In the fast lane
Cairo's microbuses are reliable, quick and affordable. But in this corner-cutting, beat-the-traffic-race, passengers sometimes find the ride a little too exciting. Gamal Nkrumah enters the world of daredevil riders
Microbus drivers! The very words elicits disapproving reactions from taxi drivers, private car drivers, pedestrians and the municipal authorities, police and the traffic authority. The reactions range from suspicion to open hostility and even envy. Taxi drivers complain that microbus drivers compete to pick up passengers, speed, and therefore are among the leading causes of accidents. Microbus drivers generally constitute a major menace to public well-being and safety in their view.
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The police is cracking down hard on unofficial microbus operators, but public demand ensures the survival of the lucrative business
Two million Cairenes use microbuses daily and demand for one of the fastest modes of public transport is growing in leaps and bounds
Others, however, show more than a little affinity for the notorious men. Among the fans are film-makers and passengers in a desperate hurry. In the fevered imaginations of their admirers, fired by the universally-assumed ingenuity and robust manliness of the microbus driver, these "men among men" personify the most forceful character traits of masculine virility. They also embody the spirit of resourceful adroitness.
In reality, drivers cut a far less commanding figure. There is nothing masterful about them, except perhaps their hazardous driving. They turn into mice when confronted by the police. With their passengers, they are nearly never submissive. They can be calculating and cruelly exacting. But, very occasionally they soften up a little. Ancient crones are permitted a free ride. A middle-aged man who always pretends to have just been given the sack, travels around Cairo without paying a piastre, because drivers are often deceived by his little sob-act trick.
Running a microbus route is hugely profitable and fiercely competitive. Of all the jobs in Cairo, that of microbus driver is probably in the unholiest mess. Microbus drivers are a terrible lot, everyone complains. They lead hard lives, but the business is lucrative enough to keep them driven. The drivers complain a lot about their clientele, but their beef seems chiefly to be with the local authorities and police rather than with the passengers. Films have even been made about the men who drive the microbuses and their unconventional lifestyles, most notably the 1998 film Afareet Al-Asfalt (Asphalt Demons). Everyone, after all, loves a bad boy.
Government and public scrutiny of the men behind the wheel is one of the main grievances of microbus drivers, and accordingly, vehicle registration and licensing are particularly problematic for microbus drivers. For the past four years, no new licences have been issued for the vehicles. But what exactly are microbuses? They are vehicles that accommodate 14 passengers or less. In Egypt, they are distinguished from mini- buses, which accommodate 26 passengers, and from the even larger public buses. A common misconception is that the microbuses essentially serve the poorest of the poor. "Microbuses essentially serve the lower middle income groups. The very poor, low income groups use public buses," Nabil El-Mazini, the head of public transport told Al-Ahram Weekly. "Microbus fares are actually higher than those of public buses," he added.
"We closely monitor microbuses," El-Mazini assured. "It normally takes between six and nine years to qualify for a second grade drivers' licence -- the legal requirement to be a microbus driver," he explained. "All the major routes are closely monitored. Most problems occur with the microbuses on peripheral routes serving informal housing areas on the outskirts of town, places such as Manshiyet Nasser, Al-Marg and Ain Shams," he added.
There are 8,880 microbuses in Cairo, and around 20,000 in Greater Cairo which includes parts of Giza and Qalyoubiya Governorates adjacent to Cairo Governorate. Two million Cairenes use microbuses daily, compared with 4.5 million who use public buses and mini-buses, and two million who use the Cairo metro -- or underground. El-Mazini said that most microbus drivers on the main routes are highly capable and experienced drivers. "Even when they speed, they are very skilled and in control," he said. However, along peripheral routes serving outlying shanty-towns, many inexperienced youngsters without proper second grade driving licences work as microbus drivers. The accident rates are relatively high on these peripheral routes. "Unfortunately, in Egypt drivers are often men without proper jobs, that is why they work as drivers because they cannot find other forms of lawful and gainful employment," El-Mazini told the Weekly.
In the past many such illicit microbus drivers were successful in their ruse. Today, the police have sharpened their act and are on the tail of those drivers, cracking down hard on urban unofficial microbus operators.
New government legislation is being promulgated to bring this form of transport more directly under government control.
The legislation is in line with the wider regulations governing privatisation, vehicle registration and licensing laws. No less than 34 private microbus companies are scrambling to serve Greater Cairo. New routes are being introduced. And, a revision of older routes with the phasing out of a few routes is also scheduled to come into effect in the next few months.
Despite the existence of the legislation that tightens up the penalties, problems persist. As cities grow, transport becomes more difficult and expensive for the poor. Traffic in Egypt has grown at least twice as much as the economy, but the traffic concentrated in the country's largest cities has grown much faster. Microbuses in Egypt, as distinguished from the government-run mini-bus services, are among the most popular modes of transport, precisely because of their speed and reliability. They are widely considered one of the best options for increasing public transport capacity in the short-term.
A recent Japanese study on transport and traffic in Greater Cairo showed that each weekday, an estimated 18 million journeys are made in Greater Cairo. Many people commute between Cairo and satellite cities that are far removed from the established boundaries of Greater Cairo, including towns like Tenth of Ramadan City in Sharqiya Governorate, north-east of Cairo, and Al-Ayyat, on the border between Giza and Beni- Sueif Governorates to the south-west. Microbus trips account for no less than 20 per cent of those journeys.
