It is no little irony that my biggest challenge in reaching the Egypt Urban Futures Seminar Series on Urban Mobility in Egypt was navigating the choked streets of Downtown Cairo. From finding my way through throngs of pedestrians streaming out of metro stations, to steering my way around and through the various gates that have been erected in the vicinity of the Ministry of Interior downtown, to circling the French Institute in Munira three times before leaving my car precariously parked on the sidewalk under the keen eye of a bread seller, simply getting to the seminar brought home the magnitude of Cairo’s mobility challenges.
Cairo – the third fastest growing city in Africa – has suffered from notorious traffic, congestion and an absence of sufficient and regulated transport networks for years. A 2014 study by the World Bank found that congestion in the Greater Cairo Metropolitan Area costs Egypt as much 3.6% of its annual GDP, so it is little wonder that the Egypt Urban Futures seminar on Urban Mobility drew an eager audience out to the French Institute in Munira on 29 May.
Organized by the UN-HABITAT Egypt, the GIZ (Participatory Development Programme in Urban Areas – PDP) and CEDEJ (the Center for Economic, Legal and Social Studies), the one-day seminar brought together researchers, transport experts, economic and planning advisors, entrepreneurs, students, and urban disruptors to discuss planning, lived realities and innovative approaches to urban mobility in Egypt. The seminar is part of the Egypt Urban Futures series – an initiative to “build a platform for exchanging approaches, experiences, best practices and opinions on issues and strategies concerning urban development for…public institutions, civil society, activities, the private sector, development organizations and researchers.”
Towards Accessibility-Centric Policy
The first session, which focused on policy-making for urban mobility, included a presentation on the need for integrated strategies to address Cairo’s mobility issues by Chief Program Officer at Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) Dr. Ashraf El Abd. In his talk, El Abd discussed some of the current challenges for mobility in Cairo, noting that, although many plans and studies are conducted in Cairo, few projects are actually implemented; that transport studies are rarely updated; that there is little coordination between the different public transport facilities to encourage modal shifts that could decrease congestion; that traditional plans are created and implemented in new suburban communities, essentially exporting the city’s existing challenges to new communities; and that the environmental, health and time costs are rarely accounted for when discussing mobility. He noted that some of the causes of the implementation gap include a lack of coordination between key stakeholders, budget limitations and limited private sector participation, as well as flaws in the subsidy system and in the donor approach.
El Abd pointed to Integrated Corridor Management (ICM) solutions and investment in the mass transit network as two keys to improving overall mobility in Cairo, but that, above all, policy-makers need to adopt integrated strategies that go beyond building roads to address Cairo’s congestion challenges.
In her exploration of how to encourage planners and policy-makers to shift their focus from transport to accessibility, UN-Habitat Program Officer Salma Mousallem emphasized the need to shift to a polycentric urban model in place of centralized dispersal models of mobility, noting that the latter lengthens journey times, increases the use of private vehicles and, in the case of Cairo, increases informal transit and congestion. Mousallem explained how urban sprawl – not just in Cairo, but around the world – is made possible by large investments in roads, and contrasted the Egyptian government’s 2014 National Project of Roads – which will add 3,200 kilometers of roads at an investment of EGP 36 billion ($4 billion) – with Cairo’s meager 70 kilometers of underground metro, one of the smallest underground systems of any large city in the world. Mousallem noted that Cairo could benefit from success stories elsewhere in the developing world, citing the introduction of BRT in Bogota as a potential inspiration for Cairene planners.
On Mobility & Accessibility in Cairo & Alexandria
The second session assessed the current situation of mobility and accessibility for children, the disabled and the differently-abled in Cairo and Alexandria.
In his discussion of children’s independent mobility in the informal settlement of Ezbet El Haggana in Cairo, Ahmed El-Dorghamy, Energy and Environment Consultant at the Center for Environment and Development in the Arab Region and Europe (CEDARE) explained that children mobility is relatively high, in spite of the dearth of public space in the community. An informal settlement on the fringes of the eastern Cairo neighborhood of Nasr City, the community of Ezbet El Haggana – like most of the city’s informal settlements – remains largely outside the purview of the government; in fact, El-Dorghamy explained that, according to the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), the population of Ezbet El Haggana is 40,000, whereas independent studies put the number closer to one million. This, as he demonstrated, leads to inadequate planning and provision of services like government schools, for example – of which there are only two in the community.
