Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 January - 1 February 2006
Issue No. 779
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Reaching an impasse

Cairo traffic is moving from bad to worse, Reem Leila looks into one of Egypt's most chronic problems

Click to view caption
Top: the bridge under construction in Lebanon Square is expected to ease the flow of cars (photo: Mohamed Wassim); despite the constant renovations and expansion of the main bridge of the city, 6th of October, Cairenes still find themselves stuck in traffic

With a population of almost 72 million and Egypt hosting two major events, the 38th International Book Fair and the 25th African Cup of Nations (ACN) championship, the issue of traffic is once more coming into focus. Either one of these events is enough to cause a congestion disaster, let alone that the two events will occur in the same month. However, the Ministry of Interior has announced that it has plans for traffic organisation to avoid major lockdown in the area around the ACN hosting stadium and the exhibition centre that hosts the book fair. Major- General Fawzi Hassan, assistant to the minister of interior and head of the Traffic Department of Greater Cairo, confirmed that the ministry has allocated thousands of parking spaces. Green buses will transport fans to the stadium; coloured tickets will be used to identify the place where each fan should be seated, so that the process runs smoothly. Cameras and electronic gates have been introduced to order the entrance of crowds.

Nonetheless, some fans still had hard time. According to Ahmed Salah, an accountant who attended the inauguration ceremony of the ACN, while the new procedures indeed aim to help avoid congestion, both of traffic and people, in practice they were not so helpful. People were rushing haphazardly to their seats and there was little control overall. The organising committee categorised tickets into four colours: green and grey tickets were for third-class seats, brown for second class, while blue identified first-class seating. "Unfortunately this did not help us at all; it was hell. It was like a maze. Policemen who were supposed to be there to guide us to our seats did not know anything, even misdirecting us so we lost our way. It took me an hour and half to reach my seat," Salah sighs. "It would have been much better," he continued, "to inform people about this new system on television, via radio and newspapers, to help people get acquainted with it."

For a city as big as Cairo it is always expected that traffic will be a major issue. Cairo is considered the largest city in Africa; it is home to at least 18 million people. Around 3,500 newborns are added to this number each day. True, not all families have cars. It is just as well, because streets are clogged as it is; stop- and-go traffic the norm. Although it is difficult to discern any particular rules of the road, many streets are one-way. Not always is this rule adhered to. Red lights do not necessarily mean "stop", or even "slow down", and it is the worst of mistakes to believe that a green "walk" light means it is safe to cross the road. Cars flood through red traffic lights with horns blaring to warn anyone who might consider getting in their way. The overriding rule is to make use of every available space: lane markers are simply ignored. When you drive in Cairo the only time you ever stop is when there is absolutely no way to squeeze around whoever is driving in front of you. Sometimes pavements are not even sacred.

Despite schemes of modernisation in many parts of Cairo, donkey-carts are still a prominent feature in many streets. It is also common that the carts manage their way through traffic with a system of their own, ignoring any and all road signs. Surprisingly to some, many cars do the same; they use the lanes of oncoming traffic when their own lanes are full.

"Traffic in Cairo is absolutely chaotic. If your are ever tempted to drive in Egypt, take a rest until you get over it," said Mohamed Abdel-Hamid, manager of an international bank in Egypt, who suffers the daily commute from Heliopolis to 6th of October City. Watching the traffic, one would expect an accident every five minutes. Mysteriously, even the chaos has its own rules.

"Lane markers on the roads are merely suggestions, and traffic signals are only an opinion," says Abdel-Hamid. Most people drive like madmen: it is quite common for a driver to simply start driving down the middle between two lanes of traffic, honking his horn expecting the cars parallel to his on each side to make room if possible. "This is not considered rude or in any way out of place," Abdel-Hamid says with irony. "Traffic was not that bad few years ago. Nobody respects traffic regulations now; everybody simply goes his own way. It takes hours and hours to go anywhere. Streets are blocked all the time, day and night, especially on 6th of October Bridge -- it is crazy to drive on the bridge nowadays," added Abdel-Hamid.

Abdel-Hamid is not alone in his opinions. Ask any driver in Cairo about traffic and you hear the same laments. "Egypt, especially Cairo, was not like it was 30 years ago," remarks Mustafa Ibrahim, professor of pharmacology at Helwan University. "Cairo was beautiful and walking down the streets of the city was a special treat. There was hardly any traffic, and pedestrians were taken into consideration. Now, cars whiz by people and they have just to get used to it. Traffic is horrible, it does not matter at all where you live, because everywhere is totally blocked and everyone is whipping in and out of lanes. This is in addition to the constant cacophony of honking all the time, which really gives us all headaches," says Ibrahim.

Ayman Makram is a businessman who raises another point: people drive wildly and yet there are thousands of traffic policemen out on the streets. "I guess the government hires them because they are cheaper than traffic lights, instead of paying for maintenance to keep the traffic lights working (which would be much safer) it saves money to hire traffic policemen who do not really know what they are doing but just stand at every busy corner and attempt to manage the traffic," mocks Makram.

Experts estimate that road fatalities in Egypt kill more than 7,000 people per year and wound nearly 35,000 others. The question now is: can the streets of the city cope with the ever-increasing number of vehicles? Everybody, except for officials at ministries of transportation, planning and interior, seems to agree that Cairo is crumbling under the twin pressures of traffic and population.

According to Mohamed Mursi Mansour, director of the Public Traffic Authority of the Giza Governorate, new initiatives to address the traffic congestion in Egypt and the issues surrounding road safety are now active in the General Authority for Roads and Bridges. "Hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent on upgrading the safety and efficiency of the existing infrastructure in the short term, while mid- and long-term goals focus on increasing the width of roads," said Mansour.

