Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
23 - 29 March 2000
Issue No. 474
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The ants go driving
one by one...

A plan to alleviate traffic in the capital includes the construction of 12 underground garages. Gihan Shahine slams on the brakes

Self-control is, perhaps, all a Cairene motorist can rely on when searching for a spot to park -- that, and the biceps required to squeeze through a jam-packed area into a slot smaller than the vehicle itself.

The average commuter's day may start with a desperate attempt to break free from the row of cars double-parked in front of his or her vehicle. Plans for the day usually depend on whether or not the destination features a parking lot, and timing depends on peak traffic hours -- pretty much all the time, these days, it seems.

Those who wish to run a "quick errand" downtown soon revise their idea of time as they battle through erratic traffic lights, bumper-to-bumper cars and careless pedestrians dashing across the street. Anyway, when they get to wherever they're going, they probably won't be able to park. After fifteen minutes spent fuming and trading insults with the irate motorists one has held up while waiting for a space, sometimes a man with a whistle materialises. No, it's not a policeman: it's the trusty neighbourhood minadi (parking attendant), who will wave reassuringly and lead you to a "secret" parking spot (most likely on a footpath, or at the entrance to a garage). If one is lucky, then, the minadi saves the day -- for a small fee, of course. Otherwise, double-parking is the only alternative, and that's when the game of Russian roulette really gets interesting: who knows what one will find on one's return? No car (it's been towed away by the dreaded winch), a broken headlight or dented fender, or a large red and white parking ticket flapping merrily from the window.

You don't have to be a genius to figure out why parking is so difficult. According to statistics released by the Interior Ministry's General Traffic Authority (GTA), 822,919 licences were issued in 1997, rising to 851,412 the following year. In the past year, around four cars an hour were licenced, adding to the million vehicles licenced from Cairo that fill the capital's streets every day, and the half million that drive in from Giza and Qalyubiya every day. The total number of vehicles shuttling Cairo streets may have already reached two million -- each requiring 25 cubic metres of space.

Everybody seems to agree that Cairo's streets just can't cope with the increase in the number of vehicles. The result: traffic gridlock, and a major parking problem. Motorists, unable to find a suitable parking place, double-park, further reducing the available space and causing serious jams. The police prohibit parking in congested areas and tow away double-parked vehicles, but they just can't compete with the sheer ingenuity of drivers on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Although the building code stipulates that each housing block should have a parking area in the basement, the law is not enforced. Many landlords prefer to rent or sell basements to investors who pay rent and open up shops, restaurants or supermarkets -- wreaking even more traffic havoc in already overcrowded areas.

Like many Cairenes, Salah Abdel-Fattah, professor of chemistry at Ain Shams University, plans his daily schedule according to parking potential. A resident of Heliopolis, Abdel-Fattah has stopped driving downtown after "several awful experiences" seeing his car towed away. He has to rush home in the evening to find a parking spot in front of the building where he lives. "Twice I was parked in front of the building and another car ran into mine because there is just no room. Now the street has been widened. But there are still many areas where I would never go by car. I simply cannot take it anymore."

Al-Ahly Club
double parking in front of Al-Ahli Club
A SIMPLE PLAN: Nor can Cairo Governor Abdel-Rehim Shehata. He, however, has the authority to take decisive action. As part of a comprehensive strategy to streamline traffic in Greater Cairo, the governorate is launching a plan to build 12 underground garages. Contracts have already been signed on six. The LE3 billion in costs will all be provided by the private sector, through the build, operate and transfer (BOT) system. The six garages that have been signed for will bring in LE650-700 million for the governorate in return for a 25-year usufruct. Eight of the 12 subterranean car parks, which will accommodate 20,000 to 25,000 vehicles, will be built in Tahrir, Darrassa, Sayeda Zeinab, Turguman, Ahmed Helmi, Roxy, Gezira, and Mawardi, the four remaining parks will be built under sporting clubs. The construction of two more garages is underway in Mustafa Mahmoud Square in Mohandessin and Misaha Square in Doqqi.

Work has begun on the Darrassa and Tahrir garages. The 26,000-square metre Tahrir/Omar Makram underground parking lot, planned to accommodate 2,500 vehicles, will serve motorists heading to the Egyptian Museum, the Nile Hilton, the Arab League, and the Mugamma'. The project will bring the Cairo governorate LE156 million during the 25 years of usufruct.

The Darrassa garage, which will take 450 vehicles, will serve Fatimid Cairo, especially after the project to make Al-Azhar a pedestrian area is completed. The garage will cost LE150 million and the Cairo governorate will receive LE90 million.

The Turguman parking lot, with a capacity of 2,700 vehicles in addition to 60 buses, will be "one of the most civilised projects Egypt has ever witnessed," according to Shehata. The garage, which will cost LE200 million to build, will be connected to Cairo Airport by shuttle bus. A pedestrian tunnel will also connect the garage to the metro, and planners hope commuters will park and take the metro.

