|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
18 - 24 October 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Traffic nightmareAs authorities began experimenting with the controversial Al-Azhar tunnel this week, Cairo Governor Abdel-Rehim Shehata spoke to Gihan Shahine about the prospects of resolving the traffic nightmare in one of the world's major cities
Despite government efforts to streamline traffic in Cairo, the capital is still crumbling under the double onslaught of heavy traffic and overpopulation. Does the government need to revise its plans altogether?
(photos: Khaled El-Fiqi, Salah Ibrahim and Ayman Ibrahim)
Space isn't remote at all
It's only an hour's drive away
If your car could go straight upwards
-- Fred Hoyle --
But of course cars don't go straight upwards. They go forwards: in Cairo by inches.
Our traffic is often the first thing visitors see. One such visitor was Chara Chandrasekhar, a graduate of Yale University, whose description of a trip to Egypt recalled, "Cairo is accurately infamous for its traffic congestion; masses of people and vehicles continually clog the streets throughout the day." This casts "a permanent gray- brown pall over the city."
That excess has consequences. Experts say that traffic kills at least 6,000 and injures 30,000 every year. They put the cost to the country at about LE 1 billion a year.
The government has poured LE37 billion into Cairo's infrastructure over the past decade, half of that tackling the road network. Yet gridlock remains a traffic-light away. Cairo's streets just cannot cope with the increase in the number of vehicles. Already there are over 1.5 million; an additional half a million drive in from Qalyubiya to the north, heading south, and Giza to the south, heading north.
Critics insist that the government deals with traffic problems piecemeal. This approach, they argue, is flawed. What is needed, they believe, is a comprehensive master plan for Greater Cairo. Among the essentials of that master plan is the LE890 million Al-Azhar tunnel which connects Opera Square to Salah Salem Street. The tunnel was experimentally opened to traffic on Saturday. But it is already the target of criticism for fear that, instead of resolving the traffic problem, it may compound the congestion in the heart of the capital, because it is not part of a broader plan.
The man responsible for making it easier for millions of inhabitants and visitors to carry out their daily chores without serious traffic delays is Cairo Governor Abdel-Rehim Shehata. Unavoidably, the controversy over the Al-Azhar tunnel was a main topic during Al-Ahram Weekly's interview with the governor. Initially, Shehata shrugged off allegations that the tunnel will compound traffic congestion in the heart of the city.
"The tunnel is a real boost to traffic in the city centre," Shehata said. "Moreover, it will turn Fatimid Cairo into an open air museum once the Al- Azhar Street is pedestrianised and the fly-over, an eye-sore, is removed."
The Fatimid Cairo project, Shehata insisted, is a priority. Now that anti- Arab sentiment in foreign countries appears to be rising, Arab tourists could turn to Egypt, whose Islamic monuments are a special treat.
"With the completion of the Al- Azhar tunnel, the government can start its development plan for the area," Shehata emphasised, citing some important Islamic landmarks in the area. "The tunnel will also reduce pollution resulting from car emissions, giving monuments an overdue breath of fresh air."
But inhabitants of the area worry that the new developments may negatively affect their lives. No one has told them where to park their cars or how emergencies will be handled, once motorists are banned from the Al-Azhar Street. Traders fret over the future of their sales and how to transport their wares.
Shehata insists that all those worries are dealt with in the area's development plan. "You tell me how emergencies are dealt with in the pedestrianised streets of Rome and Paris," the governor exclaimed. "People are always afraid of change."
Shehata explained that there will be specific hours, probably at night, for traders to bring in their wares. And in an emergency fire brigades and ambulances will always be allowed into the street. Residents can leave their cars in nearby parking areas in Al-Darrassa, the Opera and Ataba and take a 10 to 15-minute walk to their destinations. For the disabled and the aged, there will be 12 electric shuttle vehicles, each seating 10 persons, to carry them home from car parks.
"The project will really give the area a long- needed facelift;" Shehata enthused. "Shops will be refurbished and traders will adapt their businesses in accord with the historic climate of the neighbourhood." Does that mean relocating those who don't match?
"No," Shehata quickly replied. "Only workshops which pose a threat to monuments and the environment will be relocated; but traders who have wares that do not fit in the area can use their shops for display purposes and keep their stock in nearby warehouses. Traders will sell more when their goods are better displayed and exposed to the area's visitors -- as is the case now with those in the downtown pedestrianised El-Alfi street."
Ironically, although tunnelling under the Fatimids was primarily intended to promote tourism in the area, the Ministry of Tourism was never consulted about the project. Measures ensuring the security of tourists and controlling tourist guides remain vague to many tourism officials. But Shehata maintained that special slots in parking areas have already been designated for tourist buses, and tourists "will be able to view monuments under tight security."
