Public transportation in the UAE – a country that was once the domain of private vehicles – has now emerged with some of the best-laid plans to suit all pockets and lifestyles.
The UAE roads, in all seven emirates, are motoring paradise. Add to that the low cost of fuel and availability of top car brands at reasonable prices, and you have a compelling case to get behind the wheel.
However, if you want to avoid the hassle of maintaining a car, alongside attendant parking issues and paying (very) steep penalties for breaking rules, you can relax. The public transportation system in the UAE is world-class, and getting even better by the day.
This guide includes the following information:
- Public transportation in the UAE
- Public transportation apps and websites in the UAE
- Trains in the United Arab Emirates
- Buses in the UAE
- Long-distance coaches in the UAE
- Taxis in the UAE
- Other methods of public transportation in the UAE
- Disability-access for public transportation in the UAE
- Safety tips for public transportation in the UAE
- Making a complaint about public transportation in the UAE
- Useful resources
Public transportation in the UAE
The public transportation system in the UAE – particularly the three hubs, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah – is state-of-the-art, efficient, and clean. Barring rare cases of traffic snafus, the network runs like clockwork. It is comparable with, if not better than, the highest standards in the West.
Public transportation in Dubai
The government controls most public transportation in the UAE – the buses, taxis, water taxis, and the metro. In Dubai, the Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) has the operations of public taxis, the Dubai Metro, the water transport system, buses, and the Dubai Tram, under its purview.
Dubai is the only emirate that has a transport card linking most forms of public transport payments, including the metro, tram, buses, and water buses. In order to avail of any of these services, you need to get yourself a Nol card (in Arabic, Nol means fare). Our advice would be to pick it up from any metro station; the easiest and most efficient place to get it from.
While there are no consolidated figures for the UAE’s public transport usage in Dubai – the most populous emirate – there were around 600 million rides in 2018 on public transport (in a city of 3 million). This is an indicator of the rate of conversion to the public system in a region that used to be primarily private vehicles driven.
Public transportation in the other emirates
The smaller emirates of Fujairah, Umm Al Quwain, and Ras Al Khaimah do not compare with the likes of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah when it comes to public transport. However, they are interconnected with the larger emirates through buses and taxis. They also have sufficient taxis – both public and private – that offer cheap mobility in these areas. Chances are you will not be living in these lesser-known emirates, but just in case that is the case, you would probably be better off with your own car.
Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, and Ajman also have transport cards, however, these are for bus services only.
Public transportation apps and websites in the UAE
The UAE government had a one-stop public transport microsite for all emirates on its official website.
Transport authorities in five of the emirates regulate the public bus system:
- Department of Transport in Abu Dhabi
- Roads and Transport Authority in Dubai
- Sharjah Roads and Transport Authority
- Public Transport Corporation in Ajman
- RAK Transport Authority in Ras Al Khaimah
These websites provide details such as routes, timetables, and helplines.
Dubai has the RTA app, which can be downloaded free of charge. The app offers everything you want to know about the public transport system in the emirate, including fares, timetables, routes, and maps.
Abu Dhabi has the Darb app that pretty much offers the same public transportation system information.
Trains in the United Arab Emirates
The UAE does not have conventional rail transport. The Dubai Metro was inaugurated in 2009; the Abu Dhabi and Sharjah chapters are in the planning stages. Etihad Rail, on the other hand, will provide freight and passenger services within the UAE. However, for the time being, only freight services are being provided.
So, for now, Dubai Metro is the closest you will come to a train service. Rest assured, you won’t be disappointed. The metro, with its swank and spotless stations, is a technological marvel. It is the world’s third-largest fully automated and driver-less metro in the world, after Singapore and Vancouver. The metro network spans 46 miles and 49 stations and has two lines: red and green. A third line, which should be operational in 2020, is under construction.
Dubai Metro timetables
Red Line (29 stations)
- Saturday to Wednesday: 5 am to midnight
- Thursday: 5 am to 1 am
- Friday: 10 am to 1 am
Green Line (20 stations)
- Saturday to Wednesday: 5.30 am to midnight
- Thursday: 5.30 am to 1 pm
- Friday: 10 am to 1 pm
Note: The last train will arrive at the last stop at midnight – so if you want to know the exact timing of the last train at the station of your choice, consult the RTA app.
Depending on the time of the day – peak or off-peak – trains come at an interval of between 4 to 7 minutes.
Fares for metro service in Dubai
You need to have the Nol card to access metro services. You can purchase these at all stations over the counter, or via ticket vending machines. There are four kinds of Nol cards: gold (first-class), silver (regular), blue (discounted), and red (limited use). The blue card is for users with discounted fares: students, senior citizens (over 60), and people with special needs. You have to produce proof (explained below in the disability-friendly section), and you need to be a resident of the UAE. The red card is ideal for tourists.
Fares start at AED3 and go up to AED17, depending on what kind of card you hold and the distance you travel.
- If you hold a silver card and mistakenly (or “mistakenly”) enter the gold class coach, you can be fined AED100 on the spot.
