“A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transport,” said Enrique Peñelosa, the mayor of the Colombian capital of Bogotá, implying that city mobility is key for a country’s development. One of the things that people in Bogotá appreciate Peñelosa for is the TransMilenio Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT system, that was inaugurated in December 2000. The introduction of BRT in Bogotá made many cities question their reliance on old-school means of transport like the metro or tram. But can a BRT system be self-sufficient and replace light rail systems? Cities have had different experiences with each, as they try to find how best to optimize mobility for their citizens.
Bogotá’s BRT covers 113 kilometers (70 miles) comprising 149 stations connected by 12 lines that transport 2.2 million passengers daily. A little over 8 million people live in the Colombian capital, and, after it replaced the trolleybus system, the BRT system is currently the only means of public transportation in the city. The trolleybus system – a system of electrified buses connected via overhead wires using spring-loaded trolley poles – was launched in 1951 to replace the trams, which were shut down after political unrest. Four decades later, the trolleybus was shut down, almost 10 years before the TransMilenio was inaugurated.
Seeing Bogota’s example as a success and aiming to follow the Colombian capital’s footsteps, Egypt’s Transport Authority announced plans to introduce a BRT system to the capital Cairo. Cairo’s public transport system – an uncontrollable jumble of buses, minibuses, microbuses, auto rickshaws, and metro – is in many cases mediated by the informal sector. More than 20 million people live in the Egyptian capital, and the majority of people who take public transport in Cairo are people who cannot afford cars. The oldest and most organized public transport in the city is Cairo’s underground metro, which covers 77.9 kilometres (48.4 miles), comprising 61 stations connected by three lines that transport 3.5 million passengers daily. It was inaugurated in 1987, when the city’s population stood at 10 million. The capacity of Cairo’s public transport infrastructure was around 20,000 passengers per hour, which increased to 60,000 after the construction of the metro.
Many commuters in Cairo favor the metro, or the light rail transport (LRT), because it has made such a functional impact on their lives, and they’re not the only ones. People in Miami also rose in loyalty to their LRT against their city’s $115 million plan for a BRT in 2016. Leaders of Homestead, Palmetto Bay and other suburban cities were so appalled by Miami-Dade’s BRT plans, refusing to let go of the authorities’ unmet promise back in 2002 to extend Metrorail along the South Dade Busway – a 20-mile stretch of highway reserved for buses running to Florida City. Instead, the local coalition insisted that Miami-Dade fund a study on how to build an LRT. However, Miami’s leaders argue that since the BRT requires no track or heavy cars and Miami-Dade already has the dedicated road, investing in one in South Dade would be significantly cheaper than building an LRT; a light-rail system along the Busway is estimated to cost about $1.5 billion.
At a workshop hosted by the German Development Agency (GIZ) and the Sustainable Urban Transport Project in Cairo that gathered key players from civil society, the private and public sector working on urban mobility in Cairo, presenters argued the shortcomings of Cairo’s overall public transport situation, highlighting the benefits of introducing BRT to the Egyptian capital. According to Ahmed Hassan, advisor to the Minister of Transport for project technical assistance and follow-up, Cairo’s existing LRT is very outdated, and renovating it would cost more than the cost of establishing a BRT from scratch – which goes inline with Miami’s leaders’ argument.
The workshop included experts from Germany, Columbia, Palestine, Morocco, Tunisia, Oman, Jordan, and Lebanon, all of whom brought to the table the challenges and opportunities of mobility in their own cities.
According to Mohamed El-Khateeb, an independent urban transport researcher and one of the urban activists behind Transport for Cairo, a number of factors could lead to the success – or failure – of Cairo’s aspiring BRT system. El-Khateeb argues that the suburbs on the outskirts of the Egyptian capital enjoy wide avenues that can easily be converted into a double lane BRT system similar to the Bogota TransMilenio. “However, I imagine this would be difficult if not impractical for the Cairo Central Business District or Zamalek/Garden City or other central areas. This is not only because of the street width but also because of the density of traffic and passenger volumes,” he explains to progrss.
He adds that one of the flaws in the plans to install BRT in Cairo is the perception that it can be a standalone system rather than part of a larger plan that integrates regional trains, metro, trams, and regular buses. “For example, the latest BRT idea in Cairo was to rip out the tram lines and replace [them] with asphalt along the Ramsis-Ghamra-Heliopolis corridor. That is a waste of funds and well-functioning infrastructure for a road-based project,” rebuffs El-Khateeb, adding that the mixing of regular buses with BRT along the same routes would render the system messy.
However, Cairo’s Authority is not the only one to have made assumptions like these in its BRT plans. In 2015, experts had many questions about what they considered flaws in Chicago’s BRT ambitions – which were slightly different than the ones in Cairo. Several design elements of Chicago’s BRT were missing from the Central Loop project. For example, only one out of eight stops would have off-board fare payment when the system launched and the buses lacked camera-enforcement for exclusive lanes – and would even lose that exclusivity for an entire block. Experts argued that both factors would only increase travel times and reduce the system’s efficiency.
Only recently has Cairo’s Transport Authority realized the efficiency of the capital’s LRT system. As a result, the Authority has extended LRT lines to reach the capital’s most vibrant districts. In 2014, the third metro line was inaugurated connecting the downtown district of Ataba to the east Nile district of Heliopolis. The fourth metro line is planned to run from the western suburb of Haram district to the eastern suburb of New Cairo.
Back at the GIZ workshop, former Advisor to Minister of Transportation Ahmed Moussa argued that Cairo doesn’t need the fifth and sixth metro lines connecting Central Cairo to New Cairo. Moussa argued that the expenses showered on the new metro lines would outweigh the demand it would be able to supply; in other words, the funds allocated for the metro lines could be instead used to fund a BRT, providing seats for more people.
However, El-Khateeb disagrees with Moussa: “We do need [the metro lines] for a number of reasons, including the need to a have a line crosscutting all other lines and the fact that these lines have the potential of being expanded after their construction to other areas,” he says.
El-Khateeb has many suggestions to make Cairo’s metro lines more integrated, connected and in turn serve the citizens of Cairo more efficiently. He explains that the fifth metro line can be “easily” converted into a ring line, circling all of the central areas of Cairo. The sixth, on the other hand, can be extended to reach Zahraa El-Maadi and even to the eastern suburb of 15th of May City – with a possible additional leg along the Autostrad. He argues that the sixth line could potentially run to the nearest Delta city to the North of Cairo, hence acting as backup for first line and taking on some of the expected passenger growth on that route. The researcher tells progrss that most metro expansions were “discovered” after construction began, which is possibly a habit of Egyptian Transport planning in general. “Even though metro projects take time, they do yield and provide a backbone for the transportation network. From this backbone, we can have other major stretches and feeders like BRTs, trams and revive many of the old, un-used railway tracks to be used for regional transport.”
According to UN-Habitat’s feasibility study of BRT systems in Greater Cairo, most BRT systems can be built for under $5 million per kilometer, with costs ranging from $500,000 to $15 million per kilometer. By comparison, at-grade trams and light rail transit (LRT) systems can range from $13 to $40 million per kilometer. Elevated systems can range from $40 to $100 million per kilometer. Finally, underground metro systems can range from $45 million to as much as $1.24 billion per kilometer.
“In a nutshell, if we want BRT to work in Cairo, it has to meet the demand and volume of expected passengers,” El-Khateeb concludes.