With a population of 100 million, an estimated 30% of which inhabit the highly centralized megacity that is Cairo, mobility is a daily challenge for Cairenes. And while almost 60% of Egyptians rely on the capital’s dense transport networks in their daily lives, there is a dearth of information about just how these networks function to connect the city. More recently, local initiatives such as Transport for Cairo have made efforts to map these networks in order to help city-makers and dwellers make informed decisions about how to navigate Cairo, with the objective of improving access to the city.
Congestion is one of the main obstacles that Cairo faces today, with mobility, or lack thereof, impeding access to the city and its services. With 10 million registered vehicles in Cairo alone, whose metropolitan population is more than 20 million, the figures of cars per capita in Cairo might be low – but vehicle density is already among the highest worldwide. More problematic still, is that an estimated 90% of these vehicles are private.
On an economic level, traffic is expensive. The time spent navigating traffic daily is lost productivity, which, in Egypt, accounts to a rough $8 billion a year, which translates to 3.5% of Egypt’s GDP.
Traffic and congestion also pose health and environmental threats. According to a recent study by London based Eco Experts, Cairo was recently voted one of the most polluted cities in the world, and a significant 27% of that pollution is caused by traffic.
Transport networks in Cairo, like most other aspects of city, are at the intersection of the formal and informal – or what some refer to as ‘self built’ – systems. Positioned as informal, the majority of these transportation systems are rendered invisible and rarely considered in conversations about the future of the city. The very fact that they are unmapped and that the only information about how to use them relies on word-of-mouth, only serves to deepen their inaccessibility to non – regular users.
Because of the way that they connect people to the city’s services and opportunities, transit systems function as tools of social and economic empowerment that can promote social equity and mobility. A transit-oriented development model where urban strategies and policies encourage city-dwellers to leave their cars at home in favor of a well-connected, mixed-mode public transport system, is one potential solution to this growing issue of traffic in Cairo.
Cairo’s density makes it so that 80-90% of the city’s inhabited areas have access to public transport within less than 400 meters of their home or workplace – which meets the goals set forth by the UN Sustainable Development Goals 2030 (SDG). Additionally, at least half of the population lives within 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) of a mixed-use city center.
While visitors to Cairo may perceive it as highly dysfunctional, the components of a connected and livable city are there. With a properly connected and mixed-use transit system, the vision for a functional, liveable and accessible Cairo can be achieved.
Transport for Cairo
Operating since 2015, Transport for Cairo, an Egyptian mapping initiative, has actively been studying, analyzing, and mapping the public, informal, or as co-founder and director Mohamed Hegazy prefers to call them, “paratransit” transport routes and systems in Cairo. In their urban mobility lab, they study the current transportation networks of the city and work to promote the use of paratransit systems by making them visible and accessible to commuters.
The genesis of Transport for Cairo is inspired by a mapping initiative called Digital Matatus that worked to map the routes of informal buses or ‘matatus’ in Nairobi, Kenya. Since 2017, Transport for Cairo has been working with Digital Matatus and Takween for Integrated Community Development, with the generous support of Expo Live’s Global Innovation program, to produce their latest project – Digital Cairo.
The project presents the first integral public transit map of Cairo.
Earlier this month, Transport for Cairo open-sourced their findings and raw data, enabling trip planners and giving access to others to work on improving the transit system. The data is made available in GIS shapefiles or GTFS transit feeds and is available on their website.
We speak with Transport for Cairo about the challenges of mapping informal transit in Cairo. Our conversation was lively and inspiring, covering many different facets of Cairo’s urban landscape and issues around urban mobility, including the potential and power of mapping, the functionality of the ‘informal’ paratransit network, and the positive impact accessibility can have on a city.
Beyond that, we discussed the future of the project, and how the data provided can be used to connect transport systems together, as well as users to them, promoting a transit-oriented model of development for the city.
Below is an edited transcript of our conversation with Mohamed Hegazy, co-founder and director of Transport for Cairo.
First, can you explain the transport modes and routes of transport that ‘Transport for Cairo’ maps?
Transport for Cairo aims to map all public transportation modes, which basically entails everything that takes you from point A to B. The regularity of the service is a component that determines what constitutes ‘public transportation.’ For example, Uber, Careem and tuktuks [auto-rickshaws] are not considered public transport as they provide a taxi service on-demand rather than a regular one.
