How Cairo moves around the city

Cairo’s traffic is often portrayed as a reflection of Egyptian society. The street life has transformed dramatically over the course of the past several decades due to the widening gap between rich and poor and the government’s timid policies on public transportation. While only 15 percent of Cairo’s population own private cars, the city functions as a car city. How do the 58 percent of Cairo’s population, who do not own private cars, move around the city?

Until 1860 Cairo was a pedestrian city, where walking was the primary mode of mobility, in addition to horse- or donkey-pulled carts for the transport of several individuals at once or the transport of goods. The size of the city made it navigable by foot. With the expansion westward towards the Nile in the 19thcentury, distances began to increase and carriages began to appear more commonly. By the 1890s Cairo had its first electrified streetcar and by the 1920s it had over 100km of tracks.

The 1970s marked a drastic shift in policy as president Anwar Sadat reoriented Egypt towards western capitalism in ways that transformed the country from a production-oriented society to a large consumer of western goods. Imported cars became more common and the state subsidised petrol. Yet the majority of the population was unable to afford such luxuries, and public transport was under increasing pressure because of poor maintenance and lack of expansion of the network. By the end of the 1970s Cairo had lost nearly 80 percent of its track network as the government cancelled tramlines to make way for a road-based transport network.

Today Cairo continues to be a car city, yet there are many alternative modes of transport that have managed to serve poorer residents. The official transport network includes two fully functional metro lines (ticket 17 cents): one from north to south and another connecting the city east to west. A third line partially opened this year. Three other lines are in planning, but the pace has been slow.

Tiffany Wey of Harvard University completed research on the city’s transport in 2011. She says population density in Cairo, at 9,800 people per square km, ranks the highest when compared to Bangkok (3,600 per square km) and Sao Paulo (5,300 per square km). Yet the city ranks lowest among those cities when it comes to number of vehicles per thousand inhabitants: 53 in Cairo, 280 in Bangkok and 301 in Sao Paulo. Cairo also ranks lowest when it comes to number of high-capacity busses per million: 300 in Cairo, 1,737 in Bangkok, and 1,020 in Sao Paulo. The official busses and metro lines run along major roads, but they do not serve the majority of the city, which developed informally. A semi-formal system of minibuses (tickets 5-20 cents) emerged two decades ago, which has become the primary form of transport for the majority. Taxis are common (fares starting at 42 cents) and in 2007 the city began a successful programme to replace older taxis with new environmentally friendly metered taxis. In many of Cairo’s informal neighborhoods toktoks (motorbike taxis) have emerged as an efficient mode of transport that links riders between their residential areas and major hubs.

“Despite having a severely underdeveloped public transportation network, Cairo’s traffic still moves at a rate comparable to that of sprawling cities,” says Wey. She goes on, “Cairo somehow functions because of its very compact urban form; over three-fourths of Greater Cairo’s population lives within 15km of the centre of Cairo (Ramses Square), most trips are short and 36 percent of all trips are taken on foot.”

Mohamed Elshahed is a researcher who focuses on architecture and urban planning in Egypt from the 19th century to the present. He is founder and editor of the Cairobserver, a websites focusing on urbanism in Cairo


This article is part of UrbanAfrica’s reporting project



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