He explained that the community’s reliance on informal organic inter-modal transit services such as the microbus and the tuktuk (auto rickshaw) – a commonly used mode of transport that has been adopted in informal settlements across Cairo due to its ease of access in narrow streets – is often used as a kind of school bus for children from medium-income families.
In another discussion about accessibility, Helm Foundation CEO and founder Amena El Saie explained that, although 15% of Egyptians have disabilities, accessibility remains a low priority in designing spaces in Cairo. She noted how the foundation’s efforts extended to both the private and public sector and that the foundation had recently signed an MoU with the governorate of Giza to begin making Giza’s streets more accessible.
Ahmed Badr, Project Officer of Water, and Wastewater and Urban Development at Agence Française de Développement (AFD) explained how the agency’s public transport surveys found that 40% of transport in Alexandria happened in private cars, 53% in collective taxis, and 8% in public transport. Based on the surveys, the agency developed plans for four projects, one of which – the Raml Tram Project – was selected for implementation by the Ministry of Transport. The rehabilitated tram will be elevated, and is expected to have a daily transport capacity of 230,000 people in place of the current 50,000, and will run every three minutes rather than every 10 minutes.
Innovation & Sustainable Urban Mobility
The third session and final session of the day discussed innovative approaches to sustainable urban mobility.
Cairo’s population, which grows by 2-2.5 million annually, is expected to hit 110 million by 2020, explained Anwar Ahmed, Project Technical Officer of the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA) and Ministry of Environment’s STP Sustainable Transport Project for Egypt – yet the city’s current transport systems fail to support its growing population. Initiated in 2009, the STP aims to improve the quality of air and reduce noise pollution, as well as to encourage people to use public transport. The project’s objectives include: introducing integrated high quality public transport services; promoting non-motorized transport like cycling and walking; introducing variable message parking signs; improving energy efficiency of freight transport and enhancing awareness and capacity and promoting institutional development of the transport sector.
According to Ahmed, three new bus lines connecting Greater Cairo with the suburbs of Sheikh Zayed and 6 October cities have been competed, as have studies, field surveys and design works for developing bus services within 6 October City. Pilot bike lanes and upgraded sidewalks to encourage cycling and walking are being developed in the cities of Fayoum and Shibin El Kom. The project, however, which was due for completion this year, brought home JICA’s Ashraf El Abd’s earlier comments about the implementation gap in mobility solutions in Egypt’s cities, as the $44 million project, which presents an ambitious vision, has successfully drafted designs and plans, yet many of its components remain in the piloting and tendering stage due to lack of resources.
“Congestion has cast a dark shadow on the city,” was Mohamed Hegazy’s dramatic opening as he introduced Transport for Cairo. Co-founded by Hegazy, Transport for Cairo works on mapping informal public transit in Cairo using a model inspired by the Nairobi-based Digital Matatus Project, a project that mapped out routes and stops used by privately-owned minibuses called matatas that are used by over 70% of Nairobians.
“Can we achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal of providing everyone access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems by 2030? Right now, we don’t have enough information about the current situation to assess whether or not the goal is achievable,” he said.
Hegazy explained that more than 50% of public housing developed outside of Cairo remains vacant because of the absence of suitable commuting options from the suburbs. According to him, while congestion costs Cairo alone up to $8 billion annually, reforms to the current infrastructure cannot be made without first understanding the current transit system. In making informal transit routes available as public data via an app, which will also map the variability of traffic over the course of the day and store it in General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) data format – a common format used for public transportation schedules – Cairo for Transport aims to address the knowledge gap and make public transit more accessible for both users and planners.
In her closing remarks, Professor at the National Housing and Building Research Center (HBRC) and Principal at Shehayeb Consult Dr. Dina Shehayeb explained that, while there is a huge demand for solutions to entrenched problems in large cities like Cairo and Alexandria, social and cultural perceptions often shape demand in Egypt. She warned of becoming enamored with “glamorous” solutions that emulate models elsewhere but which may not address the real challenges on the ground. “Who builds our cities?” she asked, noting that city-making in Egypt is still a largely centralized process based on top-down decisions made by the Ministry of Interior or, in the best cases, by architects or urban planners; rarely is the user part of the equation, she explained, nor are his/her needs accounted for. “We need to talk about people; we need to talk about people of different ages, with different abilities and professions and with different levels of income and to think about our cities as places where people live,” she said.
“Cities are heterogeneous places that were created for people looking for opportunity, and in our practice, the street has 46 different uses – it is not just a way to get from place to place, and we need to be aware of that when we think about our cities,” she concluded.