- Dubai Metro services both Terminal 1 and 3 (the Emirates terminal) of the Dubai airport. Each passenger can only bring one piece of luggage.
- No pets are allowed.
- Do not eat, drink, or chew gum in the metro – you will be fined.
- Men cannot enter the Ladies’ compartment, even when they are with family members.
Buses in the UAE
Buses in the UAE are safe, efficient, and clean, and drivers are trained in the skills of driving articulated vehicles. They are all air-conditioned; even the bus stations are air-conditioned. In the bigger emirates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, you will even find a number of ecological buses that run on rechargeable batteries. For traveling from emirate to emirate, buses are the cheapest and most popular form of public transport.
In Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, and Ajman, payments have to made through the transport card: Nol card in Dubai, Hafilat smart card in Abu Dhabi, the Sayer card in Sharjah and the Masaar Card in Ajman.
The country is moving towards a scenario where more and more residents can travel in these vehicles that are equipped with comforts and conveniences, such as:
- disability-friendly features;
- audio-visual aids;
- CCTV monitoring;
- ease of payments;
- segregated sections for women and families
In Dubai, for instance, there is a concerted effort to raise the percentage of bus usage to 26% by 2030.
Bus transportation in the other emirates
In the emirates of Fujairah and Umm Al Quwain, public buses are rare and not very organized. But if you are coming in from Dubai or Abu Dhabi, the buses will drop you at convenient spots. Hotels run coaches or you can hire taxis or some form of private transport to get around. In RAK, public buses are available at the RAK Public Taxi and Bus Station. However, keep in mind they are meant for inter-emirate travel; within the emirate, you will have to take a taxi or a private vehicle to get around.
In the rest of the UAE, you can board a bus at a central bus station if you are traveling from emirate to emirate. These are fitted with restrooms, prayer rooms (for Muslims), and cafes/eateries.
If you are traveling within an emirate, buses can be boarded at bus stations, in an orderly fashion.
Fare charges on buses usually start at AED2 for local travel and go up to about AED8. For inter-emirate travel, they are around AED25. If you are taking a ride on a bus to reach the metro station, your bus travel is free once you punch in your Nol card at the metro.
Senior citizens (over 60) and students get discounts, however, they will need an ID. In Dubai, for instance, they need to purchase the Nol blue card (they have to submit documents), which becomes automatic proof.
Timetables and routes
All public bus details are available online. In Dubai and Abu Dhabi, they are also available on the RTA and Darb apps respectively. Bus services start around 5 am in the morning and are operational until midnight, however, consult a timetable for more specific cues.
5 dos and don’ts on buses
- Be appropriately dressed – don’t, for instance, board a bus in swimwear;
- Be wary of indulging in public displays of affection;
- Do not eat, chew gum, or drink water;
- Absolutely do not be intoxicated;
- Do not carry copious amounts of luggage that may inconvenience others around you
Long-distance coaches in the UAE
The UAE is a tiny country with easy navigation, so the longest stretch to get from one emirate to the other – say Abu Dhabi to Fujairah, more than 250km – takes a maximum of five hours.
All long-distance coaches are very comfortable, fully air-conditioned, and with reclining seats. A few stops allow passengers to grab a bite and use restroom facilities.
You can hop onto a long-coach at any of the central bus stations in each emirate (all information is available online, and on travel apps operated by any of the emirates). You can use your travel card; but ensure you have enough balance because many of these stations may not have top-up services, or pay by cash/card.
All stations have decent facilities, such as convenience stores, food outlets, and washrooms. Fares for travel start at AED20 and don’t really go up by much.
Drinking water or eating is forbidden on buses, so tank up at the pit stops. If there is any emergency – say, there’s a small child or you are not well, speak with the bus staff before boarding and seek their advice. They may make an exception for you.
Taxis in the UAE
Taxis are still the most preferred public transport option in the UAE. The public taxis are efficient and clean, and fares are strictly regulated. They can be hailed on the streets, as long as the ‘taxi’ sign is lit; which means the cab is not occupied. You can also book a taxi via the helpline, and, in Dubai, through the RTA app.
While Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah have their own departments of transport that run the taxi services, the smaller emirates have public taxis managed and operated by Emirates Transport. Taxi fares vary from emirate to emirate, with Dubai commanding the highest price tags.
Most taxis are saloons or sedans; Toyota, Hyundai, and Nissan are the popular car brands for taxis. Interesting sideline: common taxi ‘brands’, such as the Camry or the Altima, are avoided by “well-heeled” residents because they are associated with being taxis.
Useful info about taxis in the UAE
- Drivers usually understand and speak English, Arabic, and Hindi; most of them are from South Asia and are nattily attired in uniforms.
- Many of the taxis accept card payments, however, cash is still the most common form of payment.
- A tip is welcome, but even if you don’t tip, it’s not a problem.
- In the larger emirates of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah, taxis operate 24 hours. Night charges (post 11 am until 6 am) are slightly higher than days ones.
- Ladies can request special taxis for women, driven by female chauffeurs.
