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Dubai construction frenzy puts up driving obstacles

Daily route changes from endless projects render maps useless.

February 22, 2009|Brian Murphy | Murphy writes for the Associated Press.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES — There it was: an overpass bending gracefully over stalled traffic on Dubai's main highway.

And there I was: driving through a sandy haze kicked up by construction equipment, plowing into dead ends and discovering a special boomtown brand of road rage as I rambled over a confusing web of roads freshly carved in the desert.

But I knew -- somewhere, somehow -- there was a way onto that bridge.

I found it after about 20 wearying minutes by tailing a taxi that I figured had far better local driving intuition. He did. The cabbie simply went off-road through an empty lot to get onto the overpass connector.

Getting behind the wheel in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, offers more than just a dashboard view of a city sprouting and spreading in every direction.

Driving is an immersion course in the city's breakneck building pace and rapid-fire planning that can shift traffic patterns day by day, sometimes hour by hour, and leave newcomer motorists like myself lost amid cones, barriers and ad hoc diversions that resemble some kind of cruel arcade game.

The global economic slowdown may squeeze some of Dubai's more outsized projects, such as the planned Falcon City and its replicas of the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal. But work is racing ahead in other areas, such as around the world's tallest tower, the Burj Dubai, and across the city's fast-growing southern flanks, where highway exits exist for buildings that are still just excavation sites.

This is where I first took to the road as a newly minted resident.

Day 1: I swooped into a major traffic circle ringed by red-and-white jersey barriers and nylon rope with fluttering plastic fringe, giving it the dizzying effect of a carnival ride. I had to take three loops before I was able to tell an exit from a construction ditch.

Day 2: Signs are not much help. There are U-turns, S-shaped squiggles that snake drivers through building sites, and every manner of Men at Work symbols. But there are very few clear directions to negotiate the construction mazes. In Dubai's flat cityscape, landmarks are easy to spot from a distance, but often the roads to them are works in progress.

Day 3: I went to the Mall of the Emirates (yes, the one with the indoor ski slope) to ask about a GPS device for the car.

"It won't really help in many parts of the city," the clerk said. "The roads change too much."

Day 4: I'm feeling a bit more confident and learning a few convenient shortcuts. I returned to the traffic circle of Day 1 only to find it's gone. In its place: a Y-shaped intersection with feeder spurs coming off in odd angles.

Day 5: I called in an expert. Mr. F works for one of Dubai's premier driving schools, but he would only agree to take me for a spin on condition of anonymity. Giving an interview would violate his work contract.

He's a 10-year veteran of Dubai's roads, witnessing the city's explosion from a relatively manageable size to a high-energy metropolis. He frets a bit for the new drivers he sends forth.

"We train them on quiet, controlled roads. It's nothing like what they will face when they head out on their own," said Mr. F, who has developed something of a monk-like serenity to survive Dubai's stresses. "They are lambs going into the wild jungle."

"So turn left up ahead," he ordered.

I did. Suddenly, the lane disappeared as the road funneled around the steel skeleton a 15-story apartment complex.

"Good, now take a left," Mr. F said. "Look around. Use your directional signal. Expect anything."

We rolled past a row of new villas on the edge of the desert. The road came to an abrupt halt at a construction site promising even more villas.

"Hmm," said Mr. F. "Didn't expect that."

We turned around and spent the next half hour threading through everything Dubai could toss at us: road widenings, twisting detours and endless rows of the plastic-fringed rope ringing the roadway projects. Emirates officials hope the new roads will siphon off traffic from crowded highways that are considered among the most dangerous in the region.

"You did well," said Mr. F, patting me on the shoulder. "I will tell you what I tell my students, 'Relax. Don't get mad. Be patient. Someday this will all be nice, new roads.' "

I took his advice. I took deep, calming breaths. I turned the radio to a classic rock station instead of the all-news Dubai Eye, for whom the city's growing pains provide constant fodder for its talk shows.

I set off along the city's desert fringe for a meeting downtown, trying to avoid the packed central highway. So far so good. I managed to find my way and swooped closer toward my goal on a near-empty road.

Excellent, I thought.

And then the road simply ended at a chain-link fence around another skyscraper site. "We apologize for the inconvenience," the sign said.

It gave a number to call, presumably to vent. I tried several times.

It was always busy.

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