Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1183, (6 - 12 February 2014)
Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Issue 1183, (6 - 12 February 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Beating the traffic together

Many people are resorting to social-networking applications in their attempts to avoid traffic jams and road hazards, writes Reem Leila

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Egypt’s traffic is a mirror of its society: a big mess. Problems in the society are reflected in the country’s traffic, and as long as the government is unable to fix traffic problems and help people avoid traffic jams they will have to resort to mobile-phone applications like Beyollak (telling you) and Zello. Egypt is well known for its haphazard driving conditions and regular traffic congestion, and apps like Beyollak and Zello have become essential aids to help people on their way.

Both Beyollak and Zello are mobile applications that encourage people to beat the traffic together. They are cross-platform mobile apps allowing people to exchange information about the traffic using crowd-sourcing, social interaction, individual localisation and, above all, a willingness to help. Due to the currently difficult political situation that has upset many foreign investors in Egypt, a group of local young people used the slogan “be local, social, adaptable and simple” when they launched what have since become very successful applications.

Gamal Al-Din Sadek, one of the founders of Beyollak, said that the application provided road users with an ideal companion on daily journeys. “The application was launched in 2010 when it had 5,000 users, and now more than one million people are using it,” he commented.

According to a recent report from the Interior Ministry’s Traffic Department, there were 13,957 traffic accidents in Cairo and on the country’s main roads in 2013, marking a 24 per cent increase on 2012. There were 4,906 accidents on the Cairo ring road in 2013, a 24 per cent increase, 1,296 on 26 July Street in the same year, a 27 per cent increase, 1,186 on the Sixth of October Bridge, a four per cent increase, and 1,081 accidents on the autostrad, a 28 per cent increase on 2012.

The government seems to be incapable of devising a proper traffic system or building a safe road infrastructure, something which according to Ali Raef, a co-founder of Beyollak, would include introducing better road signs, traffic lights, lane markers, and pavements in order to avoid congestion. The government also seems to be unable to enforce the traffic laws, and disorder on the roads seems to have become a feature of life in Egypt.

“The accident rate in Egypt is 34 times higher than that in Europe and three times as high as that of some other countries in the region. If there was better control of the roads then the accident rate could be reduced and with it the number of traffic jams,” Raef said, adding that the number of accidents was likely to continue to rise as a result of the increasing number of vehicles on the roads.

Reem Afify, 32, an accountant, does not step out of her house before checking Beyollak. “I have to be at work at eight in the morning sharp, the busiest time of the day. The streets are jammed with school buses, company buses and private cars. Everyone is going to work. Driving is hell, but Beyollak makes it easier as I can check it before I go out of the house and before leaving work to help me avoid blocked streets,” she said.

Nada Ahmed, a university student, also said that the application was useful, especially at the present moment. “When there was a fuel crisis two years ago, the application was very useful as it could tell you which petrol stations were likely to have petrol. It can also tell drivers which streets are the best to take at a given time of day. I think everyone is using it. As long as the government is unable to solve the country’s traffic problems they will continue to do so,” she said.

Sadek said that the 25 January Revolution had benefited the company. “We started reporting blocked roads and adding more features like khatar (danger) to warn about unsafe roads and Elhaany (help me) that has the numbers of the emergency services.” According to Sadek, the company also operates a “trust-based network” with its users, meaning that it gathers contributions from users about the traffic where there are and evaluates these according to information about the user and how many times he has shared information.

 “We rank users from “unsure” to “top reporters” when deciding what to tell our other users about the traffic. If wrong information is shared, we can take various measures from warning to blocking a user from reporting,” Sadek said. “When we added a feature about the fuel crisis, it worked well and users started reporting which petrol stations to go to and at what times and so on. During the elections, we did something similar with polling stations.”

Raef added that “we created another feature called “safro in groups” (travel in groups) to encourage people to travel to the North Coast together due to the insecurity that followed the 25 January and 30 June Revolutions.”

Roba Ibrahim, a housewife, said that the latter feature had helped her to travel with her family to the North Coast last summer. “If it hadn’t been for this feature we wouldn’t have gone. We managed to find a group of people who were travelling at the same time, and this gave my family and I a great feeling of security. Thanks to Beyollak, we enjoyed our summer,” she said.

Congestion is a pressing problem on Egypt’s roads, and though the government has been trying to upgrade and integrate different modes of transport in order to decrease the number of traffic jams its strategy has so far been insufficient. According to Ali Salem Heikal, director of the Traffic and Transportation Consulting Department at Ain Shams University in Cairo, “people are resorting to social networks to solve their problems. They have waited for years for a government-led solution, but nothing has been accomplished.”

Although meetings have been held throughout the government for the last five years in an attempt to solve the traffic congestion on Cairo’s streets and to reduce the heavy traffic around the capital, nothing has been done. “However, the mobile-phone apps that people are now using are treating the symptoms and not the disease. They are not real solutions. People are just trying to help each other to pass the day with fewer problems,” Heikal said.

 “If there was more control over what happened on the roads, there would be fewer accidents,” he added, agreeing that the number of accidents was likely to continue to rise. “We must do everything possible to decrease the high rate of accidents,” he concluded.

Ayman Al-Dabaa, director of the Traffic Department at the Ministry of Interior, said that mobile applications could raise operational efficiency and increase the capacity of the transport system. They could improve levels of traffic safety, reduce accidents or help to detect them in order to allow faster interventions. “The administrators of these applications are in regular contact with us. There is cooperation between the traffic department and these applications in order to help people avoid places of high congestion,” he said.

Moreover, the applications were a model of domestic innovation, and they could boost the country’s reputation for creativity and its attractiveness to investors. “We are particularly impressed by the spirit of creativity and dedication expressed by these young technology experts and the energy they have brought to solving the problems facing people,” Al-Dabaa said.

Road deaths are the second most common cause of death in Egypt. In addition to the loss of lives, injuries and permanent disabilities that road accidents bring, they also result in reduced productivity, the loss of property and vast amounts being spent on insurance and social spending.

“The widespread use of these applications does not mean that there is a problem with the performance of the traffic department. They show that there is cooperation between all sectors of society to solve the country’s problems,” Al-Dabaa concluded.

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