Share the ride to work and cut city congestion by half

Dubai commuters could reduce their annual fuel bills by Dh2.88 billion by carpooling their way into the office, according to the Roads and Transport Authority. (LIZ RAMOS)

Dubai residents could save Dh2.88 billion on fuel costs every year if they chose to adopt carpooling as an alternative mode of commuting.

According to statistics from the Roads and Transport Authority (RTA), there are about 800,000 vehicles registered in Dubai and each vehicle has an average occupancy of 1.6 passengers.

By encouraging carpooling and the use of public transport, RTA hopes to reduce the number of vehicles on the road by a half and to increase the average occupancy rate per vehicle to about 3.2 passengers.

On average, every vehicle owner in Dubai spends about Dh7,200 per year on fuel alone. With a total of 400,000 vehicles off the roads, about Dh2.88bn could be saved annually on fuel.

Add the annual maintenance costs per vehicle and the amount paid in fines and Salik charges and the figure would go up further by about 40 per cent.

"This is why we are trying to tell vehicle owners and companies to embrace mass transit methods. There is evidence to show that individuals and companies can save a lot," said Essa Al Dossari, Director of RTA's Public Transport Agency.

"It is commercially viable for any company to encourage its staff to adopt carpooling. This creates, for example, enough parking space for potential clients and improves productivity of staff."

By reducing the number of cars on the road carpooling decreases pollution and the need for more parking space, and on a global perspective, reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Carpooling with shared driving duties can also reduce stress and able employees to properly plan their work, increasing productivity. Businesses in Dubai lose about Dh4bn every year as a result of traffic congestion. Transport and logistics companies have seen their operation costs increase by more than 20 per cent recently and their profits dwindling due to failure to make deliveries on time.

Each motorist in Dubai pays an average of Dh2,500 every year on toll fees, Dh1,500 on vehicle maintenance, Dh1,200 on parking and Dh1,500 on traffic and parking fines, according to an independent survey by Emirates Business.

RTA will introduce two more tollgates in Dubai at the beginning of September, a move likely to double the expenditure on toll payment per motorist.

Al Dossari said the government spends a hefty sum on environmental control and this could be reduced if vehicular pollution were to go down. Environmentalists have praised the drive to encourage carpooling in Dubai.

"The reduction in fuel consumption has a direct result in bringing down emissions of carbon and non-carbon based gases that cause harm to the environment," said an official at Emirates Environmental Group. The potential noise pollution that is a consequence of motor traffic would also reduce tremendously as the number of running vehicles decrease.

According to a recent study by Dubai Municipality, more than 75 per cent of air pollutants in Dubai are from vehicle emissions.

Vehicle pollution in Dubai, compared to American standards, is 13 per cent [for vehicles using petrol], whereas the vehicular pollution rate is 2.5 per cent in Virginia, two per cent in Michigan and 4.7 per cent in Canada.

"We are encouraging carpooling because it is the most viable alternative for office workers. It is a personal responsibility towards the overall good of the city," said Al Dossari.

RTA will soon launch a website where car owners can register for carpooling and also register their selected passengers. The registered vehicle will get a permit allowing it to stop and pick up the registered passengers without being fined by transport inspectors.

Carpoolers could also set up their own websites where they can invite people to join them. Al Dossari said RTA was ready to help any public or private organisation seeking the best alternatives on staff transportation.

Formal carpool projects have been in existence in a structured form since the mid-1970s as a possible way to help alleviate traffic congestion and vehicular pollution. Carpoolers often use pool members' private cars, or a jointly hired vehicle, for shared journeys.

Working places that have potential for carpoolers include factories, offices, hotels, shopping centres and hospitals, where a sizeable number of employees work nearly identical shifts.

A study commissioned by the RTA concluded that one of the major causes of traffic congestion was the fact that it was easy to finance a car purchase in Dubai.

There are 541 vehicles per 1,000 people in Dubai, the report found, which is high when compared to other cities. In Singapore, for instance, there are 111 vehicles per 1,000 people. Of course, Singapore also has one of the most comprehensive and efficient public transport systems in the world. The distribution of vehicles in Dubai is lopsided as well.

Some families in the emirate own and use up to four vehicles simultaneously where one would be enough to cater for the transport needs of everyone in the family with a little bit of planning. On the other hand, the expensive and time-consuming process for obtaining a driving licence is causing people of some nationalities much hardship in transportation, especially due to the dismal state of public transport, and is also putting pressure on the emirate's inadequate taxi fleet.

However, as the cost of living continues to soar, it is believed that residents would prefer to keep their vehicles at home if a better transport alternative would promise them more savings.

"It has been quite difficult to convince people to abandon their vehicles and use public transport. But carpooling would work for them since they too can benefit," said Essa Adam Ibrahim, Chairman of Burjuman Centre.

The shopping mall is already encouraging its employees and tenants to adopt carpooling as a better way to free up parking space at the centre and also reduce traffic congestion.

Carpooling schemes around the world

Carpooling is popular in Singapore not only as a way to reduce congestion but as a means to save money in one of the most expensive cities in the whole of Asia.

The economic boom of the past 20 years has pushed up the prices of cars, homes, food, clothes and just about everything else. The popularity of pooling has grown over the past 10 years as the cost of owning and maintaining a car continues to soar. The country has one of the lowest vehicles per capita figures in the world.

Pooling schemes have sprung up as an alternative to public transport and are part and parcel of the transport culture. Pooling arrangements among friends and colleagues are free in many countries.

In Dubai, however, it is illegal to charge passengers money under a carpool scheme as this would be seen as operating a taxi illegally – but not all cities have such restrictions.

In Sydney, for example, websites for car-sharing schemes carry fee structures for various destinations and timings.

Members of the public can choose the most economical and convenient scheme before registering. Users can choose to pay an annual or monthly fee, which is usually low compared to the cost of using public transport.

In Madrid, which has one of the highest vehicles per capita rates, the government is assisting workers at schools, hospitals, hotels and offices to create free carpool schemes on a website it sponsors.

Some countries have introduced high-occupancy vehicle lanes to encourage carpooling and use of public transport, to combat rising traffic congestion.

Early this month, transport authorities in the US state of Tennessee reported that car pooling had gone up by more than 100 per cent as motorists attempt to save due to the rising costs of fuel and maintenance charges. A US national survey of about 4,000 commuters conducted last month by the IBM Institute for Electronic Government found that 46 per cent of commuters would look for alternatives to driving to work if petrol reached $4.50 a gallon up from $4.03 at the time.