Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 February - 1 March 2006
Issue No. 783
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

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Amira El-Noshokaty tried out the latest Cairo has to offer

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Old taxis might face competition from the yellow city taxis that will be streaming in the streets of Cairo next month. They were seen downtown this week on their way to obtain their licences (left)

To Cairenes taxi troubles are no secret. It's hard enough to find a taxi that will agree with your destination -- most will drive past, casting a derisive sidelong glance -- let alone understand that a traffic jam is not your own personal responsibility. Many will move slowly, scanning the pavement for customers and periodically blowing their horns to announce that they are available, even as you sit still in the back. Random taxis are not socially acceptable as a safe means of transportation at night, especially for women. Being driven by a complete stranger, is hardly a happy thought if one considers the odds of harassment. And the debatable taxi fare that usually is not fair to both parties.

Fortunately the times are changing and the newly introduced city taxi -- bright yellow and purportedly ultra- efficient -- promises to bring many of these woes to an end. Nabil El-Mazni, chairman of the General Transportation Authority (GTA) announced that the new service will be launched at the end of the month. "We're starting with 150 brand new vehicles divided equally among three private companies working under direct GTA supervision," he told Al-Ahram Weekly. "And the plan is for that number to rise to 1,500 in the course of three months." The brands of cars used range from Kia and Hyundai to Volkswagen and Chevrolet; and the service will cover three governorates within the precincts of Greater Cairo -- Giza, Cairo and Al-Qalyoubia -- roughly divided among the three companies, two of which will also share the same geographical expanse. The names of the companies -- Instant Rentals, Cairo International and Cairo Radio Cab and Limousine -- will be appended to the same yellow exterior.

"We," says Mohamed Mahmoud, general manager of Instant Rentals, "were the first to come up with the idea, which we've been negotiating for years. Our drivers, among whom there are two women, are carefully selected; our requirements include a higher education degree, familiarity with English and, naturally, no criminal record." For a monthly salary of LE700, they will work in uniform; and Instant Rentals' 24-hour service will be available not only by phone but by walking to the nearest of 20 taxi stops located on major thoroughfares or indeed, in the old- fashioned way, by crying out taxi; and if the tab is green, the vehicle will most certainly stop, no questions asked about where you want to go. Red simply means that someone else has beat you to it. In that case you must wait for the next bright yellow beauty to arrive on the scene. "There is a built-in monitoring device to reveal the route of each journey; a driver who stops for another passenger while you are in the vehicle is liable to a fine of LE200. An emergency number can also be used to track down any of our vehicles at any time."

How costly is safe and sound service, however? "The city taxis' unified metre starts with LE3.50, which start-up fee also covers the first kilometre of the journey," El-Mazni declared to the Weekly, pointing out that this remains affordable. "The charge is LE1 per km after that." But stalling traffic is taken into account, too: "The metre is computerised so that, at an average speed of 18-26km per hour, the fair goes down. Considering that the average journey in a regular taxi nowadays costs LE5, this seems like a fair price." El-Mazni explained that his own role is to monitor the efficiency of the service -- a task for which GTA receives, on average, LE2,250 per vehicle per annum.

Reactions varied. This, the latest taxi service comes at the end of a string of attempts at introducing similar alternatives to the ubiquitous black-and- white taxi. Previous efforts were sadly not much of a success; a similar phone service, back in 1986, suffered from mismanagement, with the vehicles having neither phones nor mobile phones and telephone booths set aside for the service periodically vandalised (an inevitable result of public misdemeanour in Cairo). With the stops too failing to perform the required tasks, the service survived no more than a few months. The experience seems to have left many sufficiently disillusioned to be sceptical about the project.

For Tahia Zakaria, an upper-middle class housewife who does not drive, the taxi is an essential aspect of the daily routine. "In the 1950s and 1960s, there used to be taxi stops on the corner of every main street in Cairo. I remember them lining up by the sidewalk; we'd ask our doorman to fetch us one for our usual ride. Monsieur George was our regular taxi driver," she recalled, explaining that taxis were FIAT with spacious back-seat compartments, let alone cleaner and safer. Sadly, the taxi stops gradually disappeared -- until they were gone by the early 1970s." Nor was it a particularly expensive mode of transportation. "The principal difference between today's taxis and those of the past, besides cleanliness, is no doubt the fair," she continued, noting that in those days it was a fixed fair. "Nowadays things have changed. Now I pay double what I used to pay to the same destination three years ago. No fair starts with less than LE5, and the fact that there is no metre makes for endless arguments with the drivers."

Naturally enough, Zakaria is thrilled now that there is an alternative. Finally it will be possible to go out whenever she likes; no more will free taxis abandon her to the streets just because she doesn't happen to be going where they are headed. If she happens to require transportation at a late hour, on her way back from a wedding or while travelling, "it's much safer," she concludes.

For their part regular taxi drivers are not amused. "The metres we are meant to abide by," complains Said Ismail, one such, "is hardly fair." A start-up fee of 60 piastres plus a rate of 10 piastres per km, he explained, doesn't even cover the cost of petrol -- something that has led to the metre being altogether ignored. "Already we have fewer and fewer customers -- they just hop on a microbus. So the city taxi can only add to our problems. Besides, the streets are suffocating with excessive traffic -- that makes life harder -- which a new service can only in the end make worse."

GTA statistics for 2005 indeed indicate that the number of taxis in Greater Cairo alone is no less than 50,000 -- and they operate in the midst of 1,800,000 privately owned vehicles. And the taxi issue, as El-Mazni explains, was meant to be redressed with the help of a law issued in 1999 and prohibiting the renewal of any taxi licence, aiming instead to replace old taxis with new ones: "this was aimed at decreasing the number of taxis." Yet the implementation of the law has proved well nigh impossible, with loopholes and misconduct resulting in the renewal of licences of operating vehicles in dire need of maintenance. A few years ago, El-Mazni recounts, the Cairo Governorate introduced a new programme in collaboration with the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Nasser Bank, offering loans to enable taxi drivers to replace their vehicles. Yet how realistic is such an incentive, given the attitudes of taxi drivers?

In fact the average taxi driver pays LE25 for petrol daily; taxi owners rent out their vehicles for LE60. And given the high prices of the cars to be sold through the aforementioned scheme, in the end the instalment rates turned out to be prohibitive enough for most drivers and owners to refrain from participating. "I have been working as a taxi driver for over 20 years," Ismail declares. "In my opinion the older the car the better it is; it's not the brand or the age of the car that counts, it's the quality of its performance. Older vehicles are more heavy-duty. Besides, by closing the door to registering old vehicles, the government merely transferred the business of replacing licence plates to the black market -- a plate costs up to LE15,000."

In the light of all this, what are GTA's plans for regular taxis? El-Mazni insists that it is up to the owners themselves: "it's easier and more efficient to deal with companies or corporations rather than thousands of individuals." Upgrading would therefore seem to depend on the ability and will of taxi drivers to unite in some form. Increasing metre rates would be pointless, El-Mazni says, so long as drivers choose not to use it. Indeed he implies that GTA doesn't plan on doing anything about this.

Tareq Hanafi, another taxi driver, explains that some 10 years ago a commission system allowed drivers a percentage of the daily earnings -- 25 per cent, to be precise. Drivers reporting to owners would sometimes manipulate the system, however. Now owners rent out their vehicles for a fixed amount of LE60 per eight-hour shift; the rest goes to the driver. This means an average daily wage of LE60. But when asked about the metre, Hanafi looked rather clueless. "What metre?" was all he could say.

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