Not all major routes are safe. One of the most dangerous of Cairo's main arteries is the Corniche, the extensive thoroughfare that runs parallel to the Nile. While not littered with wrecks of microbuses, eye-catching crashes are witnessed frequently enough to scare off many potential passengers, but not frequently enough to deter determined commuters. Last month there was a particularly nasty accident on the Corniche at one of the main entrances to the suburb of Maadi, eight kilometres south of Cairo. Survivors said they had asked the driver several times to slow down. Belongings were strewn across the street.
Mercifully, the death toll was not high, but two lives were lost, and several passengers sustained serious injuries after the bus swerved off the road. Few emerged from the incident unscathed. Survivors said the driver took the curve too fast, trying to race ahead of another microbus alongside. Curious onlookers congregated as ambulance workers started removing bodies and the injured from the wreckage.
For a city the size of Cairo, accidents are a daily occurrence. Indeed, the following day, I was told that another microbus overturned on the outskirts of the city after its brakes failed. One third of those who die on the streets of the city are unsuspecting pedestrians and not the passengers or drivers of the speed vehicles of death.
Brawls and fist-fights between rival drivers are not uncommon. And, full-speed races down the Corniche are a particular cause for concern for passengers, pedestrians trying to cross the road, and private car drivers alike. Police make sure that drivers are not permitted to suddenly pull off the road, but when there are no police checkpoints, many drivers do.
Drivers are frequently stopped by police and traffic wardens and their driving licences thoroughly checked. Very occasionally a driver takes a short nap after hungrily devouring foul (beans) and ta'miya (felafel) sandwiches, and his fare- collecting mate takes over at the wheel.
Poor safety equipment and a fatalistic disregard for regulations are also causes of public concern. In Cairo, many microbuses lack tail-lights. Others routinely drive around with bald tires. In sharp contrast to the well-padded, high-back seats of their drivers, the passenger seats on microbuses are usually in appalling condition, often broken with sharp metal edges murderously protruding. The broken seats can be fatal in an accident, but even on the most uneventful of rides passengers are lucky to disembark without having torn their clothing or sustaining nasty scratches.
The paratransit system of the microbuses is a mixed bag. It certainly has its pros and cons. When all goes well, you marvel at the speed and reliability. But often, all does not go well. You queue for ages, you wait forever, or worse, you end up in hospital or dead.
The Abdel-Moneim Riad bus terminal in the heart of Cairo is a hive of activity. Drivers call out their routes to potential passengers who hop on and off the microbuses. It seemed as good a place as any to meet and chat with the notorious drivers. A microbus driver, Shehta Abu Sri' (Father of Speed), was now baring his soul. Shehta has a particularly provocative bad boy presence. "When I'm behind the wheel, I get the urge to race. I feel that if I go at a breakneck speed, I am making more and more money. And I manage to give the traffic wardens a ride so many times, it has become something of a sport," Shehta told the Weekly.
It's such fun to break traffic rules and regulations. But, there is a downside to such savoir-faire. Speed has a price. Accident rates are soaring. To blame the drivers for these troubles, though, is not entirely fair.
Road safety has become a topic of major concern in Egypt, as well as in many other developing countries. One of the problems making it difficult to effectively address the matter in Egypt is the limited institutional capacity in the field of road safety.
There is the anomaly that developing countries have 85 per cent of the world's road accident fatalities despite having relatively few vehicles. At a time when accident fatalities are steadily decreasing in the West, road deaths are hitting record levels in the South.
The World Bank's Urban Transport Strategy has produced several illuminating studies on the problems posed by private bus services or paratransit operations in large cities in the poorer, developing countries. The bank's research indicates that among the poorest households in very large cities in developing countries, such as Cairo, 25 per cent of household income is spent on transport.
Egypt does not have one of the most dismal records in the world, but the public at large and the authorities share the belief that microbuses are to blame for the country's poor road safety record.
There is, however, scant evidence to support the view that unofficial public transport vehicles are ill-maintained or that there is a high risk involved in using them.
"When it comes to the objective measurement of the safety of the paratransit, or minibus operations, there is little data to go on. The widespread perception is that these vehicles are unsafe, due to a combination of poor maintenance and driver behaviour," David Silcock, chief executive of the Geneva, Switzerland-based Global Road Safety Partnership (GRSP) told the Weekly.
The GRSP brings together government, business and civil society organisations to work together to reduce death and injury on the world's roads -- particularly in developing countries. The GRSP is hosted by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Geneva, Switzerland.
The microbuses, Silcock says, "may indeed be involved in many crashes in densely trafficked cities such as Cairo, Manila or Nairobi -- but we have little or no data to determine whether the number of crashes and passenger injuries are due to higher risk or simply to the fact that they exist in large numbers, operate on many kilometres of well-travelled road, in comparison to other modes of transport".
Silcock pointed out the practical difficulties involved in comparing the safety records of one mode of transport with another. "The best comparison would be between injuries per passenger kilometre travelled of the different modes of transport, but the data on injuries and passenger kilometres are so weak or non- existent, that we cannot reach a firm conclusion," Silcock explained.
While stressing that there are enormous contextual differences between the paratransit system situation in wealthy industrially advanced countries and poorer developing countries, Silcock believes that certain pointers can be deduced from studies undertaken in rich countries. "Evidence from Britain when bus services were deregulated and competition became fierce in some cities is that crashes changed broadly in proportion to accident rates -- in other words more bus kilometres resulted in more bus crashes. Just as would be expected if the underlying risk did not change," Silcock said.
"This does not mean that there are no road safety problems surrounding private bus services or paratransit operations. But it does mean that they merit careful analysis and targeted solutions and may be no more 'unsafe' than private car drivers are [per passenger kilometre] compared to people riding a motorcycle. What is needed is a coherent road safety strategy which addresses the real underlying problem."