To reach the blue-collar, informal district of Ard El-Lewa, I took a public bus from Tahrir Square heading to 6th of October City. The driver dropped me off on top of the Mehwar freeway and told me to go down the staircase and walk to Ard El-Lewa. There were just a few microbuses dropping off passengers and picking up new ones, but they were only allowed to drive straight ahead instead of turning right to navigate through the narrow streets of Ard El-Lewa. Other than walking, the only means of transportation available inside the district are bikes or tuktuks (auto-rickshaws) – the latter costing EGP 5 per trip.

Tuktuks, the three-wheeled auto-rickshaws imported from India, were introduced to Cairo’s streets in the early 2000s. In 2008, Law No. 121 was enacted to regulate the number of licensed tuktuks. Today, there are at least two million tuktuks, 109,000 of which are licensed.

The three-wheeled model is so immersed in the automobile market that some are even market-piloting an electric “smart tuktuk.” Ismail Abdel-Hameed is a 34-year-old Syrian merchant that has taken refuge in 6th of October City to escape the Civil War in his native Syria. At Abdel-Hameed’s humble clothes’ store, he tell us about his journey trying to open a business to sell imported tuktuks that run on electricity and solar energy.

He explains hat, a couple of years after settling in the iconic industrial city of the Egyptian capital, Abdel-Hameed got together with a group of fellow Syrian and Egyptian merchants and bought a number of smart electric tuktuks from a factory in China.

The merchants started by putting 100 vehicles up for sale for a price between EGP 35,000 and EGP 38,000 ($1,985 and $2,155). Now, they have ten vehicles stuck in customs that need to be taxed as golf carts for $14,500 each in order to enter the country. But the merchants are hardly satisfied with importing the rickshaws; they are looking to produce their own vehicles once they establish a factory in the industrial city of 10th of Ramadan in July of this year.

“What inspired us to invest in a project like this is that it offers an alternative energy source, with no chance of obstruction, [it is] very cost-efficient and environmentally-friendly,” Abdel-Hameed tells progrss.”We felt that the consumer needs this, and [we believe that, with time] people will see this as doable,” he adds.

In a city that has virtually no infrastructure to support EVs, it is difficult to imagine how a business like Abdel-Hameed’s will see the light. Earlier this year, the country got its first EV charging station on the other side of the city on Cairo-Suez Highway, but it is still not clear if the Egyptian capital will soon have the infrastructure to support EVs on its roads, whether four- or three-wheeled.

Ard El-Lewa is one of the neighborhoods heavily dependent on tuktuks.

Tuktuk in Ard El-Lewa. By Leena ElDeeb.

‘Stop tuktuks from “plaguing” Egyptian communities’

In 2014, the government issued a decree prohibiting the importing of tuktuks or their spare parts. General Yousry El-Rouby, an international expert for traffic, rescue, and rapid intervention in accidents, expressed (link in Arabic) his satisfaction with the decree at the time. El-Rouby believes that the existence and widespread use of tuktuks in Cairo is an ‘uncivilized’ phenomenon that took the country by storm in the absence of the government – an opinion shared by many car-owners who perceive tuktuks as a sign of the country’s sprawling informality.

Tuktuk drivers do not abide by traffic regulations,” El-Rouby argues. “Tuktuks are the reason that main roads are choked. [Egypt] isn’t like the rest of the developed world where they have designated lanes for these kinds of vehicles, which, if they deviate from, the drivers are strictly penalized.”

Earlier in February 2018, Secretary of Parliament’s transportation committee, Khaled Abdel Azeem, criticized the government for not taking actual steps to stop tuktuks from “plaguing” Egyptian communities and turning them into slums.

Since they are outlawed, tuktuks are reportedly often used for breaking the law. In September 2017, while a police force was patrolling a town in the southern Egyptian governorate of Assiut, it suspected three people in a tuktuk, the ministry said in a statement. The three men opened fire at the force when it stopped them, according to the ministry. The force returned fire, killing one and wounding another. The third fled.

Sometimes, tutktuk drivers overestimate their small size and light weight. In September 2017, a girl was killed and two others were severely injured after a tuktuk collided with a passenger train in the Upper Egyptian Governorate of Qena while trying to pass a railway crossing. Despite these accusations, many informal urban areas rely primarily on tuktuks for mass transit.

Although they are the most contentious, tuktuks are hardly the only informal mode of transport in Cairo. Fitting around 12 passengers, informally managed microbuses operate within the borders of 6th of October City as well various other districts in Cairo, dropping off passengers wherever they want.

In 6th of October, as the stops begin to get less formal, four-wheeled vehicles stop and passengers move on to their three-wheeled counterpart. 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 passengers to inner areas of the neighboring industrial zone.

Tuktuks in Izbet al-Haggana.

‘Izbet al-Haggana. Courtesy of Tadamun

The Tuktuk As A Circle Of Trust

70 kilometers (43 miles) away in eastern Cairo, in the informal district of ‘Izbet al-Haggana, there are no routes for public transport or even passing through it despite the vast area occupied by the settlement, according to a 2016 report. The area is characterized by a high dependence on walking and the widespread use of tuktuks, which can easily traverse its narrow unpaved streets, as well as private pickup trucks that are used as an informal transport service.

Students attending school in ‘Izbet al-Haggana either walk or use tuktuks, but none of those in the focus group discussions conducted for the aforementioned report used bicycles. In the neighborhood, tuktuks are praised for their practicality and availability, but also criticized for their high cost and reckless drivers. The recklessness is attributed to the young age of the drivers, who are often as young as ten years old.

Tuktuks are also perceived as relatively expensive. A child has to pay a minimum fare of EGP 5 (¢28) if they’re using the tuktuk individually, which is double the cost of a ticket on the public bus operated by the Cairo Transport Authority (CTA) outside ‘Izbet al-Haggana, which has a flate subsidized fare of EGP 2.5 (0.14¢).

Within ‘Izbet al-Haggana, tuktuk rides can reach up to EGP 15 (0.85¢) if traveling from end to end, since the fares increase by EGP 5 (0.28¢) increments. In spite of the cost and due to the dearth of alternatives, residents of informal settlements like this one often rely on them for daily commutes, entrusting tuktuk drivers to shuttle children to and from school.

To overcome the high cost of hiring a tuktuk, many children share rides with siblings or children in the neighborhood and split the fare. In other cases, parents of a group of children that commute together make deals with a tuktuk driver of the parents’ acquaintances, who in turn provides a shuttle service to drive the children to and from school for a flat weekly or monthly rate.

Thus, in spite of the aversion of car-owners and government officials to the three-wheeled rickshaws, working-class commuters of all ages are highly dependent on tuktuks in their day-to-day lives, and Cairo dwellers would likely find it difficult to commute in neighborhoods like ‘Izbet El-Haggana or Ard El-Lewa without relying on tuktuks. Perhaps better planning, better legislation, improved access to public transport, a stronger cycling culture, or a combination of these factors could reduce reliance on tuktuks.

For now, though, and to the discontent of many commuters in Cairo, it looks like the three-wheeled vehicle is here to stay.