Before coming to Dubai, I read that this was a city that worships the car – the city where the police have Ferraris, tuned-Mercedes and Bentleys. In a few days a gold Lamborghini will go on display at Dubai mall (purportedly the world’s biggest shopping centre). That you can’t live without a car was certainly the impression I got before arriving. From my bedroom I can see a 7-lane highway and traffic jams that decorate the floor below like Christmas lights as the sun sets.
But fortunately, things have been changing. In fact, Dubai changes so quickly that when you are reading websites and forums that are just five years old it’s like they are talking about a different city. The opening of the metro in 2009 has proved to be one of the city’s most successful infrastructure projects. And so when I first arrived I used buses to get to work, and now I live 5 minutes walk from the dirt-cheap metro line and access to much of Dubai. To compare fares with London, here an hour journey on the metro, which is pretty much one end to the other, costs 6 dirhams (about one UK pound). From memory, in London the cheapest fare is more expensive than that.
Living without a car has certainly made things cheaper. I transferred the funds to buy a small car about six months ago, but I wanted to see how long I could survive. I quickly worked out a car wouldn’t be necessary, at least if I took an apartment close to the metro. My best friend (and the beach) are a 25 minute walk away, and there’s a free bus that goes to my workplace from a metro station two stops away. Walking is actually very pleasant in this city from October-May.
So, what are the drawbacks? Dubai is long and thin, hugging the coastline, which makes it convenient for the metro line. But some places are difficult to reach – Academic city, where the French school is, is far out in the desert. Whole zones like Arabian ranches, Global village and Greens community are nowhere near the metro line. The Palm (until they finish the monorail) is similarly difficult to get to. This morning I jogged there and even on two feet it’s hard to reach!
Secondly, I do count on my friends for quite a few things, including going to church, circuit training and Saturday football (shout out to H, K and E). It wouldn’t be too much pain to take a combination of taxis and metros to reach these places, but good friends definitely make things easier and I benefit from their kindness.
I would say that in Dubai, more than many (any?) places, you are judged by your possessions. And though it’s sad to say it, I’d hold my head higher and feel more masculine with a car. What was true when we were fifteen and sixteen is true today – when you have a car, you feel grown up. Without you can feel like a bit of a student. Admittedly if I’d bought a car, it would probably have been a Yaris, so among the Landcruisers and Porsches my head wouldn’t have been too high, but it would have been a start. It certainly keeps you humble. I have seen my wife a bit embarrassed with friends here when she had to admit that the family don’t have a car.
But my life is comfortable, and the only real time I’ve ever thought about going back on my decision was the July-August mornings when the 5 minute walk to the metro station was just a little too long in the morning heat. On the positive side, you get to avoid some pet-hates of mine that really drive me up the wall (no pun intended) – being at a location but not being able to get out of your car because you can’t park, and traffic jams. On foot and with public transport, I can usually arrive on time to wherever I’m going to because I know exactly how long it will take to get there. And, while getting there, I can get the most out of every minute through listening to podcasts and going through blogs and emails.
PS, Someone told me this morning that in 1968 there were only 13 cars registered in Dubai. This morning I jogged past a tiny patch of sand on the palm with about 13 cars of them, 3 of them Lamborghinis.