The surrounding area will be upgraded, informal settlements removed and narrow streets widened to create space for the entry and exit of the car park. The garage will consist of three stories underground for cars, one storey for buses, and a three-storey building above ground for shopping and recreational activities. The building will occupy only 25 per cent of the surface area; the rest will be a green space.

A few weeks ago, Shehata announced that contracts were being signed with two private companies to build two more underground garages through the BOT system. The two garages will be built underneath the Gezira Youth Club and Ahmed Helmi Square with the aim of relieving parking problems downtown and in Zamalek, Gezira, Ramses Street, and Ahmed Helmi. Total costs are estimated at LE378 million, and the two garages are expected to accommodate a total of around 3,000 vehicles. Work is to be completed within 30 months.

The 15,500-square metre Ahmed Helmi lot will feature four entry and exit points, accommodating 1,500 vehicles. A pedestrian tunnel will connect the garage with Ramses railway station.

The four-storey, 24,400-square metre garage under the Gezira Youth Club is designed to accommodate 1,500 private cars and 75 buses and microbuses, with total costs reaching LE243 million. Two pedestrian tunnels will connect the car park with Al-Burg Street.

The government's plans are all designed to streamline traffic, thereby reducing car accidents, creating space for pedestrians, increasing green areas and reducing pollution caused by exhaust emissions. In an exclusive interview, Shehata explained to Al-Ahram Weekly the philosophy behind his ambitious project.

"Underground garages are only one part of a comprehensive plan to solve Cairo's traffic problems," Shehata says. This plan includes several mega-projects, which, once completed, are likely to relieve much of the pressure. These projects include the completion of the Ring Road (costing LE16 to LE17 billion), the 15 May and Mounib fly-overs, and the next phase of the metro. The plan also entails the relocation of bus terminals to Cairo's suburbs. The Ahmed Helmi terminal has already been moved to Abboud, located on the Cairo-Qalyubiya city limits, and the Sabtiyya terminal was relocated to Al-Marg. After the completion of the Ring Road and the Mounib fly-over, a new terminal for buses heading to Cairo from Upper Egypt will be built. "Moving bus stations to the city limits will alleviate much of the pressure that buses coming to Cairo from other governorates cause," Shehata asserts.

But why is the government suddenly building 12 garages? And why are they all underground?

Al-Galaa Turguman
Tahrir Ahmed Helmi
Clocwise from top: gridlocked off Al-Galaa Street; parking area in Al-Turguman; future public garage to be built at Ahmed Helmi; another garage will be situated off Midan Al-Tahrir GovernorRight: Cairo's governor explains his plan;
photos: Ayman Ibrahim

DIGGING FOR ANSWERS: "Because we need them, badly," Shehata admits. "Cairo's streets are packed with randomly parked cars. To overcome the problem, we had two plans on the agenda: expanding open-air parking areas, as in Qasr Al-Nil, Al-Azhar, Heliopolis and Madinat Nasr; and building underground garages, which will bring about the aesthetic improvement Cairo needs so badly, besides encouraging private investment and creating job opportunities. Along with these plans, we will enforce the new traffic law and force landlords to open garages under residential and office blocks."

The idea of subterranean garages is very practical, especially in congested areas where space is at a premium. A multi-storey garage above ground would be a disaster in already congested areas. The Ataba garage is a case in point. Going underground will create more space for traffic and pedestrians alike, and free up space for green areas. "Simply put, underground garages are one of the most advanced and high-tech projects Egypt has ever witnessed," Shehata concludes.

Urban planners concur. "The plan is 20 years overdue," says urban planner Abu Zeid Rageh, who is so enthusiastic that he believes the idea should be expanded even further.

Does Egypt have the necessary technology, though? "Yes," Rageh asserts, referring to the Alexandria Library, dug 26m underground near the sea, to illustrate his point. "We have already gone 35m underground to build tunnels," he continues. "I firmly believe we need more underground garages in places like Abdin Square and underneath the Ezbekiya Gardens. More multi-storey garages are also needed above ground."

Samuel Emil, a consultant engineer, explains that Egypt is applying the most up-to-date technology in the construction of underground garages. His company, an engineering and management consultancy office, has drawn up the blueprints and conducted comprehensive feasibility studies for the Gezira car park (for which the contract was signed on 16 February), as well as two other garages underneath Heliopolis Club and Al-Mu'assassa Square in Shubra Al-Kheima, both of which are being considered as potential sites.

"Our building codes are up to international standards, to put it modestly," asserts Emil. This was also the finding of a committee of experts Shehata sent to Europe a few weeks ago to examine underground car parks and compare them to the proposed plans and designs in Egypt. "Thanks to the government's recent efforts, we now have a comprehensive database of all subterranean infrastructure that has been extremely helpful in drawing up the designs. With the help of foreign experts, we have also been able to overcome the problem of underground water by using diaphragm walls."

The four-storey Gezira car park will extend 17.5m underground and feature the most advanced ventilation and lighting systems, escalators and central air-conditioning. "Security measures are a high priority," Emil asserts. These measures include furnishing the garage with stand-by generators, closed circuit TVs, as well as alarm and fire-fighting systems.

