With growing congestion on the roads of Dubai, how can transportation companies avoid coming to a standstill?
A lorry driver slumps over his steering wheel. Out of his cabin window, framed with dangling beads, a long line of other trucks snake off into the distance. He is stuck on Emirates Road, heading into Dubai and he is going nowhere fast.
Thousands of deliveries from the emirate's industrial hub to various parts of the country are routinely delayed by sprawling congestion as the infrastructure struggles to keep pace with development.
Firms that rely on a ‘just in time' supply chain model in order to avoid soaring warehouse costs are especially vulnerable to stocking out because of late deliveries.
Trucking firms are also finding fuel costs rising as drivers are forced to idle in traffic for hours.
In June, authorities admitted that congestion was hurting the UAE economy to the tune of US$1.36 billion a year. A survey last year suggested that Dubai was the most congested city in the Middle East.
The emirate has seen an unprecedented flurry of investment as it emerges as the only viable hub for the Middle East region. However, this has meant that there is an almost constant pressure on transport infrastructure to cope with increasing volumes of traffic.
"Dubai is a very exciting market," says Bryan Moulds, TNT general manager for the UAE. "We have witnessed a compound annualised growth rate of over 35% year-on-year over the last eight years in Dubai."
For us this is exciting, and of course we welcome the increasing pull of Dubai. Each new company that comes to the market is a potential opportunity for the express industry in the emirate.
"As with any emerging market, high growth rates mandate that there is generally a ‘catch up' period in terms of infrastructure. We are of course highly dependent on the road infrastructure within the country and find that the roads themselves are of good standard and the routes well planned.
"The sheer volume growth of traffic on the roads in the last three to four years has put some strain on our industry, although our route planning and traffic management systems have generally allowed us to continue without affecting our on-time delivery of shipments."
But the government has not been idle. Earlier in the year the Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) announced its ‘2020 plan' with a budget of $26 billion for road building and modification, as well as alternative modes of transport.
"The main problems that are being faced by the RTA include encouraging the use of public transport, congestion, transportation safety and improving the transportation environment," said Dr Abdel Malik Ibrahim Abu Sheikh, head of the RTA's transportation studies and planning section, earlier this year.
The RTA's plan will involve the construction of 500km of roads, including nine new ring roads around key development areas such as Deira and Bur Dubai, Business Bay, Dubailand and the upcoming Dubai World Central - Al Maktoum International Airport.
The RTA also aims to have a metro network in place that will cover 318km, plus a 270km tram network, a 3000km bus network and a marine transport network spanning 450km.
Last month, the authority partially opened the new Arabian Ranches interchange which links Emirates Road with Umm Suqeim and Al Qudrah roads. The $111 million development, which took two years to complete, involves a multi-tier flyover spanning 11 bridges and one underpass.
The project also entailed the widening of Umm Suqeim Road to four lanes in each direction and Al Qudrah Road to two lanes in each direction.
The scheme was welcomed by industry professionals. "Any development to the current situation will definitely go a long way to resolving the problems there," says Captain Leslie Reis, vice president of Transworld Group."
However, with the increasing burden of traffic it appears as though the solution may be only a temporary measure. "The answer to solving the congestion problem in Dubai is a combination of different solutions that have to be timed well," says Adel Lootah, CEO, National Properties and chairman of Dubai Property Group. "Simply building more and more roads will not solve the problem in the long run."
The RTA has developed its transportation plan in coordination with six international consultants including US-based Parsons for the road network plans, Germany's PTV for transportation modelling, South Africa's Africon for transportation planning, the UK's WSP for transportation policies, South Africa's Urban Econ for urban economics and the UK's MVA for public transport planning.
Thomas Barry, CEO of Arabtec Construction, also says that building more roads won't necessarily solve the congestion problem and argues that the introduction of a dedicated highway for industrial traffic, including trucks and cargo, would go a long way to help the situation. "If industrial traffic could be taken off Al Khail and the Emirates Road and put onto a dedicated highway, the traffic situation could get much better," he says.
This is also a recommendation that Reis agrees with. "We have to segregate the normal traffic from the cargo traffic - you shouldn't see it on the public highways," he says. "To a certain extent we have been trying to avoid the main highways but even then we are still seeing a lot of buses there. Any attempt to cut down the current traffic will certainly help."
In the short term, many firms, especially express couriers, are looking at multi-modal solutions. "We are constantly looking at further opportunities other than road transportation," says Moulds. "We have looked at the feasibility of a speed boat service in particular that may serve the growing Ã¢â‚¬Ëœisland' community we are witnessing off our coastline. We also welcome the new metro, which may be useful in terms of connecting our courier personnel from one station to another. These are currently at the ideas phase, but the more that Dubai thinks about multi-modal transportation the better, in our opinion."
Similarly, DHL has begun to use motorcycles rather than cars on the most congested routes. In addition, it has also adjusted some of its timings to better suit the conditions on the road. Detailed journey planning is an issue on which firms are increasingly having to rely.
With developments such as Dubai World Central and Dubai Industrial City acting as a magnet for logistics companies around the world, it is clear that road traffic is a problem that is going to get worse before it is able to get better. However, it is clear that for many operators, the benefits of capitalising on the emerging Middle East market far outweigh the problems faced in terms of the lack of infrastructure.
"Dubai is by far the fastest growing emirate, and changes cannot happen overnight," says Derek Tully, UAE operations manager for DHL. "The RTA is constantly announcing new projects and strategies to tackle infrastructure problems. All of these initiatives will improve the situation."
"We believe that in order to provide superior services to our clients, we have to be based close to them," he adds. "It is essential that we have a good understanding of the market as well as our customers' environment. We meet infrastructure challenges when they occur and try to find swift solutions to meet our customers' expectations."