The key to the streets
Cairo's traffic problems mirror those of the wider society, argues Dena Rashed
Once upon a time, people would agree to meet at a certain time and then they would do so. They might also decide to go out as a spontaneous decision, rather than wait to see how the traffic was first. In those days, traffic lights were more than just scarecrows and white lanes were there for drivers to abide by, rather than being there for cars to dance around, with pedestrians also knowing where to look when crossing the road.
Such stories of the good old days either come from very old people or are the stuff of urban legends. However, there are still some at least who have seen the traffic laws being implemented in the streets of Cairo.
The traffic in Egypt, and in Cairo in particular, is the reflection of all the malaises of society. Traffic is the problem and the answer at the same time. One can sit in one of the city's streets for just one day and understand how the country functions, as well as how the people relate to each other and to the authorities.
The problem has never just been the crowdedness of the streets. Rather, it has been more about the traps and unpleasant surprises that people face every day on the simplest of errands. The asphalt on the roads has become worse, and sloppiness in fixing the streets has become more evident. Microbus drivers have invaded the streets of the city, and public transportation has become a nightmare.
While the traffic wasn't good before the 25 January Revolution, the state of the streets has deteriorated since then for many reasons. Many drivers have become careless and disrespectful of the law, whether on purpose or due to frustration. Many of them aren't fazed by the police on the streets anymore, and freedom in many cases has become mixed with chaos.
The gradual return of the police after the Revolution left time for many to defy the traffic laws, with the result that hours of many people's lives are wasted on the streets in the hope of being on time, or, much of the time, in the hope of arriving at their destination at all without scratching their cars, or, worse, having an accident.
In Cairo, the traffic has become a major problem that can be added to everyone's list regardless of their means of transportation, location and driving habits. For Louli Maher, 29, who spends hours of her life in traffic every day just to get home from work, "there would be so much I could do if I didn't have to spend more than two hours in traffic every day to get to my house. I imagine all the activities that I could be doing if I wasn't sitting stuck in the car for that long every day. I can never do three errands per day. I wish I could be better psychologically and not be in a horrible mood everyday when driving and after driving."
It has become normal to hear words of frustration and at times anxiety from drivers. As psychologist Alaa Morsy says, "many drivers may be suffering from stress and frustration. I personally am late for many appointments because of the state of the traffic." As a long-time driver in the city, Morsy argues that many people are bad drivers and he puts the blame for this in part on the traffic department.
"We need those in charge to be better organised and for people to respect the system whether they are in a rush or not." Morsy argues that there are many problems with the traffic laws that make it even more difficult for people to abide by them. "Take a highway with an 80 km speed limit," he says. "Do you really expect people to drive under that limit? Why?"
Morsy argues that some people break the law because they know that others are breaking it as well, though "a normal human being would want to respect the law," he says.
Almost everyone in Egypt has stories of the traffic and ways to improve the daily commute. However, one person who has to deal with such ideas and try to implement them in practice is the head of Cairo's traffic department, major-general Mostafa Rashed.
Rashed sits in his office in Nasr City, overlooking one of the busiest streets in Cairo. To his left are screens showing the major streets of the city. As he monitors the scene, he turns on the department's latest electronic PDA (personal data assistant), which allows the police to enter license plate numbers and find out about a vehicle and its license-holder in real time.
Assessing the efficiency of the PDA, Rashed says that in two weeks around 250 stolen cars have been found. "The device has helped us to get many stolen cars back to their owners, since thieves tend to exchange the plates on stolen cars." He also says that during the Revolution many license plates and materials used to create licenses and car documents were stolen.
Car theft has been a main concern since the Revolution, yet the chaos in the streets has been just as problematic for many. There is no accurate record of the number of stolen cars, Rashed says, adding that "our main concern is for people's safety on the roads. My main job is to make sure that all the major roads are safe."
"At the same time, we aim to enforce the speed limits on these roads through permanent and moving radar. We impose fines on all cars that do not abide by the rules. Above all, we are concerned to ensure that the traffic flows better, especially in areas of congestion."
