Grappling with a Congested Cairo:
Cairo is a city saturated with traffic. Weekday mornings are a frustrating, lengthy journey of inching down roads and through smoggy intersections. A constant reminder of the poor planning practices, the congestion of Cairo is almost unbearable, and, according to author David Sims, it is not at even near its climax.
While many urban planners point to population density as the root of the congestion problem, Dr..Dina Shehayeb, professor at Egypt’s Housing and Building Research Center, argues that inappropriate zoning laws are to blame. In a recent article published in Al-Masry Al-Youm, Dr. Shehayeb explains that until the late 1980s, Cairo’s neighborhoods had a variety of zoning laws meant to preserve existing housing and urban layout. In the early 1990’s, the government repealed such laws, deeming them unconstitutional, and buildings skyrocketed in response, as private investors tried to maximize profit. This encouraged increased population density in some areas without investing in infrastructure to ensure residents could move around the city.
As the city begins to refocus its attention on urban issues, urban planners and city architects are attempting to address the inability of Cairenes to reasonably navigate through their city. “Various solutions are being proposed … from tunnels and overpasses, to buses and metro lines, to establishing more isolated, gated communities.”* Yahia Shawkat, an architect and researcher on urban policy, argues that developing a more efficient and extensive public transportation system is the only real solution; he asserts that widening roads is too expensive and creating tunnels and overpasses will increase pollution and ruin the aesthetic of the city.
Currently there are 2 functioning metro lines (with a third in the advanced stages of planning) and 500 bus routes in existence in Cairo. The majority of the bus routes are comprised of informal mini buses, privately operated, running fairly consistent routes. The Cairo 2050 vision document proposes construction of twelve new lines and upgrading roads and speed corridors connecting the city center to satellite towns. However, the document does not include logistical details and financial projections for upkeep and maintenance.
Issues of land speculation are an additional component in the traffic and transportation debate. While the interim government is prosecuting some land speculators, the Egyptian military remains the largest landowner in Egypt and potentially the most influential decision-maker and greatest beneficiary of the transport network’s expansion. Several cities around the globe, most notably Los Angeles, were built/designed under similar circumstances with government officials engaging in land speculation. The result was most frequently dysfunctional dispersed cities, unable to capitalize on the economic, social and environmental benefits that relate to high density. A book entitled Cadillac Desert and documentary series by the same name about how land speculation impacted the city of Los Angeles was turned into a documentary and can be watched on youtube”
Confronting the congestion of Cairo will be one of the most significant issues that the city’s urban planners face now and in the future. Their debate, their strategy, needs to be established on the foundations of a system-based analysis and a thorough, thoughtful survey of the needs of all of Cairo’s residents. Increasing pedestrian safety, promoting alternative means of transport i.e. bicycles, should be included. Finally, nothing should be built without a cohesive and exhaustive plan strategizing not only construction, but upkeep and financing for the next few decades.
Meredith Hutchison is part of team analyzing governance over land in Cairo for Columbia University and the Institute for Research and Debate on Governance