Wear Your Seat Belt
Traffic conditions in Doha (and why they’re like that)
Car accidents in Doha
The kinds of cars in Doha
Ubers and taxis
Walking and biking
The tram and metro system
I told people I rode a camel to school every morning. I can't believe some of them believed me.
It’s true that I saw a lot of Doha, but I promise here were no camels involved. So how did I get around? That’s what this post is about!
First let’s talk about . . .
Richmond has some pretty casual traffic. The highways are crowded before and after work, people seemingly forget how to drive when it rains or snows, there are plenty of potholes for cars to dive into, sometimes there’s construction, sometimes there’s a traffic jam, and sometimes our traffic lights are painfully slow, but no matter what Richmond traffic is easy to manage.
Traffic in Doha?
Why? There’re a few reasons for that:
There was a lot of construction going on in 2018. Some of it was normal metropolitan “let’s upgrade the infrastructure” kind of construction, while the rest of it was in preparation of the 2022 World Cup. Construction naturally can make traffic slow and drivers frustrated, but I had never seen so much construction in so many places. Widening roads, erecting new buildings, turning roundabouts into intersections, creating highways, building stadiums . . . it was intense. What else was intense was the speed with which these things got built. As soon as I’d get used to a rerouted road, there’d be a new rerouting based on a street that suddenly now existed. It felt like I was trapped within Sim City.
Construction was everywhere. Even on the water.
Drivers from different countries
90% of the population in Qatar is expatriate, and all of the expatriates hail from about 90 different countries. That means 90% of the people on the road are used to the driving laws & habits of their 90 different home countries, which is bound to create some rough traffic conditions. Imagine not yet being used to driving in kilometers, or not being able to read any of the English or Arabic traffic signs, or just having to get used to seeing two languages on every sign in general. Then there’s the little things like sign text being in a different font, yield signs not being yellow (like in the U.S.), or all the highway signs being blue (unlike in Richmond where they’re green). It takes your brain a second to readjust to what you’re looking at and what it means, but that brain delay really sucks because it also only takes a second to get into a car crash.
Look, I’m sure everyone is frustrated with the traffic and that everyone has somewhere they need to be, but damn Doha had a lot of road rage. It felt like there was always someone, usually in an 8-seat SUV, honking their horn or flashing their lights trying to get my drivers to move out the way so they could speed past them. Mini altercations—like drivers cussing out the window to each other—often happened whenever there was a close call of an accident, and I witnessed a considerable amount of close calls.
Car accidents can naturally stall traffic, but the accidents in Doha were part of a much bigger problem.
Car accidents were the number two cause of death in Qatar until 2017 (beat out only by heart disease). It’s interesting, though, because vehicle-related deaths in the U.S. were 11.4 per 100,000 people in 2017, while Qatar was only 5.4 per 100,000 people (for reference, the global average was 17.4). This means that technically fatal car crashes in the U.S. happened more often than they did in Qatar, and yet, it still wasn’t one of our leading causes of death, it didn’t even make our top ten.
By 2018, though, the number of fatal car crashes in Qatar dropped by 10%, which is a great improvement, but not enough to bump it out of the top ten list. Me? I had three close calls when it came to car accidents and I knew someone who got their car totaled in an accident while I was there (don’t worry, all he got were crutches, not a casket). I noticed passengers doing dangerous things like riding in the trunk of their SUV, and there were a lot of people, including children, not wearing seat belts (despite the many “wear your seat belt” campaign posters scattered around the city; many of them even had the faces of football stars encouraging passengers, with a dashing smile, to buckle up).
With all this talk about car accidents and traffic safety, I’m sure you’ve picked up on the fact that Qatar has cars—plenty of them. This is a fact that some of my peeps back home were surprised to hear, though. I’m not sure what their image of Qatar was—perhaps they envisioned nothing but sand, camels, and an art school that had mysteriously sprung from an oasis—but I can promise you this: Qatar had cars. Lots and lots of cars.
What kind of cars were in Doha?
