The name of author/illustrator Shel Silverstein's book of poetry, Where the Sidewalk Ends, ehoes in my head each and every time I step out the door to take a walk or run an errand. It's not enough to say Abu Dhabi is not pedestrian-friendly. The city is pedestrian-hostile. Seriously.
Before I left Hoboken I bought several guide books to Abu Dhabi and the United Arab Emirates. One of the facts that jumped out at me was the high number of auto accidents, and most surprising was that most of the people injured or killed in these accidents were not the drivers or passengers. No, they were the pedestrians "walking alongside the roads". I assumed the reason for this was that the drivers must be reckless and crazy, veering off the road or jumping the curbs. I have since learned otherwise.
I am not saying the drivers here are wonderful. They are on par with the drivers one encounters in NYC and New Jersey, which is to say many (not all!) of them are heavy on the gas peddle, think signal lights are optional, round corners like they're on a racetrack, and jam on the brakes. But I don't think drivers are mowing down pedestrians because of their driving skills, or lack thereof. No, pedestrians are in danger because this city was not designed for them. I think the lack of sidewalks is the reason so many pedestrians are killed and injured here.
Abu Dhabi is an obstacle course. There is maybe a little sidewalk (as we know it) in front of a store or two, and then it simply ends. Next you find yourself walking across a parking lot, swiveling your head constantly, on the look-out for cars. There doesn't appear to be a right-of-way understanding for pedestrians either, so if a car comes, you better scurry out of the way or become one of those statistics in my guide book. After the parking lot you may find another bit of sidewalk, and then you step off onto a long patch of sand. Oddly enough, at most intersections there is a pedestrian cross-walk signal. Thus far this is the only concession to pedestrians that I've seen.
I have been puzzling about this no-sidewalk situation. The city planners built this place up from scratch in recent decades, so surely they looked at other cities for inspiration? I think it must be cultural. That is my only conclusion. It's such a hot country, maybe going for walks or a stroll is simply not something people think to do. I've also noticed that many people don't run errands - they have someone run their errands for them. On our first day here, Doug and I asked directions to a little grocery store. "Tell us what you want, and we'll go get it" our concierge answered matter-of-factly. She looked utterly baffled when we told her that oh no, we wanted to walk there. If someone wants to go somewhere, they take a taxi or drive themselves. The taxis here are very inexpensive, so people take taxis even for very short hops. "Walk? Why walk???" seems to be the attitude.
I love to walk. I've been discouraged here because of the heat and the pure confusion and anxiety I experience when trying to get somewhere on foot. But the weather is getting nicer with each passing day, and now I live much closer to The Corniche with its tantalizing white sands and turquoise waters. I had expected to be challenged by the heat and by learning to live in a conservative Muslim culture so different from my own. What I had not expected was that my greatest challenge to date would be going for a simple walk.