But it is the fate of Cairo's traffic that generates the most fears. Many critics are afraid that the tunnel, which consists of two lanes, will not be able to accommodate the traffic now moving on both Al- Azhar Street and the fly-over. Shehata dismisses such worry; he insists the tunnel will be able to handle traffic volumes, thanks to a new plan that will be enforced after a two year study.
"The tunnel was designed to accommodate more than the current surface traffic in the area (approximately 2,800 vehicles per hour). In case of any congestion, we have already widened and paved at least five to six side-streets to serve as alternative routes to the Al-Azhar thoroughfare," Shehata explained. "Work is also well under way to complete the northern Al-Gamaliya route, a parallel alternative Al-Azhar Street."
Salah Salem Street has also been broadened to accommodate traffic coming from the Opera square; 26th of July Street has been turned into a one-way thoroughfare, and public buses shuttling in the area were reduced in number and assigned alternative routes. A multi-level car park has also been built in Al-Darrassa and work in under way on two pedestrian tunnels at the tunnel's exits.
For Shehata, the tunnel is one part of a comprehensive plan to streamline traffic in the capital. Rejecting claims that there is no master plan, Shehata took the Weekly to some maps hanging in the corridor outside his office.
"See? The government has spent large amounts on planning traffic, almost to the tune of LE17 billion, over the past decade," he said. A few examples are: the Autostrad (LE400 million), the 6th of October flyover (LE450 million), the ring road (LE2.4 billion) and the underground (LE11 billion).
"Four years ago, we also established a new department of traffic planning experts, and their efforts have, no doubt, borne fruit," Shehata added. "The completion of the ring road and the Mounib fly-over, the new extensions of the 6th of October and 15th of May fly-overs, the second underground metro line connecting Shubra to Giza, and now the Al-Azhar tunnel are only a few of their achievements," he said.
Yet for all that, traffic remains chaotic. "Traffic has significantly improved over the past two years, but large cities are like living beings that constantly change, and we update our plans accordingly. But we definitely have a master plan for Greater Cairo," the governor retorted. "Still, people will better feel the improvement in traffic when all current projects are completed."
The authorities are also building a one-way extension that will connect the section of the 6th of October flyover that runs parallel to Al-Galaa and Ramses Streets with the 15th of May fly-over and then the 26th of July Bridge, which ends at Sultan Abul-Ela Mosque on the 26th of July Street in Boulaq. Construction cost is LE100 million.
"The connection will provide commuters coming from Heliopolis and Nasr City on the 6th of October Bridge with a direct route to Mohandessin, halving a 40-minute trip during peak hours," Shehata said proudly. "It will also relieve at least 40 per cent of traffic in congested areas in the city centre."
To encourage public transport, the government is also considering establishing a third underground metro line to connect Cairo airport with Ataba Square, and increasing air-conditioned public buses to 200 from the current 100.
Parking and pedestrian problems are also high on the governor's list of priorities. Last year, he went public with a plan to build 12 underground parking structures. The LE3 billion cost will be provided by the private sector using the build, operate and transfer (BOT) system.
So the public is entitled to ask why none of these car-parks has yet appeared. "Contracts have been signed with private companies, but it takes at least two years to finish studies of such projects that need a high standard of technology," Shehata said. He added that a garage has already been built under the Heliopolis sporting club and construction work has started on garages in the Tahrir/Omar Makram, Roxy and Ahmed Helmi areas. Designs are also nearing completion for a Gezira garage.
Although the building code stipulates that each housing bloc should have a parking area in the basement, the law is not strictly enforced. Many landlords prefer to rent or sell basements to investors who open up shops, restaurants or supermarkets - wreaking more traffic chaos on already overcrowded areas. But Shehata claimed that "the law is strictly enforced" and vowed to "punish transgressors in case a violation is reported."
The scarcity of parking areas makes motorists and pedestrians vie for space on the sidewalks. And it is a losing battle for pedestrians who are forced into the streets, where they are forced into another space battle with bumper-to-bumper vehicles. The disabled and the aged also have a hard time moving about on Cairo's congested streets where ramps and other facilities are scarce.
That will hopefully change soon. "We have widened, paved and repaired almost all sidewalks in downtown Cairo and pedestrianised a whole street (El-Alfi) for people to enjoy a leisurely stroll in the city centre," Shehata said. All new road works, according to Shehata, are planned with a high priority given to "sidewalks, ramps and green areas."
But challenges remain. More cars are licensed every day, and Shehata is convinced that traffic jams will not end until the number of licenses is limited and the traffic law strictly enforced.
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