Trying to walk out of Dubai airport

To be fair, if it wasn’t for thousands of other cities that are oil dependent by design, there wouldn’t even be a Dubai. So in one sense it is fitting that Dubai be a celebration of machine transportation, a triumph over nature, completely artificial, and all of that. It’s a trading post along a modern silk road, in this case the shipping lanes between the oil fields and the US where most of that oil goes to be turned into smog. No wonder this city reminds me of Singapore. Both are as spectacular as sets for Aida, and will be discarded as readily when the trade of tomorrow follows new routes.


Still, there are plenty of good reasons to study these fly-by-night cities. One is for the stark image they give us of what can go wrong when architects lose sight of people on foot or on bike.

airport to hotel

Jetlag and a delayed flight afforded me an opportunity this evening to try to do something I have tried on a bike many times in other cities, only this time in the manner of Will Self. I tried to leave the vicinity of the airport on foot. When I arrived in Dubai this morning I paced, misdirected, in the heat and fumes of the taxi ranks looking for the curtesy shuttle bus bay. After dragging my suitcase two lengths of the concourse, in Dubai’s heat, I then had to wait for the next bus to arrive. What frustrated me most at that point, was I could see my hotel! When presently the shuttle bus was hurling my dehydrated overtired body past the other two terminals, you can be sure I wasn’t thinking of an ironic blog post. I was thinking of pretty girls’ faces, anything, not throw up.

It would be my gift to other weary travellers, and myself when I pass by here again, to discover some way of walking the short distance, just 280 meters, from the airport to the airport hotel.

Okay, from my little photo essay there, you can see that I failed. According to the driver of the courtesy bus who got me home in the end, there is a tunnel, only it’s private, for employees of the airline.

When anything is presented as “for our convenience” or “as a courtesy” to us, we should know it’s a rip off. Taxis, courtesy buses, hire cars and parking stations for our own cars all fall into that category. Metros aren’t a lot better, at least not in cities like Dubai and Singapore where they funnel you into shopping arcades: in planner-speak it’s called land “land value capture”; in plain speak, it’s strong-arming the public into paying for their metro once more, this time with $5 doughnuts.

My complaint though is that most of these so-called conveniences are just thwarting trips that would be actually be convenient if all those conveniences were put on a truck and dumped out of sight. If Dubai was compact and built with covered ways, as the old parts still are, I could have ridden a bike to the beach and back in the time it just took me to write this complaint. I would have had an extra two hours to spare today, had I been able to walk between the airport and the hotel. I would not be timing my imminent trip back to get on a plane around the half-hourly schedule of some courtesy buses. I wonder if one of these guys would be willing to dink me?

cycle chic dubai


  1. Jonathan R says:

    On the other side of the world, I took a more or less successful shortcut biking THROUGH LaGuardia Airport the other afternoon. At least the airport roads are designed without incessant stoplights like the housing on the other side of the Grand Central Parkway

    • Steven says:

      As good as that is, I can top it. I was once a part of time trial race, that used the service roads around an air strip. I missed the part of the briefing that said to give way to taxying planes and almost rode right under one, I was so engrossed in what I was doing. I can still see the pilots’ bemused expressions, thinking they were about to chop me up with their propellers.

  2. Daniel Oakman says:

    One of the spurious reasons I have heard for deliberately making airports walk-bike-free zones is that all-encompassing phrase “security”. Supposedly, in cars people are more controllable and observable. In reality, I think it is also about class (not which end of the plan you sit in)- airport owners don’t want a whole of poor people (i.e. people who walk or ride bikes) getting easy access to those who fly. God know what might happen!!!!

  3. Ever been to Wellington, capital of New Zealand? Not so much a fly-by-night city (well, maybe it feels more permanent in a fly-by-night country). It’s famed for being walkable, urbane and perhaps soon even bikeable. Still, the airport experience is more like your Dubai.
    I did manage to get out on foot, but only by traversing strange carparks (no, the cars didn’t have wings) and what was probably supposed to be a gated barrier, all while feeling like some all-hands red alert was likely to sound at any moment. No one belonging to the special ecosystem of airport creatures could advise of a better route. Makes me wonder who designed the damn thing, but then again asking too many questions on top of wandering uninhabited airport grounds doesn’t seem wise either.

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