The landscape across much of the UAE’s biggest cities is flat as a manakeesh; the weather, for at least seven months of the year is perfect, not too hot, not too cold; and on the other hand the traffic can make the roads look like car parks. Why, then, aren’t more people cycling to get around Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah?
Until recently, taking your chances on the roads wasn’t to everyone’s taste, and generally, awareness of cycling as a lifestyle or a sport was limited. Prepare for that to change this year, as the UAE gets more cycle paths, thanks to government investment, and interest in the activity takes off faster than the pace leaders at next week’s Dubai Tour cycle tournament.
There are two ways of looking at cycling. There are those who hit the cycle tracks (and occasionally, the roads) around the country, looking for fun, speed, fitness, a group activity and the great outdoors. They’re the early morning ‘coffee rides’ that take place around the Al Qudra and District One cycle tracks in Dubai and on the nation’s desert roads, often followed by a support car, to both protect rides from drivers and to give them a lift, should they need it – a puncture 50m out in the desert isn’t fun. Similarly, there are enclosed car-racing tracks that offer speed for those on two wheels – both Dubai Autodrome and Yas Marina Circuit, home of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, are open to cyclists on certain nights.
Then, there’s cycling to get somewhere – your office, school or even the grocery store. There’s fun and fitness involved in that, too – even half an hour of moderate biking on a flat surface can burn a couple of hundred calories – and it’s all in the great outdoors, and aside from the initial investment in a bike, free. To enable more of that, however, cycle paths are needed.
The good news is that there are plenty on the way.
Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority last week announced the completion of a number of tracks in the Khawaneej, Mushrif and Mirdif neighbourhoods, adding 32km to the network of 218km that already exists in the city. It won’t end there: The plan is to have 500km of cycle tracks across Dubai by 2021, and crucially, the paths will inter-connect neighbourhoods, so cyclists don’t have to attempt major roads when wishing to go from, say, Downtown Dubai to Al Barsha. The cycle paths indicated in the RTA’s masterplan will take you from Al Khawaneej all the way to The Gardens.
Live in Mirdif and want to go to Kite Beach, or to visit a friend in Jumeirah Village Circle? You will be able to do that on your bike.
The dedicated cycling tracks covering the entire emirate ‘can be used as environment-friendly mobility means for cycling enthusiasts. Advanced countries focus on raising the proportion of trips made by walking and cycling,’ said Mattar Al Tayer, Director-General and Chairman of the Board of Executive Directors of the RTA, announcing the newly completed tracks.
The Dubai Water Canal has played an early role in connecting bikers in different parts of the city, taking them along its southern edge from the Nad Al Sheba track all the way down to Jumeirah Road, where a track extends in both directions, from the Burj Al Arab to the new La Mer entertainment hub near Jumeirah Mosque.
Sharjah residents, too, will have a life-changing cycle path: A project to connect Mamzar with the Ajman border, announced last year, will see cyclists able to travel along the city’s waterfront once complete. Abu Dhabi already has several established cycle paths in the city, something that Hani Akasha hopes to make the most of with his bike-sharing scheme, Cyacle, inspired by London’s ‘Boris Bikes’.
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Hani’s project, initially funded by the Abu Dhabi government, had 11 stations on Yas Island that allowed users to hire a bike for an hour at a time. ‘It was successful, and we expanded to 50 locations across the city – we are present in Saadiyat Island, Yas Island and the mainland. Our vision is for the bike to be used as a short-distance transport, a last-mile transport. What I am interested in, more than cycling, is using it as transport. I tried it in London and this is what I liked, commuting by bike.’
The next step is putting bikes in more locations, which is pending more funding. ‘Convenience is the thing,’ says Hani, who recently received permission from Abu Dhabi Municipality to install Cyacle stations wherever they are needed. ‘If someone can go to a [bike] station under his building, he will definitely use it, to cycle to a restaurant, to the beach.’
He’s also hoping the success of the bikes will lead to more paths for cyclists. ‘We are looking for connectivity, that’s what’s really important. If there is connectivity between blocks, people don’t need to go on the main roads.’
It’s not only the big city masterplans that feature cycle paths, however: Many community developers are seeing the benefit of giving residents bike paths and taking cars off roads in the leafy suburbs.
Nakheel is investing Dh150million into 105km of bike paths that not only link up to Dubai’s masterplan but also carry residents through neighbourhoods. ‘The idea is to promote health and well-being and to encourage cycling, and also to provide safe routes for the people who already are cycling. The Dubai cycle track is amazing, but we need more and we want to enhance the government’s cycle plan by contributing to it with tracks in our communities,’ says Nakheel’s Rebecca Rees, the developer’s senior media relations manager. In phase one are paths in Jumeirah Islands, Jumeirah Heights, Jumeirah Park, Jumeirah Village Triangle and Circle, Al Furjan, The Gardens, Discovery Gardens and Garden View Villas, while there is also a 5km track at the new Nad Al Sheba villa community planned.
For the beacons of clean living in the UAE, Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, and Sustainable City in Dubai, cycling is integral. At Masdar, there will be a dense network of cycle paths throughout, as well as a 10km two-way track to circumnavigate the City. The two-way design means it will integrate with cycling connections to other areas of Abu Dhabi. In Sustainable City, a community that asks its residents to ditch their cars at the entrance, a cycle path encircles the neighbourhood, protected from the elements by three layers of trees. It’s not unusual for locals to take a bike to the central allotments to pick up some fresh vegetables for their dinner.
‘Things have changed a great deal in the last five years in Dubai, with many more dedicated routes than ever before,’ says Stewart Howison, owner of the Revolution Cycles shop and a regular rider. ‘When I first set up Revolution Cycles six years ago, the neighbourhoods weren’t as cycle-friendly as they are now. Very few people were riding but today, more and more people are riding and even commuting. You see the bikes at the Metro stations. There’s been a surge towards this. It has been supported by the many new cycle routes we have.’
‘Dubai is a lot more bicycle-friendly than people give it credit for,’ says Rooman Latif, the co-founder of The Movement cycle shop in Dubai’s Courtyard. He and his wife, Julie Audette, began selling American and Japanese bikes from their shop three years ago after spotting a niche for classic-design bikes. The fact that Rooman left his consulting job to run the store full-time is just one indiction of how interest in cycling has grown.
‘We felt there was a huge opportunity to do something in the bicycle scene, but the only person that really believed in the idea was Julie – everyone else told me, if you give me the money that you are going to invest, I’d put it somewhere else,’ says Rooman. ‘We took the leap of faith and it’s grown to where it’s really sustainable now.’
The couple come from cycling-friendly cities – Rooman from Manchester in the UK and Julie from Montreal – and they are fans of riding. ‘Jumeirah Road has a dedicated cycle lane, which many people don’t know about. Al Khawaneej and Mirdif [are] like a mini Copenhagen, there are bicycle lanes everywhere. If that’s the template for urban cycling in Dubai, then we are very excited by the prospect.’
While the path to interconnected cycling is on its way, there are already plenty of opportunities to get your wheels moving around the country, encourages Stewart.
‘Just getting out there in the fresh air with friends and seeing Dubai in a different light, it’s incredibly beautiful first thing in the morning or at dusk as the sun sets.’