It is not an understatement to say that Cairo’s traffic is a huge impediment to residents of the Egyptian capital. According to the World Bank’s 2014 Traffic Congestion Study, the economic costs of congestion in Greater Cairo are EGP 47 billion (USD $8 billion), which amounts to 3.6 percent of Egypt’s total GDP. That is a per capita cost of about EGP 2,400 annually for the city’s 19.6 million people. Under the title “City in Motion,” the Built Environment Observatory (BEO) released a report comparing spatial distribution of urban transport services in a Greater Cairo suburb, 6th of October City, located approximately 34 kilometers (21 miles) west of Cairo’s city center.
The BEO covers a range of urban issues, with a focus on fair housing, spatial justice, and access to basic infrastructure such as electricity and water. It aims to support scholars, communities, civil society, development agencies, and officials in their pursuit for the equitable development of the built environment, through the production of knowledge in the form of policy, analysis, fact sheets, and resources.
“City in Motion,” authored by urban researcher and journalist Samir Shalaby, argues that the spatial configuration of 6th of October City, itself a result of broader processes of neoliberal capitalist development, has given rise to socio-spatial disparities within the cityspace. It demonstrates how the city’s transport network not only reflects but also actively reproduces social inequities between urban dwellers residing in different parts of the city.
“City in Motion” starts off detailing the background against which 6th of October City was built in 1981. The desert city bordering the capital was built to be economically independent and geographically separate from existing urban agglomerations. The city was built to house factory workers and their families in government-subsidized housing units as part of the neoliberalization of the Egyptian economy in the wake of the country’s Infitah (open-door policy).
However in the early 2000s, Egyptian real estate tycoons started buying out big lots of the industrial city to establish high-end compounds and complexes. The result, finds the paper, was that private capital investments poured into the speculative housing market, leaving many units vacant or their construction stalled.
Today, the city is composed of 12 formal residential districts distributed perpendicularly along a central axial road cutting through the entire city, and houses a population of roughly 190,000, covering an area of 681 square kilometers (263 square miles). Geographical distances within the city are consequently extremely large, making mobility and the availability of adequate networks of collective transportation pertinent issues to address.
According to “City in Motion,” residents of 6th of October City that cannot afford cabs or private vehicles are highly depend on microbuses and tuktuks (auto-rickshaws) to navigate in and out of their hometown. Fitting around 12 passengers everyday, informally managed microbuses operate within the borders of 6th of October City, going back and forth on the central thoroughfare, dropping off passengers wherever they want between the roundabouts intersecting the main axis, which serve as central junctions for the city’s informal mass transit system.
However, as the stops begin to get less formal, four-wheel vehicles stop and pass their passengers on to their three-wheeled counterpart: the tuktuk. This happens for example to commuters riding microbuses to the sixth district, where they depart from the axial road, entering the district and stopping at a large informal loading spot where mostly tuktuks deliver the passengers to inner areas of the neighboring industrial zone.
The researcher finds that the nearest well-sorted commercial cluster is at Emtedad al-Central Road about three kilometers (1.86 miles) away from Bait al-Aila, a working-class-district predominantly inhabited by Syrian refugees. Residents can reach Emtedad al-Central Road by tuktuk, paying around EGP 10 per roundtrip. To travel to El Hosary Square, commuters need to take a tuktuk first to the nearest stop at Emtedad al-Central Road and change to a microbus, which costs about EGP 3, totalling around EGP 16 per roundtrip. Some trips may cost more, since pricing is entirely up to the driver in most cases. Passengers who need to travel to areas inside Cairo pay an additional EGP 9 to 10 for roundtrips.
In his fieldwork, Shalaby found that 6th of October City residents regularly brought up the burden that the cost of travel represent in their day-to-day budget plans. In comparison to the affordable rents in the working-class side of the city, the cost of daily commutes was found to be five times higher in relation to their income. In other words, the majority of housing rents in the districts studied ate up less than a third of the income of each household, while commutes ate up more than a third.
To reflect on the findings and results of the report, Shalaby suggests that instead of prioritizing the construction of new highways and developing roads in Cairo’s outlying upscale areas, and building new desert towns from scratch, the government should focus its efforts on upgrading the country’s public transport infrastructure. “What we need is a total overhaul of the way Egypt manages its cities and genuine structures of democratic local governance. Only then, the authorities may start granting these issues the attention they deserve,” the report concludes.