They had big & practical SUVs (including an uncanny amount of white Toyota Landcruisers) and some regular car-sized cars (from all over the world). I even saw one lady driving a refurbished London taxi. That said, Doha was a pretty good place to spot some tricked out rides and luxury cars, but there still weren’t that many of them I saw on the road. I also didn’t see many cars that seemed older than 2005, which was just made for an odd visual scene compared to the variety America offers (for better or worse). When I did see older cars, or things like pickup trucks, they were typically being used by migrant workers or for construction.
After I left the country, though, I did learn of some car shows in Doha, so there’s at least a little bit of a car appreciation culture.
Ubers were how I got around Doha when I wasn’t catching a ride with one of my two friends. I ordered my first Uber ever my first night in Doha to attend a midnight wedding reception. The Ubers in Doha were a lot cheaper than in the U.S. (a 15-minute drive in Richmond was the same price as a 35-minute drive in Doha). However, this also meant that Uber drivers were getting paid less than in the U.S.; they had gone on strike twice by the time I got to Doha in 2018.
Lyft was not available in Doha in 2018, but Careem was, as well as a few other car services that I had never heard of. In fact, a lot of people used car services to get from Point A to Point B, even people with licenses and cars to drive. That said, car services in Doha are not sketchy in the slightest, they’re completely safe. Okay, there was that one Uber driver I had who sped like crazy (he got me to my destination in 15 minutes even though it was a solid 30 minutes away), but aside from that I didn’t have any problems with Ubers.
Just like in the U.S., some Uber drivers are personable & talkative, while others are stone silent. My first Uber driver asked me lots of questions about where I was from and how long I’d be in Doha; in the end he offered to be my personal driver for the semester. I had another Uber driver ask me questions about American politics, including why we voted for Trump. The same one also wanted to know whether I was a student, if I was working, what my parents did for a living, and what their names were, what their names meant, and he compared them to naming practices in India. He asked what some of my friends’ names were, what religion they were (as he was trying to guess based on their name), and he asked if it was expensive to live in the U.S. Everyone else, though, was very quiet aside from asking for directions.
Speaking of directions, wow, a lot of Uber drivers seemed to think they knew better than the map. Don’t get me wrong, GPS maps aren’t always up to date—especially with the myriad of construction going on in Doha—and it makes sense that locals may know better ways to get around town, but I had many Uber drivers assume they knew where my destination was and then take me to the wrong (nearby) place.
Ubers and Education City
Trying to catch an Uber after hours in Education City can be a bit tricky. EC closes its gates in the evening and they only open them for people with university or Qatar Foundation ID’s. Naturally, Uber drivers didn’t usually have the proper ID so was impossible for them to get into EC and pick me up. So how did I get them through the gates? I had to ask the front desk at wherever I was in EC to call the security at whichever gate my Uber is stuck at (Education City has five gates). Then I had to give security my Uber’s license plate number, possibly a basic car description, and possibly their name. After my driver got the go-ahead, they had to give the guards their ID & phone number, pick me up, and then exit from the same gate they entered (because they had to get their ID back).
Similarly, when getting back into EC after hours, I had to have to show security my student ID and then my driver had fork over their ID and phone number.
The country’s official taxi is Karwa taxis, which are completely blue. This is one of the few competitors, Yellow Taxi.
I took a cab once in Doha, specifically because I couldn’t catch an Uber. My friend and I were leaving the souq one evening and, unsurprisingly, there were dozens of cabs lingering around to take tourists home.
Well, my cab experience was fine, but I still would have preferred to take an Uber because cabs are often more expensive, and I’d heard that some cabbies sometimes rip passengers off. Sometimes when you tell them where you need to go, they’ll immediately give you a price—that’s not right. They’re supposed to run the meter and then you pay whatever the meter tells you to pay. Sometimes, though, they won’t turn on the meter, and without the meter running, they can overcharge you. If they never turn on the meter, though, your ride is free, and it even says so on the information paper taped to the window. That paper also lists the number to call if you’re having any problems with the cab or cabbie.
Just a few things to mention because it was so different than my expeience in the U.S.
Most people I spoke to called it "gas", but I sometimes saw it advertised as "petrol"
The lines at the station were long. They often started out as one big line of cars slightly pouring out from the street that ever so slowly splintered off, finding individual pumps.
