Buildings in Dubai and Abu Dhabi didn't have official addresses. But that's finally changing

Dubai's Burj Al Arab: good luck finding that. Image: Getty.

“No it’s the first right after the garage and all the way to the end where the road bends to the left. Left. Villa behind mosque. White Pajero parked outside. Can you see the car? White Pajero car? What can you see now?”

It’s a familiar frustration: for anyone trying to direct a delivery to an address in Dubai, conversations like this are part and parcel of life in the Emirate. The lack of a proper postal system has long been a contradiction for residents of a city that loudly proclaims its status as a regional hub and a global gateway between East and West. But such discrepancies are not unusual in Dubai, where service departments scramble to keep pace with rapid urban development.

From the earliest days of the Emirate, when the local mail service was conducted by Indian postmen on camels, Dubai’s delivery system has been a wishy washy affair. For a while, it was in the hands of the British Postal Administration, which extended a basic service to the rest of the UAE. Following that residents have relied on a post office box system, receiving mail through their company or driving to a nearby post office several times a week to check for letters. It wasn’t until 2001 that the Emirates Post Corporation was formally established with a mandate from the government to improve and commercialise the service.

This was easier said than done, however, because nowhere in Dubai, or in the wider UAE, had a proper address. There weren’t even road names, just an incoherent system of numbers with which to navigate the network of back streets.

With the rise in digital communication, the problem has seemed less pertinent for private mail. But it remains an issue in other areas of daily life, such as directing delivery men, steering taxi drivers and navigating new routes in the hyperactive road system, which no sooner conquered changes shape as fresh waves of construction arrive.

Uber has provided welcome relief on the transport front. The pinpoint mapping system means that most of the time (they aren’t immune to misinterpreting the placement of the pin) the car is actually waiting outside the correct building, and Dubians have, not surprisingly, embraced the service with gusto. “It is a utopian market for Uber – that’s the reason we have grown so fast in the UAE,” Jean-Pierre Mondalek, Uber's general manager for the UAE , told The National newspaper. “The smart city government initiative encourages innovative technology like ours.”

The success of the Uber approach bodes well for the future of local mail: that’s because, at long last, the Emirate’s postal service is joining the modern world with a brand new GPS addressing system. Gone will be the days of Christmas cards received in February, takeaways that arrive stone cold because they’ve been circling the backstreets for an hour and time-consuming trips to the post office to check for mail. Dubai, it seems, is finally going postal.

An extract from Google's map of Dubai. You see the problem, can't you? 

The new system, christened Makani (“my location” in Arabic), promises to be every bit as state-of-the-art as the city it maps. Based on a Geo Address System, which pins every one of Dubai’s buildings to a GPS coordinate via 10-digit smart codes, the approach heralds a long-awaited move towards a new era of efficient navigation. According to Hussain Nasser Lootah, director general of Dubai Municipality, it will resemble the US zipcode and enable Dubai’s multicultural population to share a common system that makes finding locations around the city significantly simpler. Not only that, he says, it will also be a huge benefit to security and emergency services.

Users can download the Makani app, available on iOS, Android and Blackberry devices as well as online, then search for locations using their unique smart code. This can then be shared with other users via the app, or converted into a voice navigation guide, Google Maps style. Larger buildings, such as The Dubai Mall, will have separate coordinates for different entrances. The project is unfolding in conjunction with a citywide street-naming programme that will finally give the maze of backs roads more identifiable tags than the likes of 27a or 16c.

In neighbouring Abu Dhabi, the new Onwani (“My address”) application presents a similar promise for residents and visitors to the UAE capital, where an inconsistent addressing system and an erratic postal history have created a like need for modernisation.

“The implications of not having a street naming or address system are enormous,” said Clifford Selbert of Selbert Perkins Design, the firm responsible for creating the signage programme in Abu Dhabi. “This is a common situation in the Arab world. You simply can’t get from A to B. Businesses are slowed to a crawl because deliveries can’t be made and security is also a huge concern. People who live there have learned to navigate by landmarks, but now the landmarks are becoming invisible as the city gets more dense.”

Dr. Abdullah Ghareeb Al Bloushi, executive director of the Abu Dhabi Department Municipal Affairs, explained that the city has had “an addressing system of sorts” for over 12 years now. But “recent rapid development means we have to change... We've developed a new coherent and unified way-finding system which, once implemented, will provide many benefits to the people who live in and visit the Emirate, helping to set the standard for a better future.”

Abu Dhabi. Yep.

The new signs, developed in conjunction with Selbert Perkins Design and Abu Dhabi Municipality, will, Selbert says, “Ease the flow of traffic, facilitate ambulances, enhance police security and generally improve all functions of the city”. There are some 12,000 new street names across the capital, 200 new district names and 20,000 new roadway signs, not to mention new address signs for every house and building. Each features a QR code enabling visitors and residents in the city to identify their location and link to information regarding local events, retailers, city services and other matters of interest.

Authorities in the capital looked to the likes of the UK, USA, Australia and other Middle Eastern countries where similar approaches have proved effective, adapting them to suit the particular requirements of Abu Dhabi. It’s the largest project ever undertaken by the city municipality with new names for thousands of backstreets and a distinct address for over 65,000 homes and businesses.

In a later stage, the system will be updated with a feature that provides a short newscast about events and activities held in each area. In short, Selbert says, “The new signs will transform the identity and economy of Abu Dhabi – not to mention the experience people have of the city. These signs will save lives, energise the economy and link the city and the Emirate to the future.”


You’ve heard of trainspotters and planespotters. Now meet Britain’s growing army of busspotters

Some busspotters in action. Image: Damian Potter.