- Airport taxis – the ones that operate out of arrival areas – have higher starting rates.
Car-sharing services and Uber in the UAE
Uber and Careem are the two app-based taxi services in the UAE. Uber operates in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, while Careem operates also in Sharjah and Ajman. Unlike the public taxis, fares can go slightly haywire during peak hours and on certain days in the year; such as New Year’s Eve or during Eid. But on regular days and off-peak hours, the fare structure of public taxis and Ubers/Careems is almost the same. A 10- to 12-km ride in Dubai will cost you between AED40 and AED50.
Uber and Careems use mostly Lexus, and the cars are luxurious to the hilt. In addition, you can expect all drivers to be fluent in English.
If you are looking for a taxi, you may come across dodgy drivers offering you a lift – for a price. At times you may be tempted, especially if the sun is beating down and there’s no sign of a cab. But remember, this is illegal, and you will probably get a fine if the police find out.
Other methods of public transportation in the UAE
The RTA in Dubai has a slew of alternative transport forms, including the following:
- Water taxis run from 10:00 to 22:00, and span 43 stations along the waterway; each taxi seats up to 10 passengers;
- Dubai Ferry operates ferry services, starting at 11:00, ending approximately around 21:00 every day. Its services run within the emirate and also links it to Sharjah;
- Dubai Tram runs between Dubai Marina and the Palm Jumeirah/Al Sufouh, along a 14.5km stretch, and 11 stations, all days of the week. The trams come at 10-minute intervals during peak hours, and 12 during off-peak hours. Two of the metro stations – DAMAC and JLT – are inter-connected to tram stations. Fares start at AED3;
- There are abras – traditional Arabic boats made of wood, powered by a motor – plying across the Dubai Creek. These charge as little as AED1 for going from one end of the shore to the other. The Bur Dubai station opens from 5 am to midnight, while the Deira one operates 24 hours;
- You can also rent bicycles in the country – there are good cycling tracks in most places – but these are sourced from private companies. Most of the Dubai Metro stations have bicycle parking facilities for those who cycle to and from the station.
Disability-access for public transportation in the UAE
The UAE government has been very proactive to look into the needs of disabled residents, who are referred to as “people of determination”. There is a special ID card for people of determination, provided for by the Ministry of Community Development. This offers them a host of facilities, including free and/or subsidized travel. You can contact your emirate’s transport authority to apply for this card and obtain more information.
In Abu Dhabi, for instance, people of determination are eligible for free unlimited travel on all buses within the city. In Dubai, the metro is equipped with disability-friendly amenities, such as:
- Tactile floor paths for the visually-impaired in all stations;
- CCTV for hearing the hearing-impaired;
- Each carriage has a designated space for a wheelchair, located close to the door, and allotted seating.
Dubai Taxi Corporation, which operates taxis 24 hours, has a fleet of vehicles for disabled people that are fitted with special features. These include a wheelchair and are driven by trained drivers.
For more information, visit the UAE government website for people with special needs.
Safety tips for public transportation in the UAE
The UAE is one of the safest countries in the world. That blanket extends to its public transport network as well. As such, there are no red flags; everything is monitored on CCTV – even some of the taxis have CCTVs. There are many heart-warming stories of valuables left behind in a bus and returned intact.
Despite this fact, it is always good to follow certain guidelines, as follows:
- If you a woman traveling alone in a taxi at night, it’s best not to indulge in banter with the cabbie;
- In the metro and in public buses, there are ‘ladies and children’ coaches and ‘family sections’; if you are a woman traveling alone, or with kids, use these;
- Always ensure your transport card has sufficient balance so that you don’t have to pay a fine (or be embarrassed by being hauled up by security);
- Do not eat or drink when you are commuting by public transport. It’s also a good idea to not carry cooked food; fellow passengers may get offended by the smell. In taxis, a cabbie may ask you to disembark if you are carrying food that smells;
- Do not carry alcohol. If you are riding a taxi after shopping at Duty-Free, keep the bottles in the trunk with the rest of your luggage;
- If you are traveling by taxi, insist on the printed receipt at the end of the trip; this has the taxi’s license number. In case you have left anything behind in the car, you can call up their lost and found.
Making a complaint about public transportation in the UAE
You can file complaints online or via a customer care helpline. For instance, if you have a complaint about a Dubai bus or taxi service, you can seek to address it with RTA. If you have a complaint in Abu Dhabi, you can get in touch with the Department of Transport. For smaller emirates like Fujairah or Ras Al Khaimah, chances are public transport will come under the jurisprudence of Emirates Transport.
Depending on the nature of your complaint, it takes anything between two to seven days for it to get resolved. They will usually ask a number of questions and then tell you when you can expect a redressal – or an explanation as to why your complaint didn’t achieve any outcome.
If you are not satisfied with the outcome, you can follow up with the Consumer Protection Department.
For more information, visit the following official websites and web pages:
- Government website
- Government of Dubai
- Department of Transport
- Transport in the United Arab Emirates
- Dubai Metro