People pump gas for you. You don't even have to get out of the car. From what I could tell, you just tell them how much money's worth of gas you want, hand them the money (or card), and they pump your gas for you.
I think the Northern U.S. is like this, maybe in New York or New Jersey, but Richmond? Not so much.
Qatar recently came out with some sort of car chip that let's you pay for gas with even less hassle. Essentially, you load money onto your chip account, then whenever someone at the gas station scans your chip it just . . . pays for gas. It's still pretty new to me, but if nothing else it sounds cool!
Gas was cheaper in Doha than the U.S. . . . naturally.
Walking & biking
Richmond, especially around VCU, has a prominent pedestrian and biking culture. In fact, that was usually how I got around pre-2018, and it was how I had been getting around for three years. I was used to it and in preparing for my international adventure, I hadn’t even thought about the possibility of not being able to do that.
Let me first just list some bullet points.
There weren’t many bikers on the road. The few I did see were professional sportspeople.
Bike lanes had only just begun to spring up in Doha within the past two or three years.
There weren’t many pedestrians in Doha probably because of the climate. It can get stupid hot in Qatar, then you’ve got the occasional high winds and mini dust storms to contend with.
A lot of sidewalks in Doha were either being worked on (as part of the extensive construction) or awkwardly just stopped, leaving pedestrians to walk in the street.
There were still many places in the city that were very pedestrian-friendly, like parks and the Corniche.
I also met a lot of people who weren’t interesting in biking or walking because everything in Doha was “so far away”. Well, Qatar is split into eight municipalities, with the most metropolitan ones being Doha and two of its bordering municipalities, Ar-Rayyan and Al Wakrah. This is like Virginia in that we’ve got Richmond at the center and some bordering cities & counties; that whole collection is called “The Greater Richmond Area”. Well, getting across Doha and its bordering municipalities by car only took about 30 minutes in normal traffic. Getting through the entirety of Greater Richmond, in contrast, takes about an hour (For Richmonders: Think Goochland to Charles City).
This in mind, nothing in Doha felt far away to me. I was never inclined to walk or bike my way through the city, but to feel as though I technically could and still be able to make my way back home before the day was out, that was pretty cool.
Here you can see Doha, Ar-Rayyan, and Al Wakrah. Those hearts and stars are all in Education City.
Around Education City
One of the shaded walkways in Education City.
There was somewhere in Education City where people could rent bikes, possibly the Rec Center. I never rented one, but it was good to know since Education City is inherently bike friendly (with its usual lack of traffic on both the street and the sidewalk). Education City even had a bikeshare program with electric bikes, free to use for students and faculty, but it didn’t get much use. The program launched in 2014, but by the time I got there in 2018 all that was left were the electric bike stands.
When it comes to walking, there weren’t many people doing it. Oxygen Park in the evening tended to attract some casual walkers, like moms with strollers and the occasional jogger, but EC as a whole? Not so much.
That said, I walked all around campus. It had been my natural habit for three years, so when I couldn’t figure out the shuttle system (which drives all around EC) I brushed it off and decided I’d walk everywhere. When I say “everywhere”, though, the only places I ever needed to go were the Student Center, the Green Spine, the library, Carnegie Mellon that one time, and VCUQ. I’ll admit that there were some people who voiced how odd they thought it was that I didn’t feel the need to ask for a ride or call an Uber to get somewhere on campus, but I understood where they were coming from . . . to an extent. Education City as a whole is huge, and it makes a lot more sense to catch a ride to the opposite side of campus, for example.
So, what was it like walking around EC? Eerily quiet and solitary, especially compared to the VCU-Richmond campus. Have you ever seen the crosswalk on Main Street, between Oliver Hall and the Student Commons? You know the crosswalk where hordes of students coming to and from class pile up 10 minutes before the start of every hour, occasionally tempting fate by crossing at a green light as two lanes of traffic speed toward them? That was my normal. So, walking around Education City was just peculiar, but often pleasant (especially in the winter). Once spring hit, though, yeah, it got pretty hot, to the point where that 15-minute walk from my apartment to the Student Center in the evening required more hydration than I anticipated. However, the springtime sun—akin to Richmond’s late-July heat—wasn’t enough to deter me from walking down the street to get some koshari, use the ATM, and pick up the can of spicy Pringles I was craving. The summer heat, though? That probably would have been a different story.
