Friday, November 12, 2010

The Dubai Metro - My Experience

Last week I did something that I have wanted to do for a long time now… I used the Dubai metro to get to and from work. The Dubai metro opened for passengers on September 9, 2009 – yes, 9/9/9. It is special technology from Japan and different reports say it cost anywhere from 4 to 7 billion US dollars. Not cheap.

So I decided since it is there, and I live relatively close to a station and they recently opened the station near my office, I should give it a try. After all, I loved taking the metro when I lived in Istanbul. I was so excited when that finally opened that one friend said I was speaking of the metro as if it were my lover! My 45-minute door-to-door metro journey was better than the alternative 2-hour, 5-kilometer (3-mile) car journey at rush hour. There is a lot to be said for gaining one to two hours of your day, and anyone or anything that can do that is magical!

I left my home at the usual time I would if I were driving. One thing I noticed was the ode to camel smell outside our complex. Way on the other side of the road there are some camels. I don’t know if they race them, milk them or what, but they have just recently started to not smell so pleasant. Conclusion: camels should be seen, not smelled. Finally after about five minutes, I am far enough away that the wind is blowing a different direction. Meanwhile, I am just hoping I do not carry that perfume to work with me.

I notice that even though our fall is here, it is a little warm. In other cities you would have more buildings shading you, or more trees creating a breeze. No breeze in newly landscaped areas. I know this will change as the trees continue to grow.

While it seems like the station should be close to me, it took me 30-minutes to walk there. I am a bit annoyed because I would be very settled in one of the few hot desks at work by now. If all goes well, I usually get there in about 20-minutes by car. But I committed to doing this, so I keep going.

I also notice during the walk, there is pretty much no one else walking. I am in a strange sort of ghost town with moving vehicles around me. It’s like that film from the 1980’s, Night of the Comet. A comet hits the earth and everyone is wiped out except a few teenagers. I feel like one of those teenagers. (If you have not seen this movie, you are not missing anything.)

Not only were there no people, there were no shops, nothing. Just building. Concrete. I passed the Dubai Mall and Burj Khalifa and the surrounding offices. The shops, the people, the sights and activities of a city – the daily nuances of street life – there is none. With the exception of some workers putting up what seems to be new street lamps that are in the shape of the Burj, no one else.

One thing I anticipated was the very small side walks in some areas. I always observed this when the media announced a metro was underway. Dubai is not a walking city. How would people walk in critical areas where the sidewalks are so small without getting clipped by one of the speeding cars? Well, I guess the answer is through luck and a lot of inshallah – God willing, you won’t get hit kind of logic.

I debate if the station in the other direction would have been closer. Perhaps, but there is still a lot of construction there and no sidewalks what so ever. I would have been road kill for sure.

Finally, I make it to the station. My heart sank for a brief second. I saw two pieces of paper posted on the door. My first thought, it’s closed. And why would I think it was open – there were no people! As I got closer, the doors opened as an employee came out. Yeah! So in I go.

The station itself is beautiful. I really wish it were a photography play day where I did not have to go to work and I had my camera with me. Which I will go back and do, but there is a lot to be said for how you see things in your first impression. Of course it is all very new and clean. Well air conditioned as you expect of any place in Dubai.

I find it expensive for a metro that is supposed to be for public use. To my office, one-way costs 6.50 AED. That is about 1.75 USD. Considering the income of some of the service employees here who would use public transportation a lot, I find this expensive. Yes, it’s a lovely, expensive project, but if it is a metro for the people, it needs to be more feasible for their income. It is very high end. Even the paper used to print the tickets is expensive – thick, shiny paper. I guess it needs to be for their high-tech entry system, but those things are not being reused and that must go into the mark up on this fancy ride.

While I didn’t see any people walking to the metro, when I got in I was relieved to see a few people waiting and the train fairly full. I got in the last car. The population seemed fairly young, and somewhat representative of the distribution of Dubai. However, I did not see one Caucasian person! Only me. I have no issue being the minority. The issue is why are more people not using this thing? Outside of the employees, I also did not see any locals. However, a local woman who works with a friend of mine once told him it would be shameful to use the metro! I hope this is not a common feeling. I doubt it is, but I am amazed with the candidness to claim such a crazy thing.

Here the metro is above ground, as I would expect in a desert. It’s fast and smooth, so it’s a nice ride. We finally arrive at my stop… but wait, that’s not my stop. My office is in Internet City, but the Internet City stop is early - more in Media City. If I were to walk that it would take a good 30 minutes or more. Since the train has already left me behind, I cheat a bit and see there are taxis outside the station. I jump in one and get to the office. When I finally arrive, I check my watch. It is one hour in total from door to door.

Later that day one of my colleagues asked me if I rode in the women’s car. What? A women’s section?! I completely forgot about that. He also reminded me there was a VIP section. Yes, if you pay more, you can also ride in “Gold Class”. I was definitely going to try the women’s section on the way home.

I ended up working late that day. Reluctant to go back the same long way knowing I would not get there before 9:30pm, I endure.

I went to the closer station this time. I got up to the ticket booth and I decided against the women’s section. A Gold Class sounded a little absurd to me, so I had to try it to see what was inside. Honestly, nothing. There is a uniformed woman in the cart and leather, or wanna-be leather seats. That’s about it. It’s a car either at the front or back of the train depending on the direction. It cost 11 AED, which is 3 USD. This is very steep for not much added value. What kind of people ride in Gold Class? Normal people. I enjoyed watching two young local girls who were escorted to the car by a metro employee at the Mall of the Emirates stop. They were either tourists or on the metro for the first time taking pictures of each other with their phones. It was cute to see them excited about it. And when I take Erin (in regular class) I’ll be doing the same.

I arrive back to my stop at the Dubai Mall and make the 30-minute walk back. Again, there are not that many people walking. More than in the morning, but I passed no more than five. In those places with no sidewalk or a small sidewalk, the cars were really speeding by. I decided to go through the sand instead of risk being a story in 7 Days (a small, but effective free local newspaper).

I’m only halfway through my walk back and what is that I smell – Camel No. 5 – again?! It’s too soon! I guess if the wind is blowing the right way anything is possible. I finally make it home and stop holding my breath. As expected, one hour later.

So that is my rather long account of my first metro experience in Dubai. Will I do it again? I hope so, but it is difficult to be motivated when it takes so long and I have so much to get done in a limited time.

And it’s not necessarily cheap. I find it very risky in some areas that are not finished, or have extra small sidewalks. I was challenged to walk and pull my rolling computer bag behind me. It is not something I would walk with my son, or recommend to anyone with children. Those small sidewalks are way too narrow and close to the traffic. Note – these small sidewalks are where the traffic is exiting from Sheikh Zayed Road. Its never a typical city street.

Metro systems and public transport are generally appealing in other cities because it saves time, is safe and affordable. With all due respect to HH Sheikh Mohammed and the RTA (Road Transport Authority), the Dubai metro has a few more years to go before it can become more feasible. First and foremost, please fix the safety factor for pedestrians. I can forego the fancy Burj lamps for wider sidewalks.

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