Pedestrians defenseless against car friendly city

Abu Dhabi is all about cars. As transportation or overt status symbols, it is hard to imagine the city without them. But not everyone drives. NYU Abu ...

Sep 28, 2013

Abu Dhabi is all about cars. As transportation or overt status symbols, it is hard to imagine the city without them. But not everyone drives. NYU Abu Dhabi students are one of the few groups in the city who do not have access to an automobile.
For what is the most common day-to-day journey — Sama Tower to the Downtown Campus — walking would be largely appropriate, but few take the journey by foot. Abu Dhabi is designed in such a way that walking short distances is frowned upon, if not actively discouraged. To go one step further, cycling is almost impossible by design. Surprisingly, people still walk and bike, challenging Abu Dhabi’s auto-centered focus.
There is no denying that Abu Dhabi is hot — but for eight months of the year, the daily mean is below 30 degrees Celcius. However, this is not the temperature that we feel. The stored heat in bitumen and asphalt can increase an urban area’s temperature by 5 degrees Celcius compared to natural areas. The lack of incidental greenery in Abu Dhabi intensifies the urban heat island effect, and walled-off parks do little to alleviate it. Additionally, the auto-based culture encourages people to stay in their cars, air conditioning blasting, hitting any passersby with a wall of even hotter air.
The priority given to cars is clear in drivers’ constant marginalization of pedestrians. The wide boulevards that surround every superblock push pedestrians away from the main streets. The intersections, usually the only places to cross, are at least 400 meters apart — often farther. Unfortunately, if you see something interesting on the other side of the street, you may have to walk a kilometer or more to get to it. Within the superblock, you are not safe either: the primary purpose of the internal superblock is parking — and lots of it.
Don’t even think about a crosswalk in which cars must yield to pedestrians. Instead, one must wait for a break in traffic or until the occasional courteous driver acts out of patience or pity. The places where pedestrians will cross frequently do not figure into the planning of Abu Dhabi. Outside Al Muna Primary School, kids must challenge the traffic of their surroundings, even if they are being rushed into a waiting SUV.
This is not just the incidental design of the pavements; jaywalking is criminalized, and if a pedestrian is hit, it’s their fault, not the driver’s. This is laughable when the urban design forces people to cross four-lane highways. For example, Al-Ittihad square spits pedestrians straight onto Airport Road with no option but to dance with death and perhaps be penalized for it. It is no surprise then that NYUAD students take the bus for 10 minutes instead of walking for 15 minutes.
Although it might seem like a death wish, it is not uncommon to see cycling as a mode of transportation in Abu Dhabi. Cycling is clearly not intended to be a part of Abu Dhabi's transportation mix. Officially, bikes are either toys to be played with on the Corniche or a way of exercising on the Yas Circuit. There are no cycle lanes or paths that connect with anywhere, and there is little, if any, respect given by drivers. Despite this, cyclists abound, especially in communities that are marginalized by Abu Dhabi society. Bicycles situated around buildings are signals of those who are separated from a community that paradoxically needs and excludes them.
These two forms of transport are the most basic and accessible across income levels. Cycling and walking are both efficient, clean and healthy. Ultimately, streets are for people, all people, whether they can afford a car or not. There is a phenomenon called critical mass in places like Beirut, Pakistan and Cairo, where cyclists take to the streets in support of more bike-friendly cities. To walk between DTC and Sama indicates a student’s willingness to experience life in Abu Dhabi at street level. We have the Plan Abu Dhabi 2030 and its platitudes towards sustainability, but it remains to be seen how this plan will overcome the ingrained car-usage in this city that we might call home.
Connor Pearce is deputy opinion editor. Email him at 
A previous version of this article neglected to specify that critical mass is a worldwide cycling movement. 
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