Ever since they came into being, public buses in the Egyptian capital have employed a driver and a bus conductor, the latter being responsible for collecting fees and issuing tickets. But starting this month, Cairo will introduce 180 new air-conditioned public buses that will use “smart tickets.” Cairo’s smart tickets are not contactless cards like those used in London and other cities in the world (a system which is already in place in Cairo’s underground metro) – instead, they will be printed like receipts. The ticket will cost EGP 5 (28 cents), which is more than the regular fare of EGP 3 (11.6 cents). “We conducted the feasibility studies for the project before it started and we found that there is an urgent need for civilized and smart transport systems equipped with technological systems similar to those in all countries of the world,” said CEO of Mowasalat Misr (“Egypt Transport”), Hesham Taha (link in Arabic), and head of the Egyptian joint venture that is collaborating with the Public Transport Authority on the project. “Mowasalat Misr recently launched a tender to supply 236 mass transport vehicles and we are in the first phase, which will be launched within a few days through 100 minibuses and 80 [bigger] buses.”
Whether smart ticketing can truly address the woes of Cairo’s public transportation system remains questionable, though. A smart ticketing system that is not integrated with other pubic transport already exists in Cairo’s metro. “[But] other than the commuter segment that heavily uses the metro – like myself – did it make a major difference within Greater Cairo?” independent urban mobility researcher and MSc Environmental Governance (MEG) candidate at Albert Ludwigs University of Freiburg, Germany, Mohamed El-Khateeb tells progrss. “We need to first provide an “integrated ticketing” and fare system, then provide smart ticketing [or contactless card] options to go [with it]. We need basic – yet urgent – improvements to the bus and metro to maintain their reliability, inter-connectivity, cleanliness, and to understand the urban mobility demand situation. Smart ticketing can only be smart if all other aspects of the system are resolved, such as reliable schedules, high carrying capacities, more comfortable buses (including having air-conditioners for ALL buses), reliable bus stops, increased speed, and efficiency.” Cairo’s average high temperatures during the summer is 32 °C (89.6 °F) and during winter is 17 °C (62.6 °F).
“London is always a good example of the integration of transportation modes with a smart card,” El-Khateeb says. “When you have a pay-as-you-go Oyster card, there is a daily spending cap so that commuters don’t spend more money that they would have spent on a paper ticket, [it provides] an incentive to switch to a smart card,” he says – noting that this is not the case with the metro’s smart ticketing system. The only advantage the metro’s smart ticketing seems to have is not having to wait in the long cues at the counter to buy a paper ticket.
El-Khateeb believes that any attempts to introduce a smart ticketing plan will be a case of sugar coating, because the basic needs of commuters aren’t covered in public transport, and without integration in the fare system, a smart ticket is not efficient. “If you have a smart ticket [for the metro] you can’t use it on the bus and if you have a smart ticket [for the bus] you can’t use it on the metro,” he elaborates. “The flexibility of the smart ticket makes it easy for people to integrate between different modes, makes it easy for people to pass gates for verification, for example.”
This is not Mowasalat Misr’s first initiative to integrate Cairo’s ticketing system; before it was rebranded this year, the company was called Misr Bus, and provided a batch of air-conditioned minibuses branded with the Cairo metro logo in an attempt to integrate both modes of transportation. Passengers on board Misr buses could buy Metro tickets at discounted prices. However, the air conditioning didn’t last very long since the buses stopped for passengers repeatedly, affecting the air conditioner’s efficiency and creating a burden on the bus motors. In response, the drivers decided to turn it off altogether without decreasing the fare, making it just another minibus in the city. This scenario is not unique to Misr Bus, however – it has been on repeat ever since the 1990’s.
El-Khateeb tells us that, in the past few decades, there have been several initiatives by both the public and private sectors to alleviate the burden of traffic on Cairo streets by providing white collar professionals (many of whom commute by car to work) with a viable alternative through public transport. None of these initiatives has succeeded, however, due primarily to poor maintenance and management. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Cairo Transport Authority provided a batch of air conditioned buses that charged double the price of regular buses at the time. They were called after the acronym of the authority, CTA, and many of the passengers were students at the upscale American University in Cairo, then-located in Tahrir Square, and other white collar employees.
After a successful year of operations, the buses stopped switching the air conditioner due to lack of maintenance, and the passengers (who were still paying the same fare) found themselves sweltering in their seats due to poor ventilation infrastructure. Soon enough, the passengers switched back to their preferred mode of transportation. Even earlier, in 1982, the municipality signed a memorandum with the World Bank for a loan to provide the city with a batch of GESBOF mass transits (Gisr El Suez Bus Overhaul Facility). However, in 1993, the project met the same fate as its other counterparts and got cancelled by the World Bank when the Cairo municipality failed to keep the initiative alive.
On the supply side, bus workers have had a history of strikes due to the absence of spare parts. In a 2012 strike of the Suez Bridge workshops, Tariq al-Behairi, then-Deputy Head of the Independent Workers’ Union of the Public Transport Authority, explained that the Authority’s buses suffer greatly from lack of maintenance and absence of spare parts. The Suez Bridge workshops are the largest workshop doing maintenance to the Authority’s buses, and stopping them means halting maintenance of the buses.
“We need to first think how the operator will get their cost coming,” El-Khateeb argues. “Especially in Cairo, the metro company has a certain set price and every year they carry a fiscal deficit and the government then gives money to cover the deficit as a result of the low [ticket prices],” he says, adding that in Western Europe, municipalities would pay the operators for their services and subsidize the tickets for the public. The municipalities therefore pay for the difference in price to make sure that the operators receive their fare share to cover operational costs and make a profit margin, the commuters get an affordable commute, and fewer cars are on the road as a result. This leads to less fuel consumption, better air quality, less congested streets, shorter trip times, and reduces the time commuters spend in transit – especially those commuting to and from workplaces.
Khateeb adds that, before the municipality starts implementing or even planning “smart initiatives,” it needs a citywide policy to guarantee that these initiatives won’t just become another failed project. Until then, any question of introducing BRT or smart ticketing is far removed from the needs – and experiences – of everyday commuters.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that Mohamed El-Khateeb was affiliated with Transport For Cairo. El-Khateeb was one of the researchers working on the project but is currently an independent researcher who is unaffiliated with Transport For Cairo.