So you’re mapping both formal and the informal transport modes in Cairo. Can you talk about your choice to create an inclusive map?
Grouping them together was a design choice: by mapping all the methods of public transportation in Cairo together, we can identify where they connect to one another and facilitate a mixed-used approach where users ride multiple transit networks.
In Cairo, that means using both formal and informal transit. I generally don’t like to think of formality and informality as a dichotomy but rather a range. If we break that range down, we start with the most formal being the Cairo metro, with fixed stations and services that are operated by a public authority.
Then there is the Cairo Transport Authority, which operates 6,000 buses catering to a quarter of the urban population. It’s an operational model, with no designated stops, and an unregulated, cash-for-pass transaction.
As we go down the formality spectrum, there are the 29-seaters microbuses that are the dominant mode of moving around Cairo for the majority of the urban population. These buses, operated by cooperatives, have a government-issued license that delineates their route, fees, and road regulations.
At the end of the spectrum, 7-seater mini-buses provide more frequent and short-distance trips. These privately-operated vehicles are allowed to service under the ‘utility of public transportation’ license.
The boundaries between formality and informality are blurred and that is why I prefer to use the term paratransit instead.
Currently, how does one access and navigate the public transport system in Cairo? In other words, how do I know how to get from A – B using paratransit public transport?
I was born and raised in Cairo, and I never used any mode of public transport other than the metro for the single reason that it was the only one I could understand because it has a map. All the other modes of transport rely on an oral knowledge and information.
While the system functions for the majority of urban commuters that know their day-to-day route, a big part of the role of successful public transportation is allowing ‘spontaneous travel,’ which is the ability to decide at any given moment to change your daily route. This is where we start seeing the system failing.
The fact that we don’t have any information actually leads to the system being potentially more centralized than it already is.
Who are the stakeholders in this project? In other words, who benefits from a project like Digital Cairo?
When we talk about stakeholders, we always have to identify two distinct groups. The first one being us – the users, the people, the commuters.
With an estimated 60% of commuters using micro and mini-buses in their quotidian life, Cairenes rely on these systems. Paratransit provides real, affordable, and functional solutions for real people.
Some particular target segments benefit more than others; so those who aren’t regular commuters or [come] from other governorates [use the system differently]. Cairo’s centralization renders its accessibility crucial to assuring [that its citizens] can fairly benefit from the city’s job opportunities and government services.
The second stakeholder is city planners and urban designers – the people that decide how Cairo will move in the future. Cairo is currently investing the majority of its resources in the Cairo metro, but not enough in its bus networks.
Where and how can you imagine the data published by ‘Digital Cairo’ being used?
The obvious step is to provide this map for public use, to enable users like you and me to use public transport regularly. Working with third party partners, we are hoping to have the data up on Google Maps, Apple Maps, as well as other local providers and trip planning applications.
The data also feeds our own research and policy papers that look at how we can change public policies by proposing integrated alternative solutions, such as measuring urban mobility and the adequacy of paratransit systems. By better understanding the system, measuring its adequacy and identifying the gaps, we hope to achieve change on a policy level as well.
On that note, I’d like to talk some about the move to open-source your data. Is there something to be said about resource- and data-sharing as a potential precursor to a crowd-sourcing model?
Let’s look at a map as a picture. What we did with Digital Cairo is we took a picture of public transport routes in Cairo, focusing on the new desert communities. This picture has a timestamp of the year 2018. Next year, we’ll be able to build off of the original map to take a clearer image of the 2019 picture. The data we provide is sourced from professional researchers who rode the buses, after receiving training and following very rigorous protocols.
After that, we need to keep that picture up-to-date, and this is where I see a real need for crowdsourcing. I believe that there is no way that this map can be of any quality, except if every user provides input…[which can help to] improve the accuracy of the map. The power of the crowd is really bigger than the institution. It’s really about using crowdsourcing where it belongs.
Finally, can you position this project within the national urban agenda?
The Ministry of Planning’s Sustainable Development Strategy 2030 paints a picture of what Egypt should look like in 2030. It has an entire chapter dedicated to transport, and an important component of it focused on urban mobility.
Integrated sustainable goal number 11 of the SDGs is about ensuring that all citizens have access to public transportation within a walking distance of 400 meters (0.24 miles). And this is something our project allows, as with mapping out Cairo’s transport systems, we are able to measure how close we are to achieving that goal and where the gaps are.