GETTING TO THE BOTTOM OF IT ALL: Public fears of haphazard planning persist, however, especially now it is clear that the new extension added to the 6 October fly-over has failed to relieve traffic in targeted areas. The possibility that the Ataba garage will be coming down in the near future has also caused outrage, given the money poured into its construction and the hopes that had been pinned upon it at the time. Are the new parking lots situated in a way that will actually have an impact on target areas?

Safwat El-Alem, a researcher on traffic problems and professor at Cairo University's Faculty of Communications, is sceptical. "Most of the new car parks are to be built in the city centre and this, I believe, will intensify traffic congestion," El-Alem says. He explains that during rush hour, droves of motorists working in nearby areas will simultaneously head to or out of car parks, clogging the streets for blocks around. "If the traffic flow on adjacent roads is not regulated carefully, I'm afraid the garages will not solve the problem at all," he remarks.

Many commentators also believe that the Turguman garage, which will include a bus station, will intensify traffic jams on 26 July and Al-Galaa Streets by bringing an influx of buses into the city centre.

Shehata, however, replies that plans have already been drawn up for all the garages and the surrounding streets. Urban planner Mohamed Zaki Hawwas also argues that the construction of parking lots is likely to relieve 80 per cent of traffic jams. "If we assume that a street is 20m wide, half of that is usually occupied by the pavement and the cars parked beside it," Hawwas elaborates. "Those parked cars are like cholesterol in your arteries. Channeling them into underground garages will unclog the streets."

Hawwas concedes that during rush hours the influx of cars into and out of car parks may cause congestion, as is the case with the Ataba, Opera and Bustan garages. He believes, however, that careful planning will solve this problem easily. "For best results, there should be other parking lots on the city limits," Hawwas maintains.

Emil, too, asserts that feasibility studies have been carried out on both his company's and the government's behalf. "Both sets of studies reached the same conclusion regarding the three garages we are handling: they will streamline traffic in the targeted areas."

Taking Zamalek as an example, Emil explains that the district's streets are too narrow to cope with the unplanned influx of vehicles. "The Gezira car park is designed to free Zamalek's streets of parked cars," Emil says. The garage will also be equipped with shuttle buses to carry motorists to and from the centre of Zamalek.

But the new garages will feature shopping and entertainment areas that are likely to attract even more motorists to the city centre. Can they accommodate potential increases in the number of vehicles?

"All these points have been studied carefully," Emil states, adding that the Gezira garage, for instance, has been designed to accommodate 500 cars in addition to the 1,000 stipulated by the government. "To make sure the project is feasible, we analysed the number of vehicles that enter Zamalek, whether occasionally or regularly, measured the pavements and streets, and polled people living, working, shopping in or visiting the area," he adds.

To cope with the potential increase in the number of cars, 40 per cent of parking space is set aside. But is that enough for the ever-increasing number of private cars over a span of, say, 20 years? "Of course it won't be enough unless the government builds other garages, improves public transport, and forces landlords to provide parking areas for their residents," Emil concedes.

FEEDING THE METRE: The high costs of the underground garages has inspired public debate about their economic feasibility, and prompted many journalists to wonder whether "ordinary people" will be able to afford parking fees. In a series of articles published in Al-Shaab opposition newspaper, journalist Wael Muftah wondered if parking lots are a priority in light of the housing crisis. One garage accommodating 1,500 vehicles can cost LE243 million to build. In other words, parking a car costs the state LE162,000 -- the price of a flat in Nasr City.

Shehata retorts, however, that the BOT system is one of the government's strategies for implementing these "ambitious and crucial plans" -- and raising funds for low-income housing. "The government is not spending a penny on parking projects," Shehata maintains. "On the other hand, it's encouraging investment, creating jobs and raising money to finance other national projects." Many would add that building underground garages will reduce the financial losses incurred by traffic delay, car damage, and road accidents.

Is the private sector responding to the state's initiative? "There are at least eight to 10 investment companies competing for each of the proposed parking plans," Emil asserts. The reason, Shehata explains, is simply that the projects are good investment opportunities. But without the shopping and entertainment elements, Emil cautions, not many investors would be interested in building garages, because, according to feasibility studies, they would be functioning at a loss. The shopping and amusement areas enable investors to recover their capital in six to seven years at most, after which they will continue to turn a profit for no additional outlay.

There are fears, however, that parking rates will probably range between PT50 and LE2 per hour. "Having a car does not necessarily mean that its owner is well off," El-Alem maintains. "Many of those who will park in the city centre are simple employees who cannot afford to pay LE5 a day just to park."

Will the government intervene to protect consumers? "We cannot set parking rates, because that's the private sector's prerogative," Shehata concedes, adding, however, that prices will be left for supply and demand to define. "Investors cannot demand high rates, or else their garages will be deserted," Emil agrees, adding that the majority of investors are not relying on revenue from the garages to tip their balance sheets in the right direction.

 

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