At only 29 years old, Abdulla Al Mehairbi already carries the weight of the future of Abu Dhabi’s public transport network. He heads a team of eight experts—all older and more experienced than he—in the Department of Transport’s (DoT) public transport planning section for future needs.
“We tend to work as a team, and they’re all real professionals,” said Mr. Mehairbi.“They know what it takes and what needs to happen, so they make my job really easy. But no matter how hard I try, I could never claim to be as experienced or as knowledgeable as they are. So I always rely on their knowledge.”
“I think my job as the leader of the section is to make sure they can do their jobs properly and make it easy for them,” he explained.“I never see my job as to control or monitor them. Whenever they face any problems, I should be there to support them to overcome these issues.”
After graduating from Abu Dhabi Men’s College as the Department’s first trainee,Mr. Mehairbi joined DoT in 2008. “We weren’t more than 40 people at that time, including the chairman.And now? I stopped counting when I got to 900!” he laughed.
His first project was the Surface Transport Master Plan, which was also the Department’s first major project. The plan demanded the expertise of the world’s best transport visionaries to assess Abu Dhabi’s transportation needs up to 2030. “It was a very exciting time and I consider myself extremely lucky,” said Mr. Mehairbi.“I don’t think a lot of people in the world get such chances in life, and even if they do, it’s usually people who have years of experience.So this was a great opportunity for me to get in the midst of all of this.”
The project involved challenges, and Mr. Mehairbi also noted, “It was difficult to absorb all of it at the time—I had to keep up, so it pushed me towards learning. Even if there were areas that didn’t interest me, I had to actually get into the details in order for me to understand what was happening. The team put together to lead the project were experts from the U.S., Europe, and East Asia, so all this knowledge put together gave me a really good opportunity to see how things are done in other parts of the world.”
Mr. Mehairbi realizes that he and his team were fortunate as much of the land around Abu Dhabi was undeveloped, allowing the team to start from scratch.“In other countries, where cities are already developed, they have an existing transportation system which brings difficulties trying to adjust to the past system, and the infrastructure that already exists,” he said. “In Abu Dhabi, we have so many new islands being developed at the moment, so there’s an opportunity to plan it all together. And to have these new developments built around transportation was something.”
Trying to encourage people to understand public transport challenges and the need for plans to implement changes can seem overwhelming, and Mr. Mehairbi acknowledged that patience is an essential requirement in his line of work. “There are challenges convincing people about the necessity for public transport, because everything is focused on fast development, and people want to put their businesses first. For example, if we go to a developer and ask him to spare a piece of land to put a metro station in place, it takes them a lot of time to think about it, and sometimes they don’t agree to it. So you end up putting a station away from their development. They don’t see the benefits that having a public transport station at their doorstep would bring them, like the footfall and the fact their land value goes up once there’s a public transport station there.”
Public reactions can also seem discouraging, said Mr. Mehairbi. “At exhibitions where we present our plans, people come up to us and say ‘this will never work’ and ‘people will not use it.’ You have to have patience and try to understand where they’re coming from. I am privileged to be involved in these projects, so I understand the need for all these changes,” he explained. “Once we have this understanding in place, things will get easier. Mindsets are changing, but slowly. Any infrastructure difficulties we may face will be overcome once everyone believes in the need for public transport.”
Of the many publictransport plans Mr. Mehairbi has worked on within the past six years, his favorite is the LRT project (the tram).He hopes to see the tram up and running before the end of his career. “In some places, these projects take about 25 years just in planning. In this part of the world, things can happen at a much faster rate, so I would hope to see it actually get implemented,” he said.“We have 2030 as the tentative date, but it’s not set in stone. We’re still finalizing the preliminary engineering stage, and when that’s finished, we’ll have an exact picture of when we will see it completed.”
As a result of this progressive project, “Abu Dhabi should be a more pleasant place to walk in, and the LRT will change the whole street scale. Whereas a metro is elevated or underground, totally separated from the urban eye, the thing with the LRT is that you interact with it personally. So that’s what I’m most excited about. It will change how downtown Abu Dhabi looks.”
Mr. Mehairbi recently worked on the Walking and Cycling Master Plan, which is already being implemented in some parts of the city. One of which happens to be near his home, along the road leading to Emirates Palace (34thStreet), recently named King Abdulla bin Abd Aziz Street. Mr. Mehairbi’s face lit up when explaining the new layout. “There are two cycle lanes on each side of the road, and there’s a bus lane colored in red—the first bus lane in Abu Dhabi and the first DoT bike lanes,” he said.“Whenever I drive along there, I slow down my car, just to keep looking at them. It makes me feel so proud that we are making changes, and you can see it happening. This is the best part of my job: getting to see the impact of what we’re doing.”
Nowadays, Mr. Mehairbi finds himself contemplating transportation issues even when he’s on holiday, as he is keen to learn how other countries have planned their cities. “Before joining the DoT, I travelled, but I never really thought about how people got from one place to another. Now, after being engaged in this field, I have started noticing every little detail, even when I’m crossing the street,” he explained.“I notice the height of the curbs or if they’re flushed to allow wheelchair access, and whether they have tactile flooring for visually impaired people to be able to traverse freely. So you start noticing all these details and taking notes of them.Recently I was in Madrid and thought they have an extensive system there and an excellent metro. Singapore is always a good example too and is held up as a benchmark, as it’s such a well-integrated system.”
When he is not traveling,Mr. Mehairbi finishes work between 5:00pm and 6:00pm on most days,but remains in his office—which he calls his “other room”—in the evenings to research for the EMBA (Executive Master of Business Administration) he’s currently pursuing from Zayed University. “It gives me the title of ‘workaholic’ amongst my friends—they keep calling me that! But if I didn’t enjoy my job, I wouldn’t commit myself so much to it,” he said.
Mr. Mehairbi credits his strong work ethic to his mother’s influence, who raised three children alone after his father passed away when he was five. “She had a tough job working with Etisalat, and watching her as a kid was always inspiring,” he said.“She taught me to always push myself, no matter what. That’s what always makes me push myself now, even in tough circumstances.”by