The World Bank estimates an urbanisation level of 70 per cent by the year 2020. Traffic congestion, high reliance on road transport, and traffic safety, are key issues facing Egypt in urban transport. Cairo experiences average traffic speeds of less than 10 kilometres per hour, which continues to fall with the increase in the number of cars on the road. According to one World Bank report, dependence on public transportation is less than 65 per cent.

Abdel-Rahman Sherif, head of South-Central Cairo Administration for General Transport, believes that the right solution is to develop an efficient public transportation system, such as the underground metro, which could decrease the current extensive use of private vehicles. He also believes the metro should be expanded to cover all of Cairo's districts, to encourage people to use it. "A committee of traffic specialists and engineers should be formed to study the problem and draft a comprehensive master plan. I believe that Cairo is in dire need of better planning if traffic is to be streamlined," states Sherif.

A case in point, he said, is the district of Doqqi, which was originally planned as a neighbourhood of villas and boulevards. Owners of most villas in the district randomly expanded into more profitable high-rise apartment blocks. The streets and sewage system, however, could not cope with the resultant increase in the number of inhabitants, especially since few of these apartment buildings included garages. Planners, Sherif adds, had to expand the streets at the expense of pedestrian pavements -- a "big mistake", in his view. "Expanding streets and adding more fly-overs and tunnels is not always the solution to traffic congestion," Sherif argues. Rather, these measures encourage the influx of more vehicles into already congested areas.

As of now, traffic in Cairo literally has to be seen to be believed. It is more like an elemental force than a movement of cars. It is constant and overwhelming. No doubt several factors have contributed to traffic jams. These factors must be diagnosed before solutions can be worked out. According to Atef Abdel-Ghani Fayad, general director of roads, bridges and ground transport, these factors are: the population explosion, high frequency of daily trips by motorists, and urban and economic development. He explained that, on average, a motorist makes three trips daily in Greater Cairo, which reveals the dire need for a more efficient public transportation system and a more qualified network of roads and railways. As for the population growth rate, it is high at 2.4 per cent: "this means that we have an increase of nearly one million people every year."

The situation is aggravated when a project is launched in an area without studying the consequences adequately. A case in point is the bridge being built at Lebanon Square in Mohandessin. "This area was originally planned for residential purposes, but now it is causing recurring traffic jams," says Fayad. The required solutions must not be traditional, according to Fayad; a comprehensive plan must be drawn up to study road networks, the number and direction of trips made by motorists and commuters, the number of car parks needed and the problems of pedestrians. "Road maintenance, and an efficient public transportation system, increasing people's awareness of traffic regulations and urging them to use public transportation are a necessity," Fayad added.

Essameddin Asfour, director- general of transportation at the Ministry of Interior, states that there is a comprehensive plan on the table as to how to streamline traffic. Conditions will start to improve after one year, Asfour says. "People must be patient; when the completion of construction work of the bridge located in Lebanon Square as well as that at Al-Remayah Square comes to an end, this will alleviate much of the pressure."

"The ministry has also formed a committee of senior traffic policemen whose task is to help streamline traffic in congested areas," he added. Asfour pointed out that the constant problem of traffic jams in Cairo is one that has been tiring experts and specialists for some time. Traffic is not only the responsibility of the Ministry of Interior, but other authorities as well. Coordinated action is key. Solutions can also be found using information and communications technologies (ICTs). "To the surprise of many, technological solutions and applications can effectively cut down this problem via good use of databases and instant information. Specialists and those in charge must come together to draw an outline for the path down which ICTs and transport can productively merge," adds Asfour.

Mohamed Abdel-Atti, an eminent transport expert, explains how ICTs will be of enormous help in traffic monitoring -- especially monitoring traffic jams -- as well as building up a powerful database capable of predicting bottlenecks and accidents before they happen. Abdel-Atti makes it clear that bringing in foreign technologies into the Egyptian market is not always best; however, we can and should work on making the best out of them, adapting them to local needs and conditions.

Aside from traffic, dire solutions are needed to secure the passage of pedestrians. For pedestrians especially, the city streets are inhospitable. Crossing the street is a high-stakes game. It is quite normal to cross one lane when that is all you can cross, and then stand in the middle of a torrent of whizzing cars waiting for the next opening. "Death is inevitable," says Fayad sarcastically. Pedestrians go nearly always unconsidered: planners often focus on traffic problems and financial losses, ignoring that people and not cars make the city what it is. "Cars have taken over pavements, which are no longer safe, and pedestrians have been forced into the middle of the streets, thus becoming the main victims of traffic problems," adds Fayad.

In order to allow pedestrians safe passage, it was announced lately that there exists a plan to build pedestrian tunnels all over Cairo, equipped with escalators. The first phase is expected to start this year in front of Cairo University in Giza. An equivalent tunnel already exists below Salah Salem Street in front of the Cairo Trade Fair grounds. "Two other tunnels will be built in the areas of Abbasiya and Fustat," says Fayad. Officials hope that after developing an efficient public transportation system, "traffic will be streamlined and pedestrians will be able to walk and cross streets safely," Fayad added.

Traffic in numbers:

ïThree million cars are licensed every year.

ïCar accidents result in an annual death toll of 7,500, with 35,000 injuries.

ïLosses caused by traffic accidents are estimated to reach LE2 billion per year while only LE55 million per year is allocated to the Cairo Traffic Authority.

ïNinety-six per cent of people pass driving tests on the first attempt.

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