Rashed says there are 6.4 million vehicles on the roads in Egypt, and two million in Cairo alone. "In order to see a noticeable improvement on the streets, many factors would have to improve in parallel," he says. "For example, new roads would have to be constructed and new residential areas built, without even considering the modes of transportation and the number of people expected to commute to and from the city."
"One of the problems in the past has been that no transport plan was done for an area like Al-Tagamou Al-Khamis on the outskirts of Cairo, for example. Other authorities are responsible for constructing roads, such as the Roads and Bridges Authority, and many professors of engineering should be consulted before building new residential areas. There is a need to consult and coordinate with all the authorities if we really want to improve the traffic."
"There hasn't been adequate improvement, especially with the increasing number of people and cars. In other countries, they have similarly sized roads, yet the traffic still flows because people respect the law. Despite improvements in the traffic, many people still act irresponsibly, not giving priority to drivers in other lanes, for example, or engaging in double-parking and fights."
When told that some officials have given up fining people given the overwhelming number of incidents of poor driving, Rashed says that "this is wrong, and we tell the police to fine people who are contravening the regulations. They shouldn't do so in an overt manner, though. We don't want people getting into arguments."
"I tell the police not to talk too much when issuing fines in order to avoid arguments. The more the offender and the officer talk to each other, the more an argument can get heated."
Driving in the wrong direction on a one-way street is a misdemeanour that can entail a fine of between LE1,000 and LE3,000 and/or time in jail. "But other drivers can encourage such behaviour, as some people think they are helping others by letting someone drive in the wrong direction and this encourages others to follow suit."
More than 50 cameras now monitor Cairo's main squares and roads. These are there "not to monitor the people, but to make sure we know where the congestion is so we can help to ease it as fast as possible," Rashed says. When demonstrations close roads, the role of the traffic department is to inform the ministry concerned and to ask it to solve the problem. "People demonstrating on the roads is a major challenge for all traffic departments," he notes.
However, some people say that the reason Egypt has so many traffic problems is because it has been too easy to obtain a driving license. Rashed argues otherwise. "Today, it is very difficult to get a license," he says. "But the law still doesn't require people to take a course of lessons, and this is something that we have requested."
Rashed doesn't think it would be appropriate to re-test drivers when they renew their licenses. "It doesn't make sense," he says. When asked why the number of fines doesn't affect a driver's ability to renew his or her license, he says that the law on this needs to be amended. Changing the laws is the responsibility of the People's Assembly, whose fate has been unclear since president Morsi summoned it to reconvene against the ruling of the Supreme Constitutional Court.
Looking at the state of Cairo's streets, it is clear to many that the worst offenders against the traffic regulations are microbus drivers, who often do not have headlights, plates, or any respect for the law. Rashed notes that because the state has not developed public transportation, people have been left to use private means of transportation like microbuses.
"Microbus drivers receive the highest number of fines in Egypt. But this is a mode of transport that should be better regulated, not stopped altogether."
A further challenge that faces the traffic department is the number of outlaws still on the streets and the still-high levels of thuggery. "When this has been controlled, we will be able to work as traffic police once again," Rashed notes. "For the time being, things are almost beyond us."
Many people have been talking about restructuring the ministry of the interior, and for Rashed that would mean reviewing everything about it, including the salaries of the police force. One important factor in ensuring better streets is raising people's awareness of the problems. As Rashed says, "in order to pass laws and make sure people follow them, the culture should change as well."
As the psychologist Morsy notes, we have to start from the bottom up, in other words from the individual first. "We need to work on people's consciousness, which starts from childhood. People should lead by example, and children should be able to find role models in their parents. The latter should educate their children such that they do the right thing by instinct."
Despite promises made by president Morsi to solve Cairo's traffic problems in 100 days, as any experienced driver knows the problem isn't just about easing the flow of cars in the streets. It is also about instilling a sense of respect for other people and for law and order.
It is about creating a system and preserving it, about re-introducing people to the idea of order and showing them how their quality of life would improve if they followed the rules. It is about fighting corruption. It is about the foundations of the state and about making sure that there is the rule of law.
Solve Cairo's traffic and you have solved a thousand buried issues in the streets of the city.