.

This is a place where cars are cheap, petrol virtually costs less than water and having an expensive set of wheels is essential. Everyone is too busy making money to care about the environment, and the threat of global warming becomes slightly meaningless to those used to the climate in the Arabian Gulf.

But the real problem, and the reason why introducing Salik at this time makes so little sense, is that there is no practical alternative to driving. Taxis don’t solve anything. You can’t walk anywhere. And the few bus services that exist are unreliable, unpunctual and extremely hot. How can you hope to persuade the western expat to give up his Audi, the Lebanese housewife her Porsche Cayenne or the Emirati his Land Cruiser in favor of a sweaty communal cabin?

The Dubai Metro is currently under construction, and, once it comes into service in 2009, will surely be used widely. It would have been more sensible to postpone Salik until then, offering a practical alternative to driving, but even the metro’s appeal will be limited. It is difficult to imagine a suited executive walking to a metro station to commute to the office, as he would in London, for instance. Weather, the layout of the city, and inflated egos all preclude that in Dubai.

So if there is no way of reducing the number of cars on the roads, then maybe the answer is to build more roads. The RTA says that it is spending about $12 billion on trying to solve traffic problems, that a total of 100 lanes will run across Dubai’s creek by 2020 and that more bus routes will be launched.

Even so, all this will take time, and the never-ending population growth means that Dubai’s traffic woes aren’t going anywhere. As for Salik, it just seems to be one more thing for the city’s residents to moan about.