In the summer of 2014, with too much time on my hands and too little to do, I found myself in the middle of an incredibly active, 200+ person Facebook group. How I ended up here (record scratch, freeze frame) is a little too convoluted and stupid to explain – but what I found was a world that I a) could not have imagined nor b) had any clue even existed.

The group I tumbled into was what I now understand to be a very, very small example of a “busspotting” group – that is, a Facebook group full of dedicated bus enthusiasts which exists to share pictures of buses they see on the road. This group had members from all over the country, with a concentration on northern buses, and was predominantly filled with young, white men.

What I expected to see was a range over relatively interesting buses, holding some significance or another, that were tough to find in your average day-to-day life. This was, largely, not the case. What fascinated me was that the vast majority of the group was not focused on unique buses, new buses, historically significant buses, and so on – but simply on the average bus and or bus route you might take just to get around your city.

What was even more bizarre to me was that people from across the country were meeting up in small towns (Morpeth, Livingston, Stevenage) to take seemingly mundane bus rides to other equally small places (Washington, Gloucester, Grimsby). The busspotters would travel hours on end to meet at these locations simply to ride this bus, often for three or four hours, and experience a bus route they’d never been on before or one that they just particularly enjoyed.

Ooooh. Image: Damian Potter.

After a couple of weeks of silently watching and one semi-ironic post, I left the group. And, for the next three years, I gave barely a thought to bus enthusiasm, as no busspotter group/page/person crossed my path. Unlike similar enthusiasms like planespotting and trainspotting, it didn’t seem to me that busspotting had any significant following.

But, as is the way of these things, a weird thread on Twitter three summers later sparked my memory of my short time in this group. I wanted to see what busspotting was actually and about and if, in fact, it was still a thing.

So I spoke to Damian Potter, an admin on several popular busspotting groups, about what it’s like to be deep into the busspotting scene.

“I used to sit upstairs on double decker buses and 'drive' them, including the pedal movements!” Damian announced right off the bat, speaking of his childhood. “I've been driving coaches at home and abroad since I passed my PCV test in 1994. I've been driving for Transdev Harrogate and District Travel since 1998.”

Damian, as you might have gathered, has been a busspotter since his early youth. Now, at the age of 50, he manages four different busspotting Facebook groupsm, mostly based around the Harrogate area (Transdev Enthusiasts, The Harrogate Bus Company, iTransport Worldwide and Spotting Bus and Coach Spotters). Some of them have over a thousand members.

He also participates in busspotting IRL, travelling around the country participating in busspotting meet-ups and events and co-organising trips along different bus routes. When I asked him what busspotting was to him, he explained that it can manifest in different ways: some people focus on makes of bus and routes, other focus on particular bus companies (National Express is particularly popular). Of course, bus enthusiasm is not solely a British phenomenon, but busspotters can certainly be found in practically every corner of the UK.

“People tend to think that spotters hang around bus stations furtively, with a camera and some curly cheese sandwiches, but this isn't really the case,” Damian continued. That said, he also mentioned some particularly hardcore bus nuts who have been known to trespass on company premises to be the first to snap a picture of a new bus.

“They really do produce some brilliant pictures, though,” he added.

Although much of busspotting culture happens online, predominantly on Facebook, groups often have what are called ‘running days’ which involve meet ups having to do with particular routes. Damian mentioned one particularly popular day following the London Routemaster buses that happen periodically. Not only do these routes draw in enthusiasts, he noted, but also draw huge numbers of tourists who want to claim they’ve ridden on the original London buses.

“I reckon the general public miss the old Routemaster buses. There is only one 'heritage' route in London which still uses Routemaster buses and that's the 15 service between Trafalgar Square and Tower Hill.”

Despite this widespread interest in buses and bus history, though, busspotters often find themselves treated as the lesser of the motor enthusiasts. This became clear to me almost immediately when speaking to Damian, and continued to strike me throughout our conversation; without my saying anything sarcastic, malicious, or snarky, he became instantly defensive of his fellow enthusiasts and of his hobby.

When I asked him why he felt this immediate need to defend busspotting, he explained that people often ridicule busspotters and bus enthusiasm generally, arguing that bus drivers are the most common attackers. “However,” he noted, “if I bring a load of pictures into the canteen they're the first to crowd around to see bus pictures...”

Aaah. Image: Damian Potter.

Despite being perceived as an often-mocked hobby, bus enthusiasm is expanding rapidly, Damien claims. “The bus enthusiast culture is growing, with younger generations getting more involved.” Drawing in new, younger enthusiasts has become easier thanks to social media, as has creating real personal connections. Social media has made it easier for bus enthusiasm to not just stay afloat, but actually thrive over the last several years.

It’s so widespread, in fact, that a national competition is held every year in Blackpool to mark Bus Driver of the Year (Damian himself came in 34th out of 155 back in 2002). This event draws in everyone from the bus world – drivers, manufacturers, tour companies, and enthusiasts alike. Here is one of the many places where great friendships are forged and busspotters who’ve only known each other online can finally meet face-to-face. “Personally I have made some great friends through Facebook,” Damian told me. “I have even stayed over at a friend's house in London a couple of times.”

Busspotting may be less well-known than motor enthusiasms like planespotting and trainspotting, but that very well could change. Thanks to active social media groups and regular in-person meet-ups, people have been able to use busspotting forums as not only a way to find lifelong friends, but also spend more of their free time exploring their hobby with the people they’ve met through these groups and pages who share their enthusiasm. For all the flack it may receive, the future of busspotting looks bright.

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