Can you see that construction on the long side of VCUQ? That may be part of the tram system they’re installing. And that green grass mat in the foreground? Yeah, that’s the windblown remnants of another construction project.
The People Mover in Education City
The People Mover System—or PMS (I know, haha funny)—is the tram system they’re building in Education City. Now, I’ve had to walk eerily close to active construction sites to get to class in high school and at VCU-Richmond but walking over the dusty steel beams outside VCUQ was on a whole new level. Eventually they put up a perimeter fence (which meant I now had to walk in the street and through some sand) but it’s kind of cool to think I stepped on a spot that will one day be a super high-tech public transport system, though.
I heard that with Education City was envisioned, it was meant to be an ecofriendly car-free campus (which would explain the bikeshare program). The tram system seems like the next step in that goal, but from what I understand it’s had some delays. The project started in 2012 with a 2015 completion date, but then that was pushed to 2016. When I was there in 2018, I am pretty damn sure it wasn’t done yet . . . I think I would have noticed some shiny new trams breezing around campus.
It should definitively be done by 2022 in time for the World Cup, which will be incredibly useful considering there’s going to be a stadium in Education City. Speaking of that, this isn’t a little campus tram system as I originally thought, oh no, when the project is finished the 19 trams should be able to hold 3,300 people. Even better, the plan is for the Education City tram to connect to the future Doha Metro.
Doha Metro System
The Doha Metro is under construction and the first set of lines should be completed by 2020 (and the rest should be done by 2026). It’s part of the Qatar Railway System (Qatar Rail), the government-run rail system that also has plans to connect Qatar’s metro to the rail systems in the six other GCC countries. The metro is also a part of Qatar National Vision 2030, a plan to turn Qatar into an advanced, sustainable, ecofriendly country. When the rail system is done, it will travel at 100 km/h (about 62 mph) and will be one of the fastest driverless rail systems in the world. I anticipate life in Qatar will be akin to The Jetsons.
A few more things I think you should know
A lot of places, like malls and the souq, had designated areas for taxis (and subsequently Ubers and other personal drivers) to wait for pickup/drop off. This is usually the best place to tell your Uber to meet you at as it’s probably the most accessible from the street.
A lot of side streets don’t have names, or at least, whatever names they do have aren’t clearly displayed and sometimes don’t even appear on GPS maps (be it Google Maps, Uber, or Waze). Other places have unofficial names that every local knows about, like the roundabout near Burger King being called Burger King Roundabout (before they turned it into an intersection).
Doha has a bus system, but I rarely saw people riding them. It was a little creepy to see a whole bus at any time of day with no more than three passengers. I’m not even sure where the bus stops were.
Cabbies are very forward and will call out to you, asking if you need a ride. But since cabs tend to cluster, you’ll have about five cabbies talking to you at once. They also tend to target people who look like tourists.
Keep Waze and Google Maps handy. Don’t worry about looking like a dummy or brining unwanted attention to yourself. Everyone driving—even people who have lived there all their life—uses Waze because there’s always so many road changes with the construction. And if you’re walking, staring down at Google Maps on your cellphone like a lost tourist, don’t worry too much about getting snatched or followed. Qatar was literally the safest country on earth so looking like a tourist doesn’t put you in severe danger.
If you’re staying at the girls’ dorm in Education City, I’ll save you some time and possible confusion. The gate closest to Shamali is Gate 3. For a while I didn’t know Education City even had gates, and then I didn’t know how many gates they had, what time the gates closed, or where each one led. Now you’ll know going in what I didn’t figure out until April.
C’mon, if you’re hanging out in Doha the last thing you want to do is stay at the hotel 24/7. And as an exchange student in Education City—well—as fun as Education City can be, you have got to get out of that bubble! Granted, all the car & traffic issues were frustrating, and at times terrifying, but getting around Doha was easy. Plus, Qatar has plans to make travel even easier and ecofriendly, which is super exciting! So, travel! Get around! Explore! You’ll be fine